Sometime last year I was told by a friend that I had to check out the play “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman”, but unfortunately I did not have the time to make it to any of the performance dates, but fortunately “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman” is back with two weekend performances here in Febraury at the Neighborhood House in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I definitely won’t be missing out this time.
So who is behind the play? It’s none other than Saint Paul resident May Lee Yang. She’s a poet, performer, and now a playwright. Her play debuted last year and definitely has people talking. This comedic memoir is a must see for those in the Saint Paul area.
Even though she’s busy with the upcoming performance dates, May Lee was kind of enough to take some time to talk to us, at Hmoodle, and share her story, as well as some great background information about the play.
Hmoodle: I am here with poet, playwright, and performer May Lee Yang. May Lee, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be a part of Hmoodle.
May: Thanks, Ryan! It’s great to be part of this forum that reaches so many Hmong people.
Hmoodle: Why don’t you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
May: I’m a disgruntled alumni of Highland Park Senior High School. I eat pho with little or no toppings. My favorite karaoke song of all time is “Don’t Stop Believing.” And I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki films.
Hmoodle: You are known as a poet, playwright, and performer. Which do you enjoy the most and why?
May: Ironically, I think my strength is in prose writing, which I will continue to do. In the last several years, however, I’ve been most productive as a playwright. Theater is a fascinating medium because it requires collaboration–with a director, actors, designers, tech people, and the audience itself. Theater is so immediate, you get a gauge of how people experience your work.
Hmoodle: How’d you get your start in this area?
May: I started writing in junior high school. Stuck with nothing to do and nowhere to go (a very common condition of the Hmong girl, circa 1990s), I turned to reading books. Eventually, I began writing my own stories. About 10 years ago, I got a fellowship for emerging playwrights and wrote snippets of what would eventually be my first play.
Hmoodle: Were you creative as a kid?
May: I never had the opportunity to participate in youth or after-school programs–Remember? I was confined to the house. Thus, I never imagined becoming an artist. However, I was creative. Once, my older brother said to me, “What? You think you’re smart?” I was smart enough to know he was ready to pounce on me, so I said, “No.” His dumbstruck expression was awesome. Because I didn’t like to cook, I often spent my work money on fast food for my younger siblings or paid them to do housework, so no one in our household complained about me. In this way, I think I was creative in trying to cultivate a life for myself.
Hmoodle: How was your craft developed as you’ve gotten older?
May: As a kid, I wanted to write mystery and suspense thrillers a la Christopher Pike or Dean Koontz. As an adult, I’ve veered towards memoir, poetry, and plays that explore the Hmong American experience. I think as a kid I always secretly wanted to make movies but thought it was too expensive. Now, as an adult, I’ve been considering this again. After all, film is just another medium for storytelling.
Hmoodle: Let’s move ahead to your work on “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman.” How did you come up with this, and how long did the process take?
May: The play, “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman,” is essentially a lazy version of the book. You see, I’ve been trying to write a memoir for years now and couldn’t quite figure out how to put it together. In 2009, I attended the National Asian American Theater Festival in New York and was inspired to turn bits and pieces from my memoir into a performance piece. For years when I joked about being a lazy Hmong woman, people would ask, “How is this possible? How did this come to be?” My play started answering that question, which is really a question of how I grew up. In 2010, the play premiered at Out North Theater in Anchorage. Since then, we’ve been touring it. Many of young adults who saw my show said, “I’d love to bring my parents to see this but they won’t understand it.” In response to this theme, I applied for funding to do a Hmong-language version of the show and here we are now.
Hmoodle: How difficult was it to get from paper to stage?
May: This project has been an interesting one for me. I started out as a writer and performer. For the Hmong language version of the show, I knew my Hmong language skills weren’t stellar, so I hired Ka Zoua Xiong, a community organizer and Hmong language teacher, to translate it. This time around, I’m playing the role of director and producer. What has been challenging is that there hasn’t been a strong history of Hmong Americans reading and writing Hmong proficiently. So, not only did the actors have to polish their Hmong–and, in many cases, learn new vocabulary–we also had the challenge of acting and re-contextualizing the story in the Hmong world.
Hmoodle: What types of emotions did you go through before opening night?
May: For this Hmong-language version of the show, I’ve felt incredibly proud of all the actors and crew members who worked so hard and my hope is that the people we’d like to reach see it.
Hmoodle: How did your friends and family respond?
May: My family has been incredibly supportive of my work. They’ve come to see the show and spread it to their networks. The one hitch is this: one family member thought my portrayal of her was not accurate. That being said, one thing that my family and the public should understand is that these characters have extended beyond us. Even “The Lazy Hmong Woman” is a character in and of itself separate from me, and people shouldn’t assume this is a straight memoir. It’s theater.
Hmoodle: What about the responses from those who weren’t in your inner circle?
May: Most of the response has been great. I think this show has helped me to build a fan base that my previous bodies of work didn’t. I’ve been so fortunate to meet people nationally as a result of this project, But I’ve also been told (by an older Hmong woman), “I don’t like lazy Hmong girls.” Very recently, someone criticized a YouTube excerpt of my show saying I was portraying Hmong men in a negative light. Oh well.
Hmoodle: Is this something that non Hmong speaking people can enjoy?
May: Yes! Why not? When I think about the number of people who have to constantly navigate the American world with little or no English, I think spending an hour-and-a-half of your time feeling like the minority is not a lot to ask. Besides, we don’t need to speak Italian to see the opera or have a B.A. in English to watch Shakespeare. That being said, we are Minnesota Nice. At every performance, we provide thirty headsets with English intepreting, which should be an interesting way to explore the show.
Hmoodle: How would you describe the play?
May: It’s a comedy about how a family (and, really, a culture) tries to turn a Lazy Hmong Woman into The Perfect Hmong Woman. The question is, Do they succeed?
Hmoodle: Can you tell us a bit about the performers?
May: Our wonderful cast includes Phasoua Vang who starred in the original English-language show with me and played ten or twelve characters. She gets to chillax a little in this show. We also have Kevin Yang, a rising spoken word star, who plays The Perfect Hmong Girl, Jerry Lee who was casted in Gran Torino, July Vang whose most recent work has includes a lot of independent film and voiceover work, Gaosong Vang who plays the qeej, is studying opera, and most recently starred in WTF (by Mu Performing Arts), and Khoo Xiong, a visual artist, first-time actor whose been rocking our rehearsals with her wonderful renditions of old but stylish Hmong men.
Hmoodle: What do you want people to take away from the play after they see it?
May: Whether they like it or hate it, I hope people will talk. I hope they will ask questions of themselves and each other. I also hope they will laugh (after all, this is a comedy), and I hope people will stop giving The Lazy Hmong Woman such a bad rap.
Hmoodle: When and where can our readers see the play in the near future?
May: Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman: The Hmong Remix runs February 3-5, 2012 and again February 10-12, 2012 at Neighborhood House in St. Paul, MN. More details can be found at www.lazyhmongwoman.com.
Hmoodle: I look forward to seeing it myself! Do you have any last words to say to our readers?
May: If there are any former (or current members) of the gang, F-A-Gs (Fine Asian Guys), come see the show. We do a shout-out.
Once again I need to thank May Lee for being a part of Hmoodle. I strongly encourage everyone, whether you are Hmong or not, to check out the show. I’ve heard nothing but good things and look forward to seeing the show myself. It’s always a good thing to support performance arts.
We want to wish May Lee, as well as the performers in the play the best of luck with the upcoming shows.