May Lee-Yang: Minnesota activist and artist


This month, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent is presenting writer May Lee-Yang’s Sia(b) at Gremlin Theater from May 29th to June 7th.

May Lee-Yang is a playwright, prose writer, poet, and performance artists living in Saint Paul who has been involved with theater since she was eighteen. Her plays include Stir-Fried Pop Culture, Sia(b), and The Child’s House. Her writing has been published in the following magazines and anthologies: Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans, Water~Stone Literary Review, Unplug Magazine, Paj Ntaub Voice, Jade Magazine, and others. She is a two-time recipient of the MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant and of the Playwright Center Many Voices fellowship. She was one of the 2008 recipients of Intermedia Arts’ Naked Stages Performance Art Mentorship Program. We caught up with her recently to discuss her work.

What led to this latest collaboration?

May Lee-Yang: About two years ago, I was writing what would later become Sia(b). I had an opportunity to hire an actress to perform my work out loud so I could see how it flowed. By chance, my director Robert Karimi and I decided to ask Katie to come to the table because we’d heard about her. It was a lucky coincidence that Katie and I clicked and though I’m credited as playwright for the show, Katie has played a big part in helping to put the work together. The process of creating this play involved not just writing but also improv work that we did together.

What are some the directions you’re trying to take Hmong American performance art?

MLY: For one thing, I’m trying to move beyond the refugee mentality. What I mean by that is that, when people come to a Hmong play, they expect an exposition on who the Hmong people are, how they came to the United States, etc. I want to take us to the next level and talk about real Hmong people who live and breathe beyond just being refugees. Having said this, I should mention that, if you come see the show, you’ll notice that, despite what I just said, the “refugee mentality” still finds its way into my show.

Do you see an evolution in your work?

MLY: Definitely. When I was twelve, I imagined that I would be a novelist. In my early twenties, I started doing spoken word, and now I spend most of my days writing plays and doing performance art work. These are all still part of me, but I’ve evolved as different pieces of my work required different mediums in which to exist. I’ve also found that, especially in the past year, my work has gotten darker and darker. The fun, quirky side of me still exists but, for some reason, the dark stuff is pushing its way to the surface.

How do you feel your vision as a community activist intersects with your vision as an artist, if at all?

MLY: Lately, I’ve been hesitant to call myself a community activist. When I think of those folks, I think of people who rally in the streets and do grassroots community organizing. But I would also be selling myself short if I didn’t acknowledge that my work–whether intentional or not–is a form of community activism. I have to remind myself that the act of someone who has previously not had a voice speaking their stories is powerful.

When I start to create a work, I don’t think of how it is a form of activism, but they are. The title of my “Sia(b)” is an example. Some people might say, “Why not choose a title that’s more accessible?” My question is, “Accessible to whom?” Of course, the answer is “Non-Hmong people.” Why can’t I name my show something from a language that is a part of me despite that most people don’t know what it means? The activist part of me is always like, “Do what you want to do. Don’t compromise.”

As a result, even my director, who is an Iranian-Guatemalan by birth, can say my full-length Hmong name (which is way more complex than May Lee-Yang), and can understand enough Hmong to know when I’m talking smack.

What is your sense of the arts community in Minnesota?

MLY: The arts community in Minnesota is quite diverse and exciting. I didn’t realize how lucky we were until I looked at resources for artists nationally. We have a lot of great arts organizations, tons of theaters, and many grant opportunities to develop emerging artists. On top of that, we have a strong community of artists. Whether I’m in my “writer” mode or “performance artist mode” or even “spoken word artist mode,” I have a community with whom to connect.

Can you talk about what challenges have arisen in embarking down the path of an artist?

MLY: One of the biggest challenges as been just plain economics. I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. About three years ago, I quit my full-time job to live out my dreams. While I now have a flexible schedule and have accomplished a lot more work than I did while working full-time, I still have to think about things like access to health insurance and a steady income. The great thing, however, is that I have a supportive spouse and family. No one has said to me, “May, grow up. Get a job.” Instead, most people have said, “What project are you working on next?”

Are you trying to do something different now than you did in your previous works, or do you feel you are trying to extend those performances?

MLY: I’ve been trying to write a memoir (or several ones) for years now and oddly enough, instead of a book, you get a play out of me. But the rules of theater are trickier than books, I think. With theater, there’s some wiggle room for playing around whereas, in a book, I’d probably stick to all the rules of keeping it real. I think that I’m also growing as an artist. One of the reasons why Katie was originally cast in my show was that, despite having done acting and performance work, I was apprehensive about being in a show about my own life. Now, having worked through this show, I’ve already done one solo show through the Naked Stages program at Intermedia Arts and am writing a new one called “The Sex Lady,” which is about how we talk about sex in a culture that supposedly doesn’t talk about sex. Two years ago, the idea of doing a solo show didn’t even click in my head.

How do you negotiate your work in the nonprofit community, do they help or hinder the other? Is it instructive for you as artists to be involved in the world of art through a non-profit organization than through academia?

MLY: Despite my own delusions about how smart I am, I don’t belong in academia. I’ve worked in the non-profit sphere for 10 years now and it has done a wonderful job of informing me as an artist. Through this work, I’ve gotten to work on real issues, meet real people in the community, and develop leadership skills. Through this work, I also see a strong connection between art and community. When people use these terms together, I often hear an underlying sneer as if “community art” is inferior somehow. I think art can be both for the community and yet maintain high aesthetic standards. But anyway I think my experience in the non-profit sphere has actually helped me be a more socially-conscious artist. For example, if I want create work that is accessible to an audience that has never accessed theater, I need to think about 1) how will this population know my work exists, 2) can they afford to attend my events and 3) does my work even impact them on any level?

Where in your work are you trying to push yourself, challenge yourself, risk something?

MLY: Whether I am conscious of it or not, I am always pushing myself. Because certain pieces of my work needed to exist as a theater piece, I opened myself up to the possibility. It might have been more comfortable for me to not be on stage, but I’m pushing myself to tell my own stories. I’ve also realized that if I have the nerve to put the audience on the spot, to make themselves vulnerable, I have to do the same. But I think the way in which I have risked the most artistically has just been being honest. I once worked with a sixteen year-old girl. She shared a poem with me and I thought, “That was great. That was wondeful.” This was because she was so raw and honest in her piece I couldn’t help but gravitate towards it. Since then, I’ve told myself, I can’t keep hiding behind walls. If I want to create something great, I need to risk something too.

When did you fall in love with the arts?

MLY: I was twelve. I was stuck at home with nothing to do. From there, I began reading books. I averaged seven per week. I began watching tons of movies and fantasized about directing them. Since then, I knew that I would be involved in some medium of storytelling.

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