We Theater takes on The Shadow War at the Wellstone Center

Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Tonight, We Theater will premiere The Shadow War, its first full-length production. It's a work that takes place in Laos during the secret CIA operations that ran concurrent with the Vietnam War. Set in 1971, the story follows a diverse set of characters living through a period when the U.S. was training Lao Natives -- mostly Hmong people -- to fight Communist Pathet Lao.


The Shadow War was written by Amy Russell, who lived in Laos as a child from 1969 to '71 while her father built fish farms for the Royal Lao Government as an employee of USAID. The play was developed using a collaborative process with the cast and director, Teresa Mock, and in partnership with the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT). After its first workshop in 2012, We Theater hosted a public presentation in the Lowry Lab. 

Cast member Sandy'Ci Moua connected with Mock in 2010 through a mutual friend. She had already been involved in a play about the Hmong experience, working on a show first presented at the History Theater. The Shadow War project took on a bit of a different perspective, however. Moua was intrigued by Russell's story about growing up in Laos as part of a white family. 

Moua has connections to the historical events of the play, too, as her own father was among those recruited by the CIA to fight. "I've seen the photos," Moua says. "The uniforms are all from the U.S. My dad sat behind U.S. pilots." 

According to Moua, the fighting was later rebranded as a civil war. "But it was not a civil war," she says. 

Moua says that while she used to think she knew everything about the war, working on this project has been an informative experience. "I learned about Amy Russell," she says. "What does it mean to be living there as a white person? How do you create new ways of being?" .
As a Hmong actor, Moua felt comfortable challenging the creative team at times over the script. "I said, 'You need to do this right.'" For example, her character was originally a housekeeper having an affair with a white service member, but Moua convinced her collaborators that that portrayal was historically inaccurate. 

According Mock, Moua's stories about her father as a colonel in the war shaped her contributions to the intentions of the writing. Meanwhile, Mock's own father was a Vietnam veteran. Flora Bare, a cast member who plays the American CIA officer's wife, also has a father who was a Vietnam veteran. "So we are having intensely personal experiences working on this subject matter," Mock says. 

Meanwhile, actor Gregory Yang, who is also Hmong, grew up in Florida, where there was a very small Hmong community. As a result,  he "hasn't been able to connect with his culture in the same ways that Sandy has -- until he moved to the Twin Cities," Mock says. "Working on this show has been a very meaningful experience for him, and opportunity to connect with his culture."

Lee Pao Xiong, who is from the Center for Hmong Studies, and has been helping with dramaturgy on the show, discovered that he knows Yang's uncle. "So Lee Pao Xiong was able to tell the uncle about the time he is putting into Gregory pronouncing Hmong and getting the tonal aspects of the language right," Mock says. "It's a very meaningful experience to be able to share that amongst the family members and well respected Hmong community members, like Lee Pao Xiong, and the larger community. Everyone is very connected to each other and to this project." 

For the opening tonight, Hmong veterans of the Special Guerrilla Unit who served in the Secret War in Laos will perform an honor guard ceremony prior to the performance. 

In addition, Members of the SGU Veterans and Families Development of USA will participate in community panel discussions after performances on April 16-19. Merl Pugh, a former White Star CIA operative, will also be participating in panel discussions on April 16-17. 


The Shadow War

April 16-27

The Wellstone Center

179 Robie St. E., St. Paul

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 27

$15; $10 (students/seniors/veterans); pay-what-you-can Tuesday, April 22

Tickets are available here. For group sales, email [email protected]