Saymoukda Vongsay isn’t trying to please the masses, she says. This is the friend and fellow writer I know. I also like to refer to her as the All-Lao American badass. In her latest trailblazing play, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, there isn’t just cool fight scenes, bloody cannibals, and ghastly zombies to feed our horror fantasies in live action. She’s making her mark and making a point. Mooks (as family and friends know her by) is an artivist who’s addressing our societal ills in a post-apocalyptic landscape from a Lao American perspective. Forbidden to kill and steal, among other things, what would Buddhists do when their moral compass is in question in this kind of world? Mooks explores this with a take on blending the interrelated issues of immigration, neo-Buddhism, and feminism all wrapped into one play. It sets out to be a transformational narrative and the story transcends current interpretations of your typical horror story. Best of all, it’s written by us for us.
I sat down with Mooks to talk about how rehearsals have been, the artvist scene, and what the audience should expect come opening night.
Right: “This is it!” -Mooks
Okay, you have one minute to pitch the public the play. Go.
So, apparently I didn’t know this. It’s the first play in 40 years to be produced by a Lao Minnesotan. Basically, the play is an allegory. Framed by Buddhist texts. Often times when we think of zombies, we think of Western stories. One of my jokes is, the apocalypse happened and everyone in the rest of world is freaking out, but in Laos, everyone is okay and chilling, and nothing has completely demolished. No buildings burnt down and no wildlife going crazy. I’m using zombies and cannibals to get people through the door to talk about deportation laws and UXOs and also queer Lao women. It’s also a feminist play. And I hate to say this, but it’s an alternative to Miss Saigon.
What’s with your fascination in zombies, cannibals, and Kung Fu?
I’ve always loved monsters. I also love science fiction. Lao people are Buddhists, so there aren’t zombies actually, so I wanted to explore it. And as for Kung Fu, why the fuck not?
I enjoyed the stage reading when I attended a while ago. I remember you telling me it was a two year process. How has it been from start to finish for you?
The process has been 2 and ½ years. There were stage readings, 14 different versions and we’ve changed casts four or five times. Lots of research, lots of watching movies on zombies, cannibalism, the Vietnam War, Laos, and the apocalypse. I also read Buddhist folktales.
Should the audience expect to be scared as hell?
No. It’s funny and not scary actually. I think you’d be scared if you’re a 4-year-old though. The play asks you, what happens to your moral standards? How do you remain a good Buddhist, when you have to survive in the post-apocalytic world? How do you survive? What’s more evil? It’s not about cannibals and zombies fighting, but really, who is the worse of the two?
The play has a lot of live action scenes going on with guns, blood, and jumping. What kinds of challenges are you running in rehearsals?
In my head, the fight scenes were done a certain way, but logistically it was impossible. I can’t have a zombie fly, which we can’t do realistically (booo). Allen, our fight choreographer, he’s been amazing. It’s 8 or 9 different martial arts techniques. We found people who have done martial arts before in acting. We have a great production crew, a design team who did an amazing set with different platforms on the stage with different ramps. People are going to be kicking and jumping off of them. The sound and costume designers are all awesome.
Why does this play speak to the Lao? What kinds of reactions do you hope it sparks in the audience?
I’d like people to walk away more knowledgeable about immigration rights. So often it’s been about Mexico, as if it’s only a Mexican issue. It’s not. A lot of people don’t think about Laos and our history and how immigration affects us and other APIs (Asian Pacific Islanders) as well. I also want people to know a little bit more about Buddhism and the Lao culture.
If you were speaking to a room full of young aspiring playwrights, what would you say?
I would tell them: write whatever you want. Don’t feel limited. Don’t write about what people expect you to write. Let your imagination run wild. Write what you feel is important to you. Even if you don’t know what’s important to you right now, write what you want. It doesn’t have to be world changing. There’s been this big shift in supporting Lao artists and writers more and it’s exciting.
I’m sure you’ve heard all about the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon angst that’s going on. Any opinions on that dilemma and the portrayal of Asian women in mainstream productions?
I believe in the power of the narrative. Asian women are complicated, well, just women in general. So why not show a side that is fierce and fearless and kickass? I’m careful not to use that Miss Saigon shit to steer people to come to my play, but seriously, if people want to see another depiction of Asian women, come see my play!
Where can people learn more about your work?
www.saymoukda.wix.com/refugenius. I’m also Googable, of course.
Check out the latest trailer…
By Mu Performing Arts, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals runs from October 12th-27th at The Southern Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For tickets, visit: http://www.muperformingarts.org/production/kung-fu-zombies-vs-cannibals/.