Arts and Culture

‘A hugely personal story’: Theater Mu debuts musical exploring cancer

characters Mai See and Quest in musical again
From left, Dexieng Yang and Melody Her, who play Mai See and Quest, respectively, pose in a promotional photo for the musical "Again."
Rich Ryan

Updated: 5:09 p.m.

Katie Ka Vang’s first musical is about something personal to her: cancer.

She was diagnosed in 2011, relapsed twice and went through two bone marrow transplants.

“What I do as an artist is, you know, we try to really try to understand the things that we go through in life through art. And so I really set out to try to write about my cancer experience.”

She has written plays for years but was struggling with how to write about her cancer experience. Then she attended a workshop reading of a friend’s musical theater piece and it inspired her. 

“I really infuse my lived experiences into all of my writings, in addition to things that I've seen within my community, things I've really witnessed other people go through. All of that really gets incorporated into my writing.”

Theater Mu, which focuses on Asian-American arts, commissioned Vang in 2019 to write what became the musical “Again.” It runs March 29 through April 16 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. 

Vang is Hmong and from St. Paul, and said the musical is, to her knowledge, “the first professional musical production by a Hmong-American playwright.”

‘A hugely personal story’

Vang said the musical is a “family dramedy” about two women who form a friendship by talking about their cancer treatments. 

playwright Katie Ka Vang headshot
Playwright Katie Ka Vang.
Theater Mu

“I knew that I wanted to write a very intimate story,” Vang said. “So I didn't want to embark on like a 15-cast-member musical when this is my first piece. So I decided just to keep it really intimate. It actually started off with a two-cast show, which then grew into a four-person cast” last year, Vang said.

Lily Tung Crystal, the artistic director of Theater Mu, said the organization sought out Vang “because she was one of our longtime Mu playwrights and we wanted to engage with her in commissioning a play about the Hmong-American experience.” Theater Mu premiered Vang’s first play, “WTF,” in 2011. 

Of the four-person cast, three characters are women. 

“We’re really excited because there are three Hmong-American women characters in the musical, and all three are being played by Hmong-American performers,” Tung Crystal said. “We often believe that the best people to tell the story are the people from that community, and so three Hmong-American women are actually going to step in those roles.”

Theater Mu paired Vang with Melissa Li, the composer and lyricist of “Again.” The musical is directed by Nana Dakin, a queer Thai-American director whose work “pursues social equity by examining the way culture is constructed and unsettling dormant biases,” according to her website

“I think it’s a beautiful musical. I always laugh and cry in this musical. Katie has told a hugely personal story that also tells the narrative of the Hmong-American community. This show really allows its Hmong-American woman characters, and its Hmong-American women actors, to really live in the fullness of who they are,” Tung Crystal said.

Vang said the specificity of the story makes it universal. 

“We had a workshop of it last year, and there were many non-Hmong folks who attended, and they were like, ‘Yeah, you may have intended it to be a Hmong-American story, but in essence, it’s still an American story, and I'm not Hmong, but I totally relate to it.’ And that's sort of what you hope for in creating work,” Vang said.

Theater Mu aims to showcase Asian characters 

Tung Crystal said Theater Mu in St. Paul is “building a creative workforce so that Asian-American young people who didn’t think they could have a career in the arts, or Asian-American veteran performers and artists who felt like they hit a glass ceiling in the industry, that they feel like theater is a fruitful career path for them, and that they can find work both at Mu and in other theaters across the country.”

Another mission Mu has is putting authentic Asian-American characters on stage. 

“It’s only when we create well-rounded characters, deep characters, who are complex and real, that other people from other communities can identify and empathize with those characters. But, if American theater at large continues to put Asian-American characters on stage that are stereotypical that are just the doctor or just the brainy one or just the powerless woman … then we’re not telling good stories,” Tung Crystal said. 

characters Quest and Shia in scene for musical agian
From left, Melody Her and Pagnia Xiong, who play Quest and Shia, respectively, pose in a promotional photo for the musical "Again."
Rich Ryan

“We believe at Mu one reason for the recent rise of anti-Asian violence is that our stories are not told enough on film, TV and on stage. When people don’t see our stories, if people don’t see us as real people, it’s easy for people to other us or even consider us subhuman and so it’s our responsibility at Mu to give voice to those narratives, to tell the stories of people in our communities, and only when people see us as full-bodied humans will they know us as the true Americans that we are.”

This month the FBI released a report saying 2021 saw “a record spike in attacks targeting people of Asian descent,” according to the Washington Post

The show’s run will also include a few special performances including some requiring masks, some with actor talkbacks, one with American Sign Language interpretation and several with closed captioning. Tung Crystal said this is Theater Mu’s first show with multiple closed-captioned performances, a move aimed at helping a broader swath of audiences who don’t know ASL.

Vang said the musical is “most enjoyable if you come with loved ones,” and that she hopes people “find something that they can connect with, at least one thing. I hope they have a good time. And I hope they leave humming one of the songs.”