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A Cypher Among Theatremakers from the Laotian Diaspora

There is a popular saying from our people that goes, “The road will test a horse’s endurance just as time will test a person.” As actors, directors, producers, or playwrights from the Laotian diaspora who work in US theatre, we’ve been tested by time and the accouterments that come along with it: lack of resources, racist structures, cultural ventriloquism, gatekeeping, invisibility. On the brighter side of time, there is also community, altruistic giving, creation, relationship-building, rest, reconnection. As former refugees ourselves and/or the children of refugees, we are constantly trying to navigate our place in the United States as we are essentially arrivers in a settler-colonial structure.

The following conversation among Samson Syharath (managing artistic director at Theater Diaspora), Kaysone Syonesa (co-director of the SEAD (Southeast Asian Diaspora) Project), Lidet Viravong (actor seen in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and TeAda Productions’ Refugee Nation), Ova Saopeng (co-founder and associate director of TeAda Productions), and Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay (Mellon Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at Theater Mu) was recorded over Zoom on 6 November 2022. It has been edited for length, clarity, joy, and realness.

Your motherland is Laos, but you weren’t born there; you were born in a refugee camp or somewhere else. You’re connected to her through language, food, music, song, and stories.

Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay: How did you each get introduced and invited into American theatre?

Ova Saopeng: I began doing theatre—and I call that American theatre because it is. I mean, we’re in America in Hawaii—in the eighth grade when T-Shirt Theatre came to our middle school and did a performance. The directors, George Conn and Walt Dulaney, who are my mentors to this day, had me do things that were kind of strange and weird like saying things in different emotions. That process opened my eyes to my talents and my abilities. The empowering thing was that it showed me the ability that I had to be able to impact others.

Samson Syharath: I did some theatre in high school, but when I went to college, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. Finally, I was in a theatre class and got cast in a devised play. We took it to regionals at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and moved on to state and then got national awards. When we did that show—kind of like Ova said—being able to really affect people, that’s what got me.

Kaysone Syonesa: I grew up watching Thai dramas. I got intrigued by the acting. I started dipping into some film just to try out small parts in the late nineties. And then I went to the University of Minnesota for journalism and decided to minor in theatre to dip my foot in acting. But I kind of fell in love with it. I thought I wanted to tell stories through journalism, but I actually wanted to tell stories through theatre. In the theatre scene in the early 2000s, anything representing our community was nonexistent. So I did little shows at community-based theatres because that’s where I felt most at home. Rick Shiomi from Theater Mu came a show and was like, “I’m looking for some Asian actors for class. When do you want to come audition?” He took my number down, and then back in Northeast I went to meet him in the basement of some warehouse. He was like, “Go ahead, do your monologue.” When I was done, he asked, “When can you start?” The funny thing is I never really connected with him after that, but my journey has always been different. When I graduated, I left for Sydney, Australia. When I came back, I was yearning again to do some more theatre and came right back in.

On the left, a performer stands on top of a curved platform and speaks. On the right, a performer sits on a round platform with hands clasped together.

Lidet Viravong and Ova Saopeng in Refugee Nation by Leilani Chan and Ova Soaping at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Produced by TeAda Productions and the Latino Theater Company. Directed by Armando Molina and Rena Heinrich.

Lidet Viravong: I got a late start, but it’s never too late. I did not get introduced into theatre until after I went to Los Angeles, and I did film, television, and commercials first. I was doing that, hustling and bustling, until one day I met a dude named Ova; he talked about theatre, and I was like, “Oh cool.” I never actually had that experience until Ova and Leilani Chan brought me into TeAda Productions. I grew up in Oklahoma, where you either played football, baseball, and basketball or you wrestled.

Saymoukda: Yeah. I’m very fortunate that I met Ova and Lidet through theatre. If it wasn’t for Refugee Nation coming to Minneapolis in 2010, we would not have met. My introduction to US theatre, the establishment, was actually through a couple of friends who were fellows at the Playwrights’ Center. They saw that I just was not happy in poetry, and they invited me to try playwriting. When I saw your names on the Refugee Nation posters, I was like, “Oh shit, they are Lao!” I got so excited and became this ultimate volunteer for the production.

Fifteen minutes later…

Saymoukda: I don’t know if anybody else identifies as being part of the 0.5 generation where your motherland is Laos, but you weren’t born there; you were born in a refugee camp or somewhere else. You’re connected to her through language, food, music, song, and stories. As we continue our work in US theatre, what type of stories do you want to tell as somebody with your identities and experiences?

Ova: Thematically, identity: who you are, where you’re from. How do you as a character navigate and explore your relationship with others, other communities, the environment? For me, that’s a big part of it. Coming from a Lao American perspective, a Hawaiian perspective… Coming from a parent, father, husband… I mean, these are all identities that inform me in terms of creating work. I love championing and advocating for stories and themes that uplift marginalized communities—marginalized stories that either have never been told or have never been heard.

Samson: I totally agree with Ova. For me, identity is multifaceted. What does it mean to be American and who I am? When I grew up in Arkansas, I was kind of an outcast—not only because I was one of two Asian people at my school, but also I identify as gay. So how do you find a place for yourself when everyone tells you that you don’t have a place? The kind of theatre I’m really into uses visibility to reinforce, especially, marginalized communities because we’re often told that we don’t belong when we belong. That’s what I work towards.

What does it mean to feel like you belong somewhere but then you belong at many places all at once?

Kaysone: In my upbringing, I moved so much, and I got so used to moving that by the time I hit my mid-twenties I was constantly moving. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to stay in Mexico for a few months or go to Spain for five months.” I was always uprooting myself, exploring what place meant for me or what place meant to community. This sense of place, this sense of what home means, has always been a part of what I need to explore. Our family left what was considered “home” and our motherland to make a place here. What does it mean to feel like you belong somewhere but then you belong at many places all at once?

Lidet: I agree. Really, what Ova was talking about is being able to tell stories for communities that don’t really get heard or aren’t even known. Being able to tell their stories and share that is very uplifting, and it does a great service for those communities.

Saymoukda: A few of us have mentioned that we have created work for ourselves. Can you talk about what you’re working on and why you feel this piece you want to bring out into the world is needed in our community?

Kaysone: When I first wrote my one woman show in 2004, there wasn’t shit out there for me to see. I was like, “If there ain’t nothing out there, I’m going to make something for me.” I need our story to be told, even if it’s just through my own lens and my own history. That story is just as important. I write not just for myself but for others to hear their stories—to uplift us and to bring humanity to peoples’ stories.

Saymoukda: Lidet, are you able to share about the writing sessions you’ve been working on with Ova?

Lidet: It’s still very a personal journey for me, more like journal writing. I’m really trying to home in on my parents’ gardening and what that means. It sounds really simple, gardening. But what does that truly mean to you and your family? I still remember my mom crying on the steps of our very first home when we got here to the United States in 1980. It’s a totally different environment from Laos. They found out when they were digging dirt that the soil was full of clay, full of rocky soil. How could you grow anything? She cried because this garden meant food on the table. So the garden means everything; it’s their livelihood. Even to this day (my dad is eighty-three, my mom seventy-nine) they’ve still got their backyard garden. They’re selling peppers to local Thai restaurants. Even after getting jobs, they still had to tend to their gardens.

Ova Saopeng: Lidet, I encourage you to continue to home in on that. Just pull all those stories, brother. Just grab them because you don’t know where it’s going to take you. That garden is their life. It’s a metaphor for their resilience, for their struggles, for their harvest and blooms. And I can see the characters of the family being different garden plants. I really encourage you to continue to play. I’m here to help and support, and I’m glad we are writing together.

I think theatre—good, democratic open theatre—brings you to a place where you feel that you belong and where you can be pushed and pulled in a way that’s supported and safe.

Samson: I’ve written two pieces. The first one, See Her Strength, was about my mother and her journey as a refugee. The second one is more about me. I think Kaysone talked about this earlier: am I Lao enough? Am I American enough? I wrote it because I saw Ova and Lidet for the first time at Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA) conference and festival. Ova, you had us stand up and say, “I am Lao, and I’m proud.” I’ve never said that before, and I was in tears. I had never seen Lao people on stage.

So one of the things I write about is the yo-yo of going away from the Lao identity and coming back. There was a moment when I realized I needed to go back, and that was when I went home for the holidays and my dad was making homemade pho. You could smell it throughout the whole house, and it smelled so good. Then he comes in and he is like, “Hey, are you hungry?” I’m like, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m so hungry.” And then he put down a bag of McDonald’s for me, and it broke my heart. So, I’m trying to find my way back.

Saymoukda: Aw baby.

Ova: Beautiful.

In a large mirrored rehearsal room, two adult facilitators and numerous young people sit in a circle and smile.

Ova Saopeng and participants in a theatre workshop for Hmong youth in Long Beach, California.

Saymoukda: I want to also acknowledge that sometimes this yo-yo… We’re not in charge of this yo-yo. This yo-yo is controlled by white supremacy, and it’s controlled by all these other forces that are independent from us to keep us from our cultures. A lot of my friends talked about how they had no choice but to super assimilate to feel safe, to feel not othered. They had to do extreme things, and they’re just now finding themselves. Like, the Lao Food Movement exists now, and it’s just beautiful. Before, our elders had to mask our food as Thai food because Thai food just did not seem dirty. It wasn’t tied with “refugee.” You know what I mean? So I just love us. I love us so much.

Ova: Yeah. It goes back to poverty versus privilege. Going even further, in terms of American theatre, it’s the lack of resources and support. I think theatre—good, democratic open theatre—brings you to a place where you feel that you belong and where you can be pushed and pulled in a way that’s supported and safe.

Hearing what everyone here is saying is what emboldens me and really gives me purpose. The pandemic really fucked me up—I’ll be honest with you guys—to the point where I was so depressed. I was in theatre, and we need people. We need each other. And you couldn’t get together, couldn’t connect. I lost my purpose. But I found mental health services, and through that process I found my way back to my purpose. Now that purpose, I know so clearly, is this is what I’ve been doing: giving. The success is this cycle of giving, of sharing what I do know and supporting who I can.

Saymoukda: I’m glad we named that. I want to name how so many of us came from nothing, but then we’ve gotten to a point in our lives where we’re in positions where we can be a resource for others. Okay, last question: what’s bringing you joy lately?

Samson: I used to want to be on stage and shine, but now I see myself in every person on stage who is able to be themselves. Tonight, Theater Diaspora is having an event where people are sharing pieces that they’ve written. Some of these people are sharing parts of their identity that they haven’t shared before. That’s what brings me joy: being able to have the power to give to people their power as well.

Kaysone: That’s great. I love that. For me, it’s the opportunity with SEAD Project, the redistribution of resources, the fact that when we did the Mid-Autumn Film Festival we had an overwhelming number of submissions. We even had submissions from Laos. I’m driven to figure out how we can create more of those opportunities, more of those resources. What brings me joy is finding ways to get those things that our community has been wanting and needing for so long.

On stage, a performer in a wheelchair grabs the arm of another performer in a stage fight, while three other performers in various states of shock or injury are scattered around the space.

A scene from The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. Produced by Theater Mu at the Luminary Arts Center. Directed by Lily Tung Crystal. Photo by Rich Ryan, courtesy of Theater Mu.

Lidet: There are a few words that I was hearing there. One of them is “cultivate.” Ova had written “cultivate” in the Zoom chat, and that’s something that I was thinking about. Also Kaysone said the word “resources.” What’s important for me, and how can I be a resource?

I use you guys as examples for the younger generations. If you want to be a performer, you can cultivate that through community. It is possible, and you can make not just a good living but a badass living. It can be fun.

Saymoukda: Yeah. You’ve got to convince them that it’s fun because we know theatre does not pay well.

Lidet: That’s really important though. You got to make it fun. So having different stories—from personal stories to fantasy—coming from our background and from our community, that’s empowering.

Saymoukda: Any last words to US theatre or to Laotians?

Ova: So this is the new model: I am me, you are you, I am you, you are me. Together, we are free.

Lidet: I totally feel you there, Ova. And I 100 percent agree about being ourselves. We are not much different either. We are one in the same.

Samson: I’m going to build on that. When you think about harmony, there are different notes. If it’s all the same note, it’s just a note. So harmony is what’s beautiful. Be different. Be beautiful.

Saymoukda: This is a cypher. We’re rapping.

Kaysone: All the harmony, and I thought of rhythm and rhyming. We all have different rhythms, but how do we rhyme together?

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