A hefty amount of prop blood. More than a dozen choreographed fight scenes. And a hip hop track to pull it all together. Theater Mu’s largest production to date, The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals, runs through August 13 at the Luminary Arts Center in Minneapolis.
Theater Mu will also be streaming the production on its website and hosting a history panel discussion on Aug 12 after the matinee show as a part of Southeast Asian Diaspora Weekend in the Twin Cities.
The play is a follow up to Theater Mu’s 2013 production of Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, the first full-length play written by Lao American playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay.
In the decade since, Vongsay has had her work presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and won a Sally Award for Initiative from the Ordway Center for Performing Arts. She is currently both a Bush Foundation and Jerome Foundation fellow. She credits Theater Mu for taking a chance on her.
“I feel fortunate that I was able to get the type of support that I received back then as a new playwright, as somebody that Mu was essentially taking a risk with because they didn’t really do sci-fi or horror back then,” she said. “Fast forward to now, I feel like I’ve really grown as a storyteller and as a playwright.”
Lily Tung Crystal, Theater Mu’s artistic director, decided to put the original play together with Vongsay’s new work since it had been so long since the first play had been staged. The result is a two-part saga.
Colonialism, shamanism, zombies
Vongsay’s return to Theater Mu examines the effects of colonialism and the Secret War in Laos on subsequent generations. Part of her research for the show involved gaining an understanding of Akha shamanism. Vongsay sought out elders to learn more about these practices. She also interviewed refugees who fled from Laos in the ’60s and ’70s, when the United States was bombing the country.
The play serves as a chance for Vongsay and audiences to reimagine what the world could look like from the perspective of someone who’s Southeast Asian and living in an alternate timeline.
“It’s about a young woman who is destined to become a shaman, but she kind of feels like there’s a bit of imposter syndrome with her,” Vongsay explained. “Gradually, because of the challenges that she faced she learns how to tap into those gifts and how to tap into the wisdom of her people.”
Vongsay also explores mental health throughout the first act as the lead character, Arun, a shaman warrior played by Hannah Nguyen, battles with zombies, spirits, and demons. The second act of the show, which is an updated version of the original Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, follows Lao American Sika, as she goes on a journey to return her dead parents’ ashes to their homeland.
A creative space for Asian American theater artists
Other Theater Mu collaborators involved with the saga this time include Michelle de Joya, who plays Sika. She has been in the Twin Cities since moving from South Carolina 10 years ago to pursue a fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota. De Joya’s movement teacher was a former artistic director with Theater Mu and had invited her to the first production of Kung Fu Zombies. The feeling of being around other Asian Americans with a passion for the arts was a new experience for her.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve never been in a room with all Asian people before and seeing this many Asian people in an audience, too,’ ” she said. “Being in this room with a bunch of other Asian Americans, you almost don’t have to justify or explain yourself as often because they understand where you’re coming from.”
Nguyen shared the same experience when she was first brought onto the project. Having recently graduated from Florida Southern College, this is her first professional role.
Born in St. Paul, Nguyen grew up in Florida and hadn’t been around a large Asian community. She discovered Theater Mu in a book written by Esther Kim Lee while researching a paper on Asian American theater.
“I remember the first day I walked in, and to be in this creative space with so many other Asian American artists,” she said. “It was so empowering. I was so shocked. I didn’t talk for the first 20–30 minutes because I was just a little shy and not used to being in that space.”
After Theater Mu commissioned the piece, Tung Crystal, its artistic director since 2019, worked on the finances with the theater’s managing director, and then brought together artists, stage managers, and designers.
Much of the original story will remain in the second act of the show, Vongsay said, but it will be tighter to allow time for the prequel.
What hasn’t changed for Vongsay is her approach to writing and the audience she envisions when telling her story.
Writing for Asian audiences
“I wrote this play with my community in mind. With Southeast Asians in mind, refugees and immigrants in mind,’ she said. She didn’t really focus on whether white audiences would get it. “They don’t need to understand everything,” she said.
In joining the cast, de Joya found herself part of an effort to tell Asian American stories that aren’t often seen center stage in the world of theater.
“There’s an old Japanese saying that the nail that sticks out gets hit, so a lot of Asian Americans really fall under that. Don’t speak out. Just go with the flow and stay under the current,” she said. “This caused a whole different version of racism that people don’t think about a lot, which is erasure, just complete erasure of our experience.”
Some members of the creative team were involved in the original production, including DJ Kool Akiem who serves as the composer and sound designer, lighting designer Karin Olson, and fight choreographer Allen Malicsi.
Mariko De Montalte’s background with Cirque Du Soleil brought a unique experience to the show’s stylistic approach; she last collaborated with Theater Mu in 1995. Ursula Bowden, the props designer, who is new to Theater MU, has experience working with prop blood—and there’s a lot of it.
At 24 years old, Nguyen identified closely with her character of the same age and the show’s themes of identity and belonging.
“She’s someone who struggles with her own personal identity and what she wants to do in life, and I really understand that as an actor,’ Nguyen said. “It’s a risky decision to become an actor oftentimes, and you’re dealing with self-doubt and you’re growing.”
Nguyen said that she hopes those who see the show leave feeling a little more confident in who they are.
“I just want them to know that if they come, they will laugh and they will cry, and they’ll get to see a portion of Southeast Asian culture that they may not get to see,” she said.
CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: This story has been changed to clarify that Theater Mu (rather than Lily Tung Crystal) commissioned the play; to correct the spellings of de Joya’s and Allen Malicsi’s names; and to note that Mariko De Montalte had previously worked with Theater Mu.