Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Hmong people originated in the mountainous terrain of southern China before being driven out centuries ago by the dominant Chinese culture. Lacking a homeland of their own, they made their home in the remote mountains of Laos for centuries more, where they maintained their traditional culture through French colonization and Japanese occupation. The Vietnamese War drew them into the cold war conflict between the United States and its fears of communist expansion and led to a large scale exodus to France, Australia, and the United States. Thousands spent decades in refugee camps in Thailand before having the opportunity to relocate. In the United States, there are now especially large concentrations of Hmong in central California, Minnesota, and western Wisconsin. The Twin Cities is home to more Hmong than any other metropolitan area.
Face to Face brings five women who grew up in that community to the stage, sharing their personal journeys with the audience. There are parallels among the five that point out the threads common to the Hmong transition, from life among the mountains of rural Laos to becoming residents of a large urban centerand one that has severe winters, to boot. At the same time, these women have had unique experiences and negotiated the duality of living in both Hmong and American cultures in different ways.
The stories were constructed by co-directors Sara Zatz and Katie Ka Vang, along with the five performers. There are no sets or costumes in Face to Face. The five women who bravely tell their stories enter, lit in silhouette, and introduce themselves. They deliver their narrations in turn, one never getting too far ahead of the others in sequence, each speaker's section starting with an announced "dateline," giving the year and location.
It starts with the "Secret War" in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Hmong soldiers assisted the United States forces that had slid from Vietnam into Laossecret, because the U.S. never admitted, until 1994, that it had troops in Laos. When the war ended, Hmong who had aided the Americans were hunted as traitors by the communist regimes that prevailed in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In time, the U.S. honored its promise that if it came to this (which, surely, the Americans never expected), the Hmong would have a safe home across the ocean.
To establish context, we learn about each woman's parentswhether they met in refugee camps in Thailand or after resettling in the United States. Then we learn about: their birththree were born in St. Paul, one in Duluth, and one in Georgia, but all grew up in St. Paul; their early childhood and living conditions; school experiences; the challenges they faced being accepted by kids from long-established communities; the support, celebrations and social world of their communities; and their gradual movement through adolescence and into adulthood.
And yet, each has a unique story to tell, with different obstacles to surmount: a crippling disability from birth; a mother who died at a very early age; a father who abused her mother; derogatory comments about one's looks; sexual abuse; cancer; and bringing shame upon the family by getting pregnant. Through perseverance, education (both formal and informal), the assistance of others within and outside of their community, and life-lessons learned the hard way, all five overcame those challenges and are able to share their positive outcomes and their determination to continue on that path.
The five narrators convey their stories with heartfelt sincerity, on a few occasions tearing up as they share what have to be very painful memories. They are Laurine Chang, a spoken-word artist and poet; Houa Moua, a student of Asian languages and literature, and an advocate for disability justice; Pang Chai Xiong, who teaches dance and music; Pang Foua Xiong, an entrepreneur and community-builder; and Cydi Ywj Siab Yang, an artist, blogger and healer. That all five are actively involved in the arts, community work, or both makes them naturally inclined to participate in the theater work fostered by Ping Cong + Company. How typical their stories are among the larger Hmong community is a fair question, but the distinctive voice with which each speaks makes their narratives powerful and moving.
The production is given some variation with Shannon Elliot's lighting design and Maxwell Collyard's projections, seen on a rear screen, as well as in a lilting moment in which Pang Foua Xiong sings a song she remembered her father singing in her childhood, and which he had learned from his mother. The song is lovely, but what is really moving is the passing down of a tradition that carries with it family pride and love.
Other moments feel overly staged, as when one of the performers asks the other, by name, a set-up question, such as "What do you think of when you think of Hmong girls?," and the other responds. This is repeated a couple of times during Face to Face. There is no actual conversation among these womenwhich might have been intriguing. Absent that, it would seem more natural for each to just offer her notion of Hmong girls without the artifice of a question that has clearly been inserted into the narrative.
It is noteworthy that these are not the stories of refugees themselves, but of the experience borne by the children of those refugees, whose parents and grandparents escaped traumatic, often life-threatening conditions. Psychologists know that such trauma is subtly passed down to the generation born in the new land, creating a challenging inner conflict for those born here. A key part of each narrative is the pressures to become "American"and to understand what that even meanson the one hand, and to maintain traditional values, customs, and belief systems on the other.
This is a struggle that immigrant communities from the start of our nation's history have had to wage. The balance between forming a cohesive "American" culturethe notion of a melting potwith the preservation of language, legends, spiritual practice, foods, customs, and reverence for the history of the old country has been a tension on these shores since a wave of German immigrants arrived even before the Revolutionary War.
Overall, though, Face to Face is a moving theater work, and a testament to the determined strength of women, of any culture, to survive, appropriately staged during Women's History Month. Anyone seeking a better understanding of the Hmong experience in particular, or to more broadly gain insights into the challenges faced by refugees of any culture, will deeply benefit by attending this 75-minute show. I cannot say Face to Face is engaging in a theatrical sense, but it is mightily engaging as a bridge to building community among people with distinctive cultural and political histories, but who have the same common chords of humanity found in all people.
Face to Face, presented in association with Ping Chong + Company, runs through March 15, 2020, at Park Square Theatre, Boss Thrust Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $16 - $30.00; discounts available for seniors, military personnel and those under age 30 and under. For tickets, please call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwrights and Directors: Sara Zatz and Katie Ka Vang, in collaboration with cast members; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliott; Sound Design: Akiem Scott; Video Design: Maxwell Collyard; Stage Manager: Ashley Raper.
Cast: Laurine Chang, Houa Moua, Pang Chai Xiong, Pang Foua Xiong, Cydi Ywj Siab Yang.