Local Katie Ka Vang And Melissa Li To Premiere Their Hmong American Musical

By Lianna McLernon





As Theater Mu planned its 2022/23 season—its 30th anniversary—artistic director Lily Tung Crystal knew she wanted a mainstage line-up that not only paid tribute to Mu’s longtime artists but also showed the breadth and the depth of the Asian American diaspora. Ergo, including the world premiere of local Katie Ka Vang and Melissa Li’s musical “Again” was a no-brainer.

“Again” runs March 29-April 16 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, and its irreverent yet heartfelt story follows Hmong American memoirist Mai See as she faces her cancer relapse with the help of an unlikely friend, an aspiring filmmaker named Quest.

The plot is inspired by Vang’s real life but is not autobiographical: When Vang started “Again” in 2017, she knew she wanted a Hmong American character dealing with cancer, similar to her own experiences. However, as she continued exploring and connected with Li (the composer and lyricist), the characters took on a life of their own, and the duo created a musical that, to Vang at least, is no longer a cancer story. It’s about finding out what in life makes you feel whole.

“Again” had its first public reading at Mu’s New Eyes Festival last spring, and as Tung Crystal said in a press release, it brought the audience to tears. “It’s particularly exciting that ‘Again”s three leads are all played by Hmong American women [Dexieng Yang, Melody Her, and Pagnia Xiong],” she stated. “We at Mu are proud to produce ‘Again’ as part of our 30th anniversary season and believe it will be a special, even revolutionary, theatrical event.”

“Katie’s a brilliant, exploratory writer whose writing style is intuitive and discovery-driven, and that’s given me a lot of room to play during the process,” Li adds. “It’s been a really fun challenge to give words and emotions to the characters she’s created. I’m not Hmong, but as a Chinese American immigrant, I tried to capture in the songs all the little moments that ties us to our families and histories.”

Before “Again” hit opening week, we were able to chat with Vang about writing from a Hmong American perspective, working with Li, and the honesty the musical asked of her.

How much of your personal experiences did you put into “Again”?

I feel like every character I write has a piece of me in them, but further along in the creative process, they become these living, breathing humans outside of me, and that’s the hope when writing a play. Also having collaborators you trust (composer/director/actors) allows the work to expand beyond me.

I’m a character driven playwright, so once I know enough about the character, then basic playwriting structure/questions come in handy. It was also helpful that Melissa Li is a playwright and would often ask clarifying/dramaturgical questions. Being in the rehearsal room with a director and actors and seeing the scenes staged is tremendously invaluable. Nana Dakin, our director, is immensely skilled in driving this ship, and she makes sure the room is safe so artists and actors can be vulnerable, take risks, and be pushed, with a genuinely loving heart.

Why was it important to write from a Hmong American perspective?

I’m Hmong, so it wasn’t too conscious. My lens is from a Hmong American perspective, so I can’t write from any other perspective. Sure, I could center a different ethnicity on stage or in the story but it’s still coming from my Hmong American perspective.

I write the way I speak. Sometimes it’s English, sometimes it’s Hmonglish, sometimes it’s the Hmong green dialect, sometimes the Hmong white dialect. I speak a mixture of both, and some might think it’s improper Hmong, but that’s who I am. My mom spoke the white Hmong dialect and my father spoke the green dialect, but in Hmong culture—let me rephrase that, in my family’s Hmong culture—my mother was the one who spoke to us most, and she spoke mix dialect, so now I do too. That’s my Hmong experience.

How did it go from a play to a musical?

It started out as me trying to write about my experience with cancer, and I found myself extremely frustrated. Then I attended a reading of my friend’s new musical, and it was very short—a sketch almost—but it got me thinking that maybe music might be able to help me figure out this new cancer thing I’m trying to write. Once I said it out loud to others, it became real.

What has it been like working with Li to put your thoughts into song?

It’s been challenging, exhilarating, joyful, and it continues to evolve. She’s an open collaborator, and I think we’ve both learned a lot about our own processes throughout this process. I guess I can’t speak for her, but for me, I’ve learned a lot from her. She’s very structured and I am not, but I’d like to think I’ve absorbed some her organization skills.

One of the cast described “Again” as “honest.” In what way does this ring true?

I try to be emotionally truthful in my stories, and I find that nuance has helped me to achieve this. For me, being specific about a moment actually creates more opportunities for connection, versus setting out to tell a story “everyone can connect to.” So, I always try to lean into what feels most specific to me right now, and that usually sets a good foundation.

You’ve described this process as an “arduous mystic lake.” Willing to explain more?

It’s the idea that there’s a lake of truths hidden somewhere, and the way to get there is both science and art… Like throwing rocks into a lake can conjure the right thing, but it has to be the right time, the right speed the rock is being thrown at, the right people throwing the rock, with the right amount of hope and trust. And it often feels like you’re creating in the dark until you’re not.

This Q&A has been edited for style, length, and clarity. Learn more about “Again” and buy Pay As You Are tickets to at theatermu.org.

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