Vongsay takes on spirituality, colonialism and cannibals in new play

18 July 2023

Action-packed adventure, science fiction, and epic fantasy? Check. Heartfelt story exploring Southeast Asian identity? Also check. In Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals, playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay follows up her hit play, “Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals,” which opened 10 years ago, with a piece that examines the impact of colonialism and United States secret war in Laos through camp, Kung Fu, and creativity. 

“I wanted to think about how a global event impacts different communities, across lands and planes and rivers,” Vongsay says about visiting the Kung Fu Zombie world. “I wanted to write a play about what it would look like if this sort of catastrophe happened to people who are indigenous to a land in Laos, and what it would look like if this was in Minneapolis to a Laotian American person.” 

Vongsay is also working on a third play, “Kung Fu Zombies vs. Southeast Asian Girl Scouts,” which takes place in Mount Airy, a public housing high-rise building in Saint Paul.

Photo by Rich Ryan
Soudavone Khamvongsa and Chufue Yang in a rehearsal photo for “Shaman Warrior & Cannibals.”

Vongsay has been writing “Shaman Warrior & Cannibals” since 2016, beginning the project using funds from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She’s developed it since then across several residencies, fellowships and workshops, including creating a script for an animated version with the Smithsonian Institute Asian Pacific Center, before finalizing the current version with Theater Mu.  

Revisiting the script in the wake of the pandemic has focused Vongsay’s themes around mental health and well-being. During Covid, the playwright observed how, in the early days of the pandemic when people were told they should avoid hospitals for anything non-Covid-related, people sought alternative paths for healing. “I thought about how people are able to access or tap into the resources that they need and how some of us, to heal or to feel to feel better, to feel more whole— we returned to our ancestral and traditional ways of healing. I just thought that was beautiful.” 

Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay

Vongsay didn’t want to sensationalize mental illness, so she sought input from people in her community to ensure the writing was respectful while also being creative. She asked aunties and uncles, and even her father. “My dad, he’s part of Akha, which makes me part of Akha. He would give me feedback on certain things, and I would ask: ‘I know that this ritual is very Akha: if I were to change it this way, is that okay?’” 

Vongsay also worked with Saengmany Ratsabout, the new executive director of the East Side Freedom Library, who shared his knowledge as someone apart of the refugee community from Laos. 

Ratsabout has worked with Vongsay on a number of community-based projects over the years, and he says it was an easy “yes” to become a cultural consultant on the project. 

“The type of stories that’s been told in the “Kung Fu Zombies Saga” really resonated with me,” Ratsabout says.

Photo by Rich Ryan
Alyssa Taiber in a rehearsal photo for “Shaman Warrior & Cannibals.”

Ratsabout supported the creative team— including the actors, director and designers, with the cultural nuances in the play. That meant helping with pronunciation and meaning of places, names, and objects. He also was able to point out moments that didn’t quite align with specific cultural practices. In one case, a scene between two sisters playing around originally had one actor touching the other’s head. “I said that in the culture, the Akha culture, one would not be touching another individual’s head, because that’s where the soul is,” Ratsabout says. 

There’s special care, Rasabout says, when dealing with spiritual practices. “There’s care about making sure we don’t invoke any real spirits.” 

Shamanism figures are prominent in Vongsay’s tale. Vongsay was raised as a Buddhist, but says there are some beliefs in her background that are tied to ancestral worship. “I wanted to connect with the other side, which is the spirit world,” Vongsay says. “I’ve always been intrigued by shamans and their gifts.” 

Part of her process involved community engagement with Lao and refugee communities, through research interviews and community readings. 

“I actually consider myself to be a social practice artist who just happens to write plays or write poems or do performance art or whatever,” Vongsay says. “It’s really important to me that I receive information from other people who have different experiences and knowledge than me.” 

You can watch the latest edition of Vongsay’s “Kung Fu Zombies” saga, complete with over 12 fight scenes, and an original hip hop soundtrack by Vongsay’s partner, DJ Kool Akiem, premieres Thursday, July 20, Friday, July 21, Saturday, July 22 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 23 at 2 p.m., through August 13 at the Luminary Arts Center ($45, pay as you are options from $10-$60). More information here

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