Art Beat // The refugee experience

“Refugee Nation” tells the story of Lao-Americans

WHITTIER — It’s a country located in Southeast Asia, landlocked and crowded on its borders by China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Officially neutral at the time, it was the battleground in the so-called Secret War fought in parallel with the Vietnam War. After nearly a decade of bombing by U.S. forces targeting North Vietnamese Army supply lines, it was, and still is, considered the most-bombed country on earth.

Those of its people who fought against communist forces began arriving in the U.S. as refugees in the late 1970s. Their third-largest refugee community is here, in Minneapolis, and numbers an estimated 25,000 people.

At this point, Ova Saopeng would hope the reader knows the country is Laos, but he knows that is unlikely.

“When I say I’m Lao, most people don’t know what that is,” said Saopeng, who, with his wife, Leilani Chan, brings their story of the Lao-American experience to Intermedia Arts this month. Saopeng, a writer and actor who has performed with Children’s Theater Company, identifies himself as part of “Generation 1.5,” the youngest of the Lao refugees (he was 5 when his family arrived in Hawaii in 1979) who grew up mainly in this country.

“Refugee Nation,” the production he and Chan developed over the past several years, tells the story of Lao-Americans not just for the benefit of other Americans who may not know the history of Laos or the Secret War. It is also for those like Saopeng, who grew up knowing little of their parents’ wartime experiences.

“My own parents don’t speak about the war,” he said, explaining that they were a generation scarred by violence and a difficult assimilation into a new country and culture. “I’ve had to push and pull and poke and prod and [ask], What happened in those years?”

“This is an important story that is part of American history, and we should tell this story,” he said.

In a series of vignettes, Saopeng and Chan explore the generational divide that exists in the Lao refugee community, its roots in violence and its impact on those who grew up in this country. That younger generation often knows little of its own people’s history, Saopeng said.

“[Younger generations] have lost the language, they’ve lost that sense of who we are,” he said, noting that other immigrant communities, such as Vietnamese-Americans, seem to have better weathered the transition.

“The Lao community, we don’t seem to have that sense of unity or collaboration,” he said. “That’s one of the questions in the play: Why is it taking so long?”

The production’s creation began with a commission from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Multi-Arts Production Fund. Saopeng and Chan, the founding artistic director of TeAda Productions, a nonprofit performance company based in Santa Monica, Calif., first spent time traveling around Southeast Asia, intending then to tell a broader story of Asian immigrants.

The focus changed when they arrived in Laos, the final stop of their tour.

“We felt the Laotian story was the one that has been told the least, and that it’s so interconnected with American history,” Chan said.

“Laos still hasn’t recovered” from the war, she added. “While Thailand and Vietnam seem to be making a comeback, Laos is struggling.

“We really became much more passionate about the Laotian story because of that.”

Contributing to Laos’ struggle are the deadly remainders of the Secret War.

The U.S. dropped hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973. Millions of unexploded, apple-sized bomblets litter the countryside, and despite ongoing cleanup efforts they continue to kill and maim four decades later, said Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of Legacies of War, an organization working to raise awareness of the bombings.

A national traveling exhibition of featuring first-person illustrations of the bombings by the Laos villagers who survived them arrives at Intermedia Arts at the same time as “Refugee Nation.” 

Much of the play was informed by interviews with Lao elders conducted in Minneapolis and elsewhere over about five years as Saopeng and Chan traveled the county collecting material. At many stops, they tried to entice members of the Lao refugee communities into the theater, a place they may not have felt welcome.

“This is an immigrant community and refugee community that never really sees themselves onstage, so they never had that experience,” Chan said.

“Refugee Nation” tells the story of one people, but its title reflects its universal theme. The same elements are found in many immigrant stories: war, family separation, generational divides and assimilation.

Bryan Thao Worra, a Lao-American poet who lives in the Twin Cities and works at the Lao Assistance Center in North Minneapolis, has seen Saopeng and Chan perform portions of “Refugee Nation” during their previous visits. Worra came away appreciating their deft handling of some of the darker aspects of the Lao-American experience, never letting the horror of war overshadow the story.

“I’m amazed and impressed that they managed to cover a really wide range of emotions,” Worra said. “… There’s a lot of humor with it, a lot of deep humanity.”

Go see it

“Refugee Nation” runs Oct. 7–17 at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. 871-4444. intermediaarts.org.

“Legacies of War” runs through Oct. 24 at Intermedia Arts.