The “domino theory” was more Cold War worry than geopolitical fact. Successive Southeast Asian nations didn’t all fall to communism. But a different kind of sequencing — the cascading impact of war on subsequent generations — did happen, and the theme is explored in a compelling play and film running locally this week.
The film “The Missing Picture” is a personal remembrance, and reckoning, from Rithy Panh, who survived the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule in Cambodia from 1975-79. Panh, 13 when Phnom Penh fell to the communists, was one of a fortunate few to reach adulthood in the nihilistic killing fields. Panh artistically fills in “The Missing Picture” with bleak black-and-white archival footage, a sorrowful voice-over and, most notably, clay-figure dioramas depicting the colorful, cosmopolitan Cambodian capital contrasting with the totalitarian labor camps that killed millions. Playing at the Walker Art Center April 25-27, the Oscar-nominated documentary shows that even after wars end, the impact — especially on children — remains.
Playwright Amy Russell knows this well. She grew up partly in Laos, where her father ostensibly worked for USAID. But he was really part of the CIA’s secret effort to organize Hmong soldiers to fight the Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army. The Americans eventually evacuated, leaving most Hmong in Laos.
Based on memories, rigorous research and close collaboration with Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, Russell wrote “The Shadow War,” a We Theater production playing at St. Paul’s Wellstone Center through April 27.
“It is my story and my writing,” she said. “But my upbringing was that I grew up in another people’s country. I can’t really understand my story unless I understand the story of other people.”
It’s a historically and geographically remote story for many Americans, including some Hmong who grew up not knowing their parents’ bravery and sacrifice. Xiong, however, remembers it well. “I grew up in a war-torn environment. I knew what the planes sounded like, what the jet fuel smelled like. My playground was a battlefield,” he said. “One of my biggest memories was walking to the top of the mountain with the military radio and calling my father in the battlefield.”
Nowadays, however, some soldiers are often reluctant to talk. So to draw out the often painful memories, Xiong gives his students recording devices as an excuse to interview their war-era parents. If they are reluctant, he tells students to ask: “Don’t you want me to get an A in class?”
Just as some Hmong are laconic about Laos, many GIs, despite being baby boomers, are more like the “greatest generation” when it comes to talking about Vietnam. Their reticence to reflect sometimes affected their children — including “The Shadow War’s” director, Teresa Mock, and actress Flora Bare, whose fathers are Vietnam vets, as well as actress Sandy’Ci Moua, whose father fought in Laos.
Each described dads deeply impacted by combat in ways that in turn affected their upbringing. Moua’s father saw the last planes out of Laos and has been a prominent Hmong leader in Minnesota since.
“We inherit our parents’ damaged psyches,” Moua said. “I’ve never been to Laos or Thailand, never seen anyone die. The play reminded me that my experience is very narrow in scope, and that there are so many other narratives equally precious that need to be told.”
Stories like those of Bare’s father, who enlisted, fought, became president of the local VFW and then protested the war in Iraq. “Whether it’s direct or indirect, you know it’s there — it’s a big presence in him and therefore in his children and wife,” the actress said. While her father said little at home, Bare heard him on stage in front of hundreds saying: “I don’t want another soldier, young man or woman, to hold a dead body like I did.”
Mock said the lasting impact of war is what drew her to the play. Like many, she’s heard more of her dad’s story secondhand, but his days as a paratrooper impacted her, too. “The war gets filtered down into the next generation,” she said, and then wondered: “How long does war reverberate in our lives?”
A very long time — at least based on “The Missing Picture,” “The Shadow War” and the artists’ real lives. The play can help heal, said Russell. “Theater is uniquely dialogic. … I don’t believe we heal separately,” she said. “I think we can only really heal together.”
It can also help some remember, and others learn. “Not knowing your history is like a tree without its roots,” said Xiong.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.