Ageless echoes: The Karen story of Muyehpen finds new life

A woman stands with a flag
Ehkhudah Zar not only wrote the adaption of "Muyehpen," but also serves as the play's title character.
Courtesy of Anna Min

Playwright and actor Ehkhudah Zar has a story to tell, and it’s an old one.

“This story has been passed on for generations,” Zar told MPR News. “My grandparents know, my mom and dad know, and my sisters, siblings know, now I know.”

That story is of Muyehpen, a well-known legend in Karen culture. Zar is adapting the story about a Karen woman who is magically born to an older couple in a village in Burma, modern day Myanmar.

The premiere production will be staged by Exposed Brick Theater and is billed as one of the first — and possibly the first ever — English stage adaptation of the story. Zar explains it has not been told in other cultures due to fears of persecution in the Karen community in southeast Asia.

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“A lot of the time, it has been kept secret ... due to the fear of being killed,” Zar said.

She continued: “The reason why I wrote in English is because I only not want to share it with the Karen community, but I want to share with the community around me.”

Zar remembers visiting her grandmother in Thailand after college, where she was reintroduced to the story.

“When I think about the version that I heard, it was very filtered,” Zar reflected.

“I felt like, I think, continue to telling the story, and just keep passing it down generation [to] generation would be good for the Karen community, because we want to keep our story alive.”

In the play, King Rama V of Siam — modern day Thailand — seeks to find a way to rid his kingdom of a curse that has been passed down for generations. He visits a witch who prophesies that he will need to sacrifice a beautiful woman, who turns out to be Muyehpen.

This is Zar's first full-length and fully produced play and is directed by Eliza Rasheed. While Rasheed is not Karen, she is Asian-American, and explains that she understands the importance of the telling these kinds of stories.

Two people lay on the ground and look up
Andrew Lee and Ehkhudah Zar star in "Muyehpen," which opens Friday May 19 at the Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Anna Min

“I think it's important to know that this is not just a fable,” Rasheed said. “I think when you use the English word for fable, it means, usually means that it's just something we created. But whereas Muyehpen is actually a real person in the community. It's a legend based on historical facts.”

Zar admits that there is an added level of pressure to adapting this work for what might be the first time.

“Being first is hard because you have a lot of pressure from the elders,” Zar said, adding that she has been asked why the play is in English. And although all the actors are Asian, why they aren’t all Karen.

Despite this, Zar is confident in the work she and the team of “Muyehpen” have done.

“There's a lot of research in this play,” Zar said.

“We're like actually processing every single rehearsal, just to understand the play and how to portray it well.”

Director Rasheed aims for the play to serve as a learning tool and provide an opportunity for people to engage with Karen culture. She hopes it will help audiences understand the ongoing persecution faced by the Karen in southeast Asia and appreciate the community's resilience.

“I really hope people approach it with an understanding that they now need to know or if they don't, then this is a great starting point.”

Zar illustrates her hopes for the play’s impact with an anecdote. During a workshop at a local high school, Zar and the actors were asked a question by a teacher: "What are the risks if we fail to share our stories?" She said the students at the workshop answered: “We're in danger of other people telling our stories.”

“I encourage people that their stories can begin something for them,” Zar said.

“Muyehpen” runs at the Historic Mounds Theater in St. Paul until May 27.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.