Zombies, Buddhism, cannibals, and the Secret War feature in new Mu play

Ayden Her as Girl, Meghan Kreidler as Sika
Ayden Her as Girl, Meghan Kreidler as Sika
Photo by Aaron Fenster

In Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, which opens Saturday during the Zombie Pub Crawl, playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay uses the backdrop of a undead apocalypse as a metaphor for Laos's Secret War, which took place from 1964-1973 and involved the U.S. dropping more than two-million tons of ordnances, many of which to this day have not yet exploded.

The play, which is presented by Mu Performing Arts, takes place not too far in the future. It follows a young Laos American woman who travels to Laos to bury her parents' ashes. Framed by the five tenants of Buddhism (do not kill, do not lie, do not put toxins in our body, etc.), the piece asks how you can survive in a world where you can't kill zombies or grab supplies you need that don't belong to you.

"The play asks, 'How do you stay a good person?'" says Vongsay.

Maxwell Thao as thug, Ayden Her as Girl, Meghan Kreidler as Sika
Maxwell Thao as thug, Ayden Her as Girl, Meghan Kreidler as Sika
Aaron Fenster

Vongsay didn't set out to be a playwright. In 2010, the poet, spoken-word artist, and fiction writer was living in Mankato when two friends, May Lee Yang and Reggie Edmund, convinced her to start writing plays. She ended up co-founding the Unit Collective, a group of artists of color who presented a monthly, 10-minute reading series called Madness. "I just kind of jumped into things," she says. 

At the time, Vongsay had been having dreams about fighting zombies. She would have these dreams for days on end, so she decided to keep a dream diary. The journal morphed into poems and short stories, and eventually it grew to be a 10-page script that she presented as part of Madness. 

"I've always loved zombies and I've always loved science fiction," says Vongsay. "I thought it would be a great way to bring up issues that mattered to me, specifically Laos and the unexploded ordnances after the Vietnam War." 

Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals is about "owning up to your own mistakes," Vongsay says. During the Vietnam War, Laos was deemed neutral, and the action seen there is referred to as the Secret War. The CIA had headquarters in the country on Phu Bia, one of the highest mountains, and from there ordered missions of carpet bombing in the monsoons. 

Like zombies, the bombs are dead until they become re-animated by farmers or folks passing by. In the play, the zombies become a metaphor for the mess that the United States left after the Secret War.
Ayden Her as Girl, Meghan Kreidler as Sika
Ayden Her as Girl, Meghan Kreidler as Sika
Photo by Aaron Fenster

After her parents left Laos, Vongsay was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She came to the United States when she was about three, and grew up in St. Paul.  

Like many who lived in Laos at the time of the war, Vongsay's parents and other people in her family had to leave their homeland. She's always wondered about how they felt about coming to the country that was responsible for "f-ing up our homeland," she says.

She's always know about what happened in Vietnam and what happened to Laos, but often when she asks elders, she finds that it's something they don't want to talk about. "I get pushed away, though not in a mean way. I figure that maybe they just aren't ready to talk about it," she says. She hopes that her play will help to inspire some elders in the community to share their stories. 

When Vongsay presented her 10-minute piece, Mu Performing Arts' artistic director at the time, Rick Shiomi, happened to be at the performance as a guest artist. Shiomi pulled Vongsay aside and asked her to be part of the company's new project funded by the Jerome Foundation. The New Performance Program involved bringing in four artists who were not necessarily playwrights, and working with them on pieces. The fellowship included several rounds where one artist was eliminated.  "It was kind of like Survivor," she says. 

Each of the four artists wrote a play, and worked with Mu staff to develop it. "Mostly it was a lot of coffee dates with Randy [Reyes] and Rick [Shiomi]," Vongsay says. "I was nervous the whole time. There were people that knew what they were doing more than I knew what I was doing. My play was so crazy!" In addition to workshopping her piece, Vongsay also used her fellowship to see a lot of performances, and get a feel for what goes on behind the scenes of a theater production.  

Vongsay ultimately "survived" each elimination round, first in 2011 and then in 2012, with the final decision made at the end of last year. 

For the rehearsal process leading up to the mainstage production, Vongsay has been around to provide background to the cast and director, telling them about historical facts on certain issues and providing context. "The hard part about being a playwright and being in the room is that sometimes you feel the urge to take over," she says. "You have to really trust people. I'm glad they're coming up with different ideas." 

Besides zombies, cannibals, love, and gangsters, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals features martial-arts battles and a hip-hop score spun by a live DJ.


Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals
Opens Saturday, October 12 (same days and neighborhood as the Zombie Pub Crawl)
$10-$22; $5 off if dressed like a zombie
7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Southern Theater
1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through October 27

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The Southern Theater

1420 S. Washington Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55454-1038


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