An Inside Look: Meet the Cast of In the Camps

Kay Syonesa, SEAD’s Co Director, had the opportunity to connect with the In the Camps cast members to share their journey in the Lao musical production by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. Using songs and humor, In the Camps takes place in a refugee camp and tells the story of Laotians who’ve escaped communist Laos.

There will be four intimate community performances at Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center. The show opens on Saturday, September 23rd. Click below to find more event details and to purchase your tickets!

Book and Lyrics by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. Music and Lyrics by Ketsana Vilaylack. Directed by Ova Saopeng. C. “Meaks” Meaker as dramaturg. Featuring Soudavone Khamvongsa, Lidet Viravong, Chufue Yang, Tri Vo, and Phouthavone 'Kat' Chanthalone.

Q1: What’s your role in In The Camps (ITC)?

LIDET: I am a cast member.

KAT: My role in ITC is as an actor! I'm playing the role of Nang! She was once a pageant queen and carried such a prideful image throughout the village she lived in. You'll get to learn more about her story during the performances.

SOUDAVONE: Oy, she's a funny character, that's about woman empowerment, she's a former beauty salon owner whose milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and knows how to use what she has to her advantage. I love her character because she pushes the boundaries of what traditional roles Lao/Asian women were forced to take on. Oy owns her power, and wields it as men did in her time.

TRI: I play Ai Seu-ah, which is a name that means "tiger,” I was told. And is he ever fierce! Dramatic! Charming! And full of...darkness? A showman that leaves you both scared yet seduced.

CHUFUE: I have the very special honor of sharing Hum's story in In The Camps.

Q2: What has the process been like for you as an artist and working with the cast and crew?

LIDET: It has been a while since I have been part of any theater production. The process is welcoming, engaging, and grounding. The warm-ups and exercises led by director, Ova Saopeng, has helped me to tune my physical, center myself, stay in focus, thereby allowing the craft to flow. Through ensemble activities, the cast and crew get to engage and connect with one another. Production has been lots of love, support and fun.

KAT: The whole process for me has been such an amazing adventure! This was my first leap into theatre, so I was very nervous and didn't know what to expect. Next thing you know, I have a whole new family that does goofy things together! We've shared laughs, tears, burps, and even farts!

SOUDAVONE: It's been an ever evolving and growing opportunity for me to learn about myself as a human, an actor, and as someone who then becomes a character. Working with Mouks, the playwright and her fierce and unapologetic nature is inspiring to me as a Lao artist. To work under her- to learn how to own my voice, body, and trust in my ability and all my potential has been a beautiful process.

TRI: Our director, Ova, starts each rehearsal with ensemble warm ups that challenge how we explore different perspectives through lively forms of movement and roleplay. Rehearsals end up being valuable both as a kind of class in important performance skills and principles in addition to the "lab" portion where we apply our hands-on learnings into performing the script. The crew feels truly unique and an extension of the way the playwright, Saymoukda, operates as both a community pollinator and a prolific creative. Through "In The Camps", Saymoukda has assembled a motley crew of Lao and Southeast Asian actors and makers, both seasoned and amateur, in a way that a larger theater may not be able to replicate. There's been a lot of warmth, discovery, and overall gratitude for each of us to be a part of telling an animated, complex, and dangerous story like this one, especially as people who broadly have much fewer opportunities to even consider careers in theater due to generational poverty as people of forced displacement. I leave each rehearsal with such a rewarding feeling of fatigue, knowing that I'm putting my all into something that fills me, and the people I'm playing with, with persistent feelings of wonder, abundance, and mattering.

CHUFUE: This is my second professional theater production coming from The Kung-fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior and Cannibals, written by Mooks (Saymoukda) Duangphoxay Vongsay and directed by Lily Tung Crystal, presented by Theater Mu. Coming from film and commercial print, riding through the dynamics between the two productions has been such a great learning experience.

Q3: What makes this production so important for you to be a part of?

LIDET: As a Laotian refugee myself, my family and I have lived experiences in a refugee camp. We can relate to the characters and understand the stories being told. And of course, most importantly because my Lao sister, Saymoukda Vongsay, is the writer of ITC!

KAT: This production is so important for me to be a part of because we're sharing the story of Lao refugees. Also, it just so happens to be led by such amazing Southeast Asian artists and creators! To see people from my community showcase such beautiful leadership and creativity is an eye-opener that opportunities are available as long as we set our minds to it.

SOUDAVONE: I thought this production was so important I delayed my return to Los Angeles post my last show Kung Fu Zombies, because I feel like this production was so monumental. It's literally the first Lao Musical based on Lao Refugee stories. My people. I've dreamt of this since I was a child. As a Lao American Artist who grew up in Minneapolis, it has been such a privilege to return and be a part of this process. I hope more Lao/ Jungle Asian Artists see more works like this, and see that there is space for us in the theatre, entertainment world.

TRI: I'm a Southern Viet Kinh person playing the Thai personification of the Lao, and perhaps Hmong and Khmer, refugee experience. There are historical reasons why Thailand became a safe nation-state for refugees fleeing persecution from authoritarian regimes of newly independent countries to flee to. Vietnamese folks left in various ways, some by flight, though many by boat, hence the term "boat people". I do not know many Viets who crossed the Mekong or by foot to cross into Thailand, a country that then received funding from UNHCR to receive such refugees. At the same time, Thailand also had "humane deterrence" programs to make refugee camps a highly discouraging place to live for refugees. All this is to say, as little as I've learned about the nature of displacement of Vietnamese people, I have known even less about how the so-called "Vietnam War" affected the displacement of my geopolitical neighbors of Lao, Hmong, and Cambodian peoples. This, ironically, is not the first time I've played a Thai character. Somehow, both the Thai characters I've played have been very fraught with social contexts that have put them at odds with other people, but in different ways. Whether Lao, Hmong, Thai, or Viet, the mosaic of Southeast Asian geopolitical histories continues to make my head spin, which I'm sure is a step up from the people who were directly impacted by such histories. I'm eager to continue to be a part of these productions as a way to bring these stories to people outside of textbooks and classrooms, where music can convey both deep longings and sinister schemings through the scenes of a show like this one.

CHUFUE: Being a child of Hmong-Lao war refugees, participating in this acting production is profoundly meaningful to me. It's a unique opportunity to not only connect with my family's history but also to share the Lao war refugee experiences with a wider audience. This production allows me to give voice to the stories and struggles of similar my heritage, preserving our culture and history while fostering a sense of pride and identity.

Q4: How would you like this story to be carried on beyond the production?

LIDET: Come see the show! Pass on the word! And Saymoukda Vongsay is granted a full production!

KAT: Beyond the production, I would like these stories to be carried on through our community and youth. ITC is an amazing story that our youth should listen to, learn, and analyze to learn more about Lao people.

TRI: Saymoukda certainly isn't the only playwright in town that's bringing Southeast Asian Americans together to make theater outside of the traditional theater pipelines. Kaysone, the interviewer, just finished her 3rd year of SEA Echoes, a SEAA street theater project that she created to showcase the talents and expression of SEAAs in the Twin Cities. Yes, there are grants to write for (no better state than MN to get such arts grants) and spare time outside of our day jobs to carve out to bring these passion projects to life. However, as projects like In The Camps and SEA Echoes continue to be documented as evidence that SEAAs can perform and animate our stories ourselves, the more that other SEAAs can inspire themselves to pay that sparkling imagination and artful inventiveness forward for more audiences to come.

CHUFUE: Beyond the production, I hope that the play serves as a poignant reminder of the Lao refugee story, encouraging ongoing discussions and understanding. I envision it sparking conversations in schools, communities, and cultural institutions, leading to increased awareness and empathy.