Playwright Saymoukda Vongsay is one of 20 Minnesota community leaders – five from St. Paul – who recently received grants of up to $ 100,000 from the St. Paul’s Bush Foundation to further their education and training.
Vongsay, who came to St. Paul from Laos just before her fourth birthday, wants to use her art to drive social change. She also wants to use a talent for interpretation to shed light on other Lao American artists.
To become a leader of American Laotian theater, Vongsay wants to expand her ties with Laotian artists and communities nationwide. She also plans to travel to Laos and become more fluent in Laotian reading, writing and speaking, all to better share the stories of Laos.
Eye On St. Paul recently interviewed Vongsay about what he hopes to achieve in the next year.
This interview has been edited for length.
Q: Tell me a little about you.
A: I am allergic and I feel it right now [laughs]. I always tell people that I am an American Laotian artist. And I do this because there aren’t many of us out there in the world. It is my way of looking for others.
I came to the United States in 1985, in November. It was 17 days before I turned 4. And I remember the first place we lived, right on E. 7th Street in Swede Hollow. I just remember that I loved living here and smelling the bread all the time. I later learned that it wasn’t bread, it was beer. The brewery was practically our backyard.
Later, I found myself acting as a link between my family and our neighbors. My parents were telling me something and I was playing it for my neighbors. My neighbors were telling me something and I was playing it for my parents. I continued to do this with my writing and as a playwright.
Q: You started writing poetry with words, then written words. How did you decide you would become a playwright?
A: I really haven’t decided. [After] I have met poets [in college at the University of Minnesota-Morris], I started going to all their shows. I wanted to learn how to become a better poet, because I couldn’t get published. I got frustrated and told myself that I would stop writing altogether. And my friend said, “Maybe you just need to find a better way to get it out.” He told me about a group of playwrights at The Playwrights’ Center.
Q: What was your first play?
A: It was an eight-minute piece. It took place in an apartment building and the residents were Siddhartha, Gandhi … there were four historical figures and they were trying to figure out how to get hold of their super. It was a bad piece. I wouldn’t go back and revisit it.
Q: Tell me about the Laotian theater movement: is there one and I just don’t know?
A: There is now [laughs].
Q: Are you the creator?
A: I don’t think I’m the creator. But maybe I’m the re-instigator. The people who did theater 40 years ago weren’t playwrights. Laotian theater is very different from Western theater. Laotian theater incorporates a lot of dance, music and song and is mainly about Buddhist folk tales.
Q: Will the scholarship allow you to do what you did as a kid, be a conduit between those creators and the American public?
A: I think I am. I have been there for a long time. As an American Laotian artist, I don’t have the luxury of not writing Laotian stories. Because I feel incomplete if I do this. Of course, it would be easier if you were just a playwright and only wrote plays. But I consider myself a social practice artist. I don’t just tell stories from Laos, but I bring people to Laos.
Q: Because it’s important?
A: Our community has been excluded from American theater for so long. We have also been in this country for over 40 years. But our stories are not part of the curriculum. They are not part of the mainstream media or pop culture. If I can tell our stories through my art, I will.
Q: Why is it important to bring these stories to a wider audience?
A: We are your neighbors. We are in the larger community. And I think that to fully understand each other, we need to tell our stories. And share our differences too. This is also powerful. Embracing each other’s differences, I think it’s great.
Q: What do you plan to do when you return to Laos?
A: In the end, I would like to be fluent enough to talk to my elders. And talk to other people in more nuanced ways. I want to know the poetry of the Laotian language. And the metaphors. It only makes the language richer and participation in that culture richer. I want to write a whole play in Laotian language. I want seniors to come to my shows and feel fully included.