This last Saturday at Mu Performing Arts was an exceptional reminder with the readings of two short plays:
Q&A by Juliana Hu Pegues, and May Lee's Anatomy of a Hmong Girl: A Memoir Told In Body Parts.
Both writers demonstrated exceptional skill in presenting issues within the Asian American experience without resorting to conventional, tired tropes we've come to expect from 'safe' Asian American theater.
And, per the title of this post, both starred performing artists named Katie. :)
Katie Leo's performance was as the character 9066, one of three people caught in a mysterious, ambiguous setting akin to 'No Exit,' 'Lost' and 'The Prisoner' (or perhaps Herman's Head?) :)
Intellectual, dispassionate, interrogative, most audience members could find much to dislike about the character who some might see as little more than an antagonist like a Dr. Mabuse or Hannibal Lecter. Of course, this is selling the character short in favor of an overly simplistic interpretation.
It takes a particular talent to create such believable figure of 'malice', particularly if one has seen Katie Leo in other 'softer' performances as the protagonist.
In this particular reading, Leo brought a distinctive subtlety to a character one might consider as difficult to present as King Lear (whom critics have oft criticized as an unplayable, demanding, exhausting role.)
9066 provokes to define. Conflict is a means to the construction of identity in a minefield of desire, power, guilt, relation and uncertainty.
The structure of Q&A is such that it was easy for some to miss one of the most intriguing elements of Leo's 9066:
While the other characters have extensive monologues declaring 'who they are' , 9066, on the surface does not appear to, and some audience members felt cheated from not hearing her backstory.
But in actuality, she DOES present her backstory:
Through the way she questions others in the play. A dysfunctional homage to transactional analysis, if there ever was one, but it is still revelatory.
It is the very process of interrogation, the process of questioning that 9066 subjects others to that reveals who she is, and the character is an intriguing meditation: Can asking your questions say more about you than answering a question.
Q&A still needs work, but what has been shown here is rich with myth, popular culture, high literature and contemporary social and political concerns that I cannot help but lament that we have so few works so daring on stage today.
Meanwhile, Katie Ka Vang's performance in May Lee's Anatomy of a Hmong Girl: A Memoir Told In Body Parts. was also an amazing demonstration of artistic prowess that makes Vang a performer to watch within the Twin Cities performance scene.
Similar to the work of Sarah Jones, Vang is tasked with a demanding array of roles to submerge herself within to tell the complex memoir of Twin Cities playwright, poet and spoken word artist May Lee.
Vang must at once assume the role of May at various ages, as well as the various men and women in Lee's life:
From a middle-aged school teacher, an older sister and her mother, to her father, in addition to a complex persona that is 'Katie Ka Vang the Actress' who is not necessarily Katie Ka Vang herself, but a literary construct employed by May Lee (but not necessarily May Lee the character).
A role that is further complicated by the improvisitional elements May Lee requires Katie Ka Vang to employ to engage the audience.
If this sounds complicated and intense, it is.
And I can think of few actresses Katie Ka Vang's age who can take on such roles, and roles within roles, as seamlessly, immersing the audience within her performance even as she submerges her own ego beneath the varied characters.
And she has to interact with the author herself on stage. Yow.
This particular performance was just a reading, and not a full, formal adaptation of May Lee's play. One can only imagine that within a full production, we might see something to rival the tour de force performance of Alec Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
As for the play itself, the material is exceptional, at once free-form in its execution yet deliberate in its craft.
It explores the Hmong woman's experience, and indeed, the Hmong experience without resorting to crude shuck-and-jive minstrel humor at the expense of the Hmong culture that some pandering contemporary performers (who shall remain nameless) engage in.
Instead, this play is a nuanced take, clearly drawing from the influences of spoken word and early Hmong theater of the 1990s.
But it does so without resorting to the use of traditional folktales as narrative crutches ("hmmmm. can't think of an original story... I know! We'll fill up time with The Orphan Boy story!") or the shameless melodrama aping Miss Saigon and some Cliff's Notes rendition of the Joy Luck Club.
In today's age, it seems many people are trying to assert the idea that they have something meaningful to say. In these two plays alone, I might argue there are indeed those voices, and those performers who might yet bring truth to that idea.
Katie Ka Vang has her own show coming up as part of Intermedia Arts Naked Stages Production series soon, and it will be fascinating to see how well she handles her own material considering how well she handles the complex material of other writers in the community.
Don't miss either production in the future if they come around again!