In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Holding the Memory and Asking the Hard Questions: An Interview with Katie Ka Vang, May Lee-Yang, and Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay
  • Josephine Lee (bio), May Lee-Yang (bio), Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay (bio), and Katie Ka Vang (bio)

Katie Ka Vang, May Lee-Yang, and Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay are performers, writers, and activists in the Twin Cities Asian American community. I first became aware of Katie through her work with Pangea World Theater and Theater Mu, and Saymoukda and May are my former students at the University of Minnesota. I have followed their careers as artists and arts leaders with great interest and admiration. Each of them is committed to theatre work that speaks directly to local communities, especially communities that formed as large numbers of Southeast Asians relocated to the upper Midwest following the late twentieth-century U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The traumatic effects of the wars in Southeast Asia did not end with the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991. Rather, the migration and resettlement of refugees radically changed areas of the U.S. that had previously been predominately white. Not only has Minnesota’s Asian American population grown dramatically as a result, but it is also distinctive in terms of its ethnic and national identities, with [End Page E-33] well over half of Asian Minnesotans identifying as Southeast Asian, and Hmong as the largest group. Importantly, these three distinctive and powerful writers have found the Twin Cities to be not only a supportive artistic space but also a place of possibility that encourages innovative modes of story-telling and new audience members.

This interview was conducted on February 23, 2023. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Josephine Lee (JL):

So what got you involved in theatre?

May Lee-Yang (MLY):

I got involved in theatre in a very funny way when I was a senior in high school. I was working at Taco Bell on the weekends and needed to earn money. One day I opened up the local Hmong newspaper and they had an ad that said they were looking for actors to be in a Hmong play. They were paying $200 a week, which was more than what I was making at Taco Bell. So I was like, I have no acting experience, but why not? I went to audition and—I didn’t know it at the time—but it was Pom Siab Hmoob Theatre, which is the first Hmong American theatre ever, which transitioned into the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent a couple of years later. I went to the Playwrights Center to audition. My mom dropped me off and I was 18. I was terrible. But Nkauj’lis Lyfoung1 was there and she hired me, I think, because they wanted to nurture young artists.

So that was my first foray into theatre. In terms of writing, one day I was at the library and I kept seeing these ads for a fellowship at the Playwrights Center, the Many Voices Fellowship. I remember reading about how theatre was very white and so this was an opportunity to bring more writers of color into the fold. They knew that there were so few writers of color working in theatre that they accepted anything: stories, poems. At that time, I didn’t have any plays. So I submitted poetry and some stories and I got in. It was sort of accidental. It was more curiosity. And I kind of just stayed in.

Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay (SDV):

My first leap into theatre happened in the fourth grade. Our teacher cast me as Casper the Friendly Ghost. It was great. Nobody was there to mentor us. It was just her just trying to get us to memorize lines. Much later on, Theater Mu’s Rick [Shiomi] wrote a piece that was based on my late aunt’s life.2 She was a royal dancer in the courts. A traditional dancer. I saw that and I thought it was amazing that this theatre company existed and that they wanted to tell her story. Our family was just so proud of her.

Then in 2009 or 2010, I got really tired...