As a child, Saymoukda Vongsay wrote herself into stories of Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club, as a side character. In middle and high school, she was a known writer who always carried a notebook in hand filled with poetry. Now she writes plays about zombies that know Kung Fu, starring Lao American and Asian American characters inspired by herself, her surroundings and the people in her life.
“I remember being a connector, a storyteller and a translator very early on,” Vongsay said.
Vongsay first debuted “Kung Fu Zombies” in 2013, and 10 years later she reopened the show with a second act that has a completely new storyline. The 2023 “Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals” is a two-part show about Akha and Lao women that are faced with challenges that force them to grow, adapt and connect with their cultural experiences, all while using kung fu to fight off evil zombies.
“The Kung Fu Zombies Saga is a huge, fun, visually stunning play with amazing actors and talent in it, and tells a really important story about Asian American and Lao American themes,” Lily Tung Crystal said.
Minneapolis resident, Tung Crystal has been the artistic director at Theatre Mu since 2019. Before working at Theatre Mu, Tung Crystal lived in San Francisco, Calif. and co-founded the, “Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company,” in 2010. Her directing journey began after directing David Henry Hwang’s play, “Chinglish” at the Palo Altos Players theater in Palo Alto, Calif. She is the director of the Kung Fu Zombies saga.
“I would say acting is my first love, but if you’re a woman theater artist, I think what’s exciting about directing is that you have more agency and can make a bigger impact,” Tung Crystal said.
Tung Crystal joined the actors union in 2009, and has been involved in plays and musical theater performances since high school. While living in San Francisco, she was familiar with Theatre Mu as there are a small number of Asian American theaters in the U.S. and Theatre Mu is one of the largest. Tung Crystal explained that at the time of exploring her acting career, there weren’t many opportunities for Asian-American theater artists because theater has been traditionally White and male-dominated.
“Theater Mu has always been a beacon for Asian American theater artists and so I was hugely honored to be invited to lead Theater Mu, ” Tung Crystal said. “ I often tell people that I have my dream job because I have the opportunity to support Asian-American and other BIPOC theater artists and tell the stories from our communities.”
Tung Crystal connected with Vongsay through Theater Mu in 2019, as Vongsay had a long standing relationship with the theater and has been a Mellon Foundation playwright in residency since 2020. The theater celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. In honor of the anniversary, Tung Crystal asked Vongsay if she would re-premiere “Kung Fu Zombies v Cannibals” in combination with her prequel “Kung Fu Zombies v Shaman Warrior” to create the Kung Fu Zombies Saga.
Tung Crystal has a love for sci-fi, zombies and horror, and expressed that she really enjoyed helping bring Vongsay’s vision for the saga to life. The play was especially important to Tung Crystal as it highlights not only Asian American stories, but southeast Asian and Lao stories.
“The fact is that she [Vongsay] reclaims for the Asian community those genres that are traditionally reserved for mainstream artists and storytellers,” Tung Crystal said. “She’s saying that Asian American artists can also have a place in the American genres that often keep us out.”
In college, Vongsay was a part of a spoken word group called Free Inspiring Rising Elements (FIRE), that performed at public events. Soon after she joined a writers workshop for BIPOC women and wrote one of her most popular spoken word pieces, “When Everything Was Everything,” which also inspired her children’s book. She expressed that the women in the group reaffirmed her calling as a writer.
In 2010, a friend of Vongsay’s invited her to join The Unit Collective of Playwrights of Color. Working with other playwrights, Vongsay would try writing using the different genres of her peers. Through this process she discovered that she liked to create within the genres of horror, sci-fi, speculative fiction and futurism. Through this exploration, what Vongsay calls the “zombieverse,” was born.
“The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals” was especially special to Vongsay as it was the first play produced by a major institution, written by a Lao person, about Lao people in Minnesota. The saga was inspired in part by Vongsay’s personal life experiences and identity as a Lao and Lao-American woman. Topics in the play include spirituality, war, grief, hip hop culture, trauma and more. She and her family are Buddhist, and her family was displaced because of the Vietnam War. She grew up around people who practice Shamanism, and has personal experiences with the spirit world. She has also seen how mental health has affected members of her family, and wrote in scenes to include these topics because they’ve impacted her and her communities.
“I wanted to write something that would make people feel okay, and that it’s not so much a taboo not just within our communities, but outsiders of our community, too,” Vongsay said.
The Kung Fu Zombies Saga started out as a story about a queer relationship within the Laotian community, and grew into a much larger story. Act one follows the story of a young Akah shaman warrior Arun, played by Hanna Nguyen, as she’s on a quest to save her sisters from cannibals. Act two highlights actor Michelle de Joya who plays Sika, a Lao-American, Minnesotan teenager in search of her homeland, facing many obstacles like zombies along the way and unexpectedly falling in love.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I totally see you in that play.’ So, a lot of the characters I feel are little bits and parts of me,” Vongsay said.
de Joya, a Saint Paul resident, explained that in working with an Asian-centered cast she finds comfort tackling emotionally heavy topics specific to Asian experiences as there is an unspoken, universal understanding and environment of support. She also explained that some of her favorite things about working on the show was the highlight of culturally Asian experiences as well as female identifying leadership.
“The play is really driven by women,” de Joya said. “Over half of our cast is women, and our director, designers and playwright are primarily women, as well.”
Sixteen year-old actor Olivia Lampert also expressed her love for being a part of a show lead by women, and one that depicts a queer relationship between women. She also appreciates the amount of historical elements the show covers.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much just by being in it and reading the script that Mouks wrote so beautifully, that Lily and KT have directed together,” Lampert said. “There’s a lot of history about Laos in the show even though it’s told in a fun, lighthearted, high-energy way. Everyday I felt like I was learning something new about Laos culture.”
Vongsay explained that after watching the play, people have come to her expressing how watching the play opened the door for them to have conversations they were never before able to have, with their family surrounding their own experiences.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to write that story and invite intergenerational audiences to come is because somebody said, ‘If only there was a way for me to talk to my mom, to ask her questions about what happened to her and make it easy because it’s so hard to ask her questions about what happened to her,’” Vongsay said.
Humor was a large element of the show. Vongsay wrote humor into almost every scene. In tense moments a joke would be made and the audience burst into laughter. Vongsay stated that she wanted to create a safe space for her audience to experience emotions and be vulnerable amongst strangers, and humor was a mechanism to create that atmosphere. She also feels that it’s important to laugh about hard topics, as a way of acknowledgment.
“I’ve always said if you can make people laugh, you can make people cry,” Vongsay said. “I think laughter brings people together.”
Vongsay and Theatre Mu’s “Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals” played at the Luminary Arts Center (700 N. 1st St., Minneapolis) from July 22 through Aug. 13. In September, Vongsay is self-producing “In The Camps: A Refugee Musical,” at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center (788 E 7th St., St. Paul). Her goal is to build up the Laotian theater talent for her future projects. It will be the first musical written, produced, composed, and directed by a Lao artist; performed by both Lao and Southeast Asian talent. The show tells the story of Laotian refugees who’ve escaped communist Laos, as they remember their lives before living in refugee camps.
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