Casualties of War
Hmong! The CIA's Secret Army
Great American History Theatre
We were waiting for the general. Before his entrance, a troop of Boy Scouts with red handkerchiefs knotted at the neck marched in with an American flag and a bugle. Then the colonels, majors, and captains entered with purple hearts and silver stars dangling from the breast pockets of their fatigues. Swimming in the middle of the crowd was General Vang Pao, a small man in a leather jacket who shook many hands and smiled as he made his way into the theater. He and his cohort had flown to St. Paul from California to see Hmong! The CIA's Secret Army, a play about a war they'd fought thirty years ago on hilltops half a world away. There was bugling from the Boy Scouts, a speech from the playwright, and then the general himself was ushered onstage amid much applause. "We collaborated with the Americans against the communist regime," he said via translator. "Today, communism has collapsed everywhere [more applause]. You should be proud of your politicians. We won." Maybe, but as the general certainly knows, it's never that simple.
Hmong!, which is based on a screenplay by Lee Vang and was adapted for stage by Vang and Jamie Meyer, doesn't begin with victory speeches or the familiar rattle of incoming helicopters. Instead, a man wrapped in an overcoat (Kenny Lee) blinks up into a single spotlight and stutters through the Bill of Rights. Behind him, on a ramshackle staircase, a woman (Hlee Vang) is taking the same citizenship test. "When you stand in a river," she says, "the beginning and the end are always with you."
The beginning is Laos in 1962, where young Meng (Chy Nou Lee) has fallen in love with Pa (Sandy'Ci Moua). As the star-crossed lovers roll in the grass, tell each other folktales, and make plans to get married, an American (Bob Beverage) arrives in the village with plans of his own. He has been sent by the CIA to contact Gen. Pao (Chan Chang) and equip an army to resist the encroaching communist Pathet Lao. The lovers are torn asunder, Meng is forcibly recruited into a conflict he does not care about or understand, and the rest is history.
In the war that Gen. Pao fought, the Hmong were used by the U.S. to distract and contain the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. Paid about three dollars a day, the Hmong soldiers were an expendable pawn in a global game of ideology, economics, and fear. After the U.S. war in Vietnam began to take a toll in American lives, support for the Hmong evaporated and they were left to face the genocidal pogroms of their enemies. The Hmong were abandoned without a country and conveniently forgotten by an America eager to forget.
History may not be kind to American imperialism, but the Great American History Theatre is. Though the individual Hmong soldiers do not understand the conflict in Vietnam (one boy asks an American "Why have you come so far to kill communists?"), Hmong! hardly addresses the meaning--not to mention the morality--of American involvement in Southeast Asia. A U.S. government representative, played by Julian Bailey, periodically turns up to tell his goodhearted CIA underling that "The American public likes simple stories. They like colors."
What Hmong! mostly gives us is war in black and white: boy soldiers fighting alongside Americans to keep the world safe for democracy. There's even a macho American named Col. Texas (Fred Wagner), who makes an Alamo-style last stand against the advancing commies and then saves Pa by giving her his dog tags. Here we see the sort of archetype familiar from countless facile Vietnam films: a brave grunt facing impossible odds who's meant to simultaneously assure us of the potency of the American male and assuage our collective guilt.
In places, the History Theatre's production flirts with a sort of surrealism that aptly captures the psychological fallout, as in one scene when a rain falls behind roughly cut mountain shapes and a mist rises to envelop and separate Meng and Pa. Elsewhere, however, the script feels like a screenplay thrown clumsily onto the stage, with dizzying jump cuts, actors playing three or four vastly different characters, and combat scenes that look downright silly. War is confusing, of course, but somewhere in the rush to distill the whole experience into a two-hour play, history gives way to histrionics, and the story of young lovers divided by time and tragedy becomes a casualty.
After Meng and Pa's final bittersweet reunion, the general and his old soldiers line up in the theater's lobby to shake more hands. Down the hall and far away from the crowd, a Hmong janitor in a stained T-shirt mops the floors--perhaps one of the thousands still standing in the river, waiting, and wondering what the end will be.
Hmong! The CIA's Secret Army runs through April 3 at the Great American History Theatre; (651) 292-4323.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.