Where is home? Is it Minnesota? St. Paul? Minneapolis? Is it where we live now or where we grew up or where our ancestors came from?
Hmoob-land (Hmong-land) is a play that explores these questions and other themes such as stereotypes about the Hmong and self-identity. The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) and Kaotic Good Productions are presenting Hmoob-land which is playing at the Bedlam Theater March 6-15.
“This is where the stereotypes live,” actor Ernest Briggs’ character said during rehearsal.
“But I’m not a stereotype, I’m a person,” actor Evelyn Mouacheupao’s character responded.
“Hmoob-land in this play is like the land of stereotypes,” director, writer and producer Robert Karimi said. “What initiated the whole play is the stereotypes [and] misconceptions people already have these notions of what people think the Hmong are.”
Karimi, who is half Iranian and half Guatemalan, came up with the idea for the play when a friend of his asked a group of Hmong what Hmoob-land was. The play made Karimi think about what home is for him and hopes it will for audiences too.
“I think what’s really interesting for me,” he said, “is that I’m a son of immigrants, and thinking about my own parents, and how they have made home away from home.”
In a 12-week process, Karimi and his ensemble, many of whom are in their twenties, collaborated to create Hmoob-land. Karimi did not write the script alone; the actors had homework to do, which was to explore ideas for the script.
The Dabneeg<>Dawning Theater Ensemble includes a cast of eleven people, both Hmong and non-Hmong. The play includes both English and Hmong language and actors play multiple roles.
When writing the play, Hmong actors were asked to think about stereotypes they have witnessed or experienced. “A lot of the scenes are based on personal stories,” said Mouacheupao. Actor Phasoua Vang said the ensemble wanted to write about what they knew and not about incidents that no one had experienced.
For the non-Hmong actors, it was a challenge to understand the culture and learn some of the language. “It was really difficult,” actor Lindsey Cacich said, “part of the frustration at the beginning was that we were asked to improvise scenes about Hmong culture and I didn’t know anything, I knew absolutely nothing about it.”
Getting comfortable with each other and addressing the issues of racism and stereotypes was also difficult for the ensemble. “Right off the bat, before I really knew much about anything, we were trying to get over the racism fear hump,” actor Damian Johnson said, “just trying to get comfortable with each other and making it a safe space where we could kind of say or do anything and it wasn’t going to be offensive.”
The ensemble understands that the play may make some people feel uncomfortable. “I know that we’re going to perform this, I know it’s going to make audience feel a little bit uncomfortable,” actor Schoua Na “Sonic” Yang said. “It’s our intention [to make audiences feel uncomfortable].”
At rehearsal, Karimi sang along and took notes as he watched his ensemble perform what they have all created. “I wish I could do a movie about the process as well,” he said.
Casey Merkwan is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota, and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.