Local Playwright Mixes The Zombie Apocalypse And Lao Culture In This World Premiere

By Lianna Matt McLernon



Saint Paul playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay poured what she loved into her Kung Fu Zombies universe: lore, Lao culture, humor, science fiction, kung fu, hip hop, horror, strong femme characters. The first play set in this world, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, came out in 2013 and became known as Theater Mu’s highest grossing production. Now, with The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals, Duangphouxay Vongsay has combined it with its never-produced prequel for a whole new play.

The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals makes its world premiere at the Luminary Arts Center from July 20 through August 13. Produced by Theater Mu and directed by Mu artistic director Lily Tung Crystal, the show includes an original hip hop score by Akiem Scott (a.k.a. DJ Kool Akiem), more than a dozen fight scenes, and a cast of 14, including acting fellow Houa Moua.

Although rehearsals are underway, Duangphouxay Vongsay – who is also Mu’s Mellon playwright in residence – and Moua were able to spare some time to chat about the play, the importance of comedy, and representation.

Saymoukda, what inspired you to write the Kung Fu Zombies play cycle?

SDV: With Cannibals, I wanted to tell a story about family that centered the Laotian diaspora in a way that hadn’t been told before, you know, using science fiction, horror, and comedy. Growing up, I often had to piece together whatever information I had about the Secret War and my family’s experiences before, during, and after it. In this story, the zombies represent the bombs, and the cannibals represent how Laotians treated each other during wartime.

Shaman Warrior, the prequel, is another family story. I wanted to lift up ancestral knowledge, cultural power, and mental health. Shaman Warrior is in the same universe as Cannibals, but I added elements of fantasy, mythology, and legend.

And in a few years, folks will get to experience Kung Fu Zombies vs. Southeast Asian Girl Scouts!

Houa, what made it so important for you to be involved in The Kung Fu Zombies Saga?

HM: Southeast Asians? Zombies doing kung fu? Shamans? Really, what more could I ask for? But in all seriousness, I wanted to be a part of a show where Southeast Asians are not just represented but are the heroes. Often in American media, if Southeast Asians are present at all, we’re painted as the victims of our own situation that needs saving by the White man next door. … That’s not the truth. I want us to see and know that we are and have always been the heroes of our own stories.

So, what stood out to you from its first public reading back in 2022?

HM: The Hmong soldier. In that scene, our protagonist meets a Hmong ghost that was left behind after his feet were blown off and she helps him remember who he was and find his way back home. To me, this soldier wasn’t just a soldier. He represented everyone who was left behind during the war. I saw myself in that character, knowing full well that had I been alive during that time, I would have been left behind too.

One of the things about the Kung Fu Zombies-verse is the humor amid the horror. You’re both involved in the Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK), so what about comedy helps you to tell your stories?

SDV: I co-founded FAWK with May Lee-Yang and Naomi Ko back in 2014. Our intention was to a create space for Asian women and femmes to be supported as their fuller selves. We know that comedy helps people talk about the hard stuff. If you can make people laugh, you can make them feel safe enough to cry. And through Kung Fu Zombies, I wanted to definitely bring in humor to allow for vulnerability. I also believe that by scaring folks with the horror of zombies, cannibals, demons, ghosts, and bad human behaviors, it will allow courage to surface for my audience.

HM: I completely agree with Mooks. I am often the person in the room that would crack a joke at inappropriate times where people are being vulnerable and crying. So for myself, it really is easier to talk about the hard stuff through humor. I think it’s also easier to hear about the hard stuff when it’s told in a humorous way. I don’t think people would have very much fun if they came to a show and everything was just doom and gloom for two hours.

You’ve touched on some of this already, but what messages do you hope shine through to the audience?

SDV: I want Southeast Asian audiences to feel like The Kung Fu Zombies Saga made them feel seen, reflected, and understood. In American theater, Southeast Asian stories are not told and especially not by us. Outsiders want to tell our stories for us and that’s annoying. We are not voiceless. We have our voices. We just haven’t been given the resources and platforms to amplify our voices.

HM: Being raised in the US with Shamanic beliefs and practices, I was told by outsiders a lot what my beliefs were. I was shown by the media, and random people knocking on my door, that I and my people didn’t fit in here in the U.S. because of our beliefs. Shamans were oddities to outsiders – some fascinating thing that should be studied. As a kid, it really made me feel ashamed that I couldn’t explain it to outsiders in a way that they’d understand and sounded believable. As an adult, I feel ashamed that I can’t explain it to the children of my family. But it helps to be shown through media or, in our case, this show.

This Q&A has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

WHAT: The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals
July 20-Aug 13, Wednesdays through Sundays

WHERE: The Luminary Arts Center in Minneapolis

TICKETS: Pay As You Are at theatermu.org/kfz-saga

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