Feelings raw over the casting of a play

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2011 - 11:34 AM

A dispute has erupted over the choice of a Korean-American to play the lead in "WTF," written by a Hmong-American playwright.

Sun Mee Chomet and Saikong Yang in a scene from Katie Ka Vang’s “WTF” at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Mu Performing Arts, the Asian troupe that raised a ruckus over the casting of non-Asians in "Disney's Mulan Jr." at the Children's Theatre last spring, has found itself in hot water over a similar issue.

The dispute touches on race, identity and artistic freedom.

The St. Paul-based Mu and its producing partner, the Center for Hmong Art and Talent, have come under fire for casting a Korean-American to play the female lead, a Hmong-American character, in a new production, "WTF."

The play premieres Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. It is the first full-length work by Hmong-American playwright Katie Ka Vang.

"Not all Asians are alike," said Ka Vang, a Hmong-American playwright unrelated to the "WTF" author. "It's hypocritical of Mu. I'm angry that at a time when Hmong theater is in its inception, Hmong actors and actresses are not given a chance to prove themselves."

"We auditioned 15 to 20 Hmong actors," said Rick Shiomi, director of Mu. Seven of the play's nine roles are played by Hmong-Americans. There's also a Vietnamese actor in a non-ethnic-specific role.

Sun Mee Chomet, whose résumé includes major roles at the Guthrie in "Macbeth" and Tony Kushner's "The Intelligent Homosexual," plays the female lead.

"Sun Mee is the best emotional vessel to portray this character," said "WTF" playwright Katie Ka Vang.

The controversy erupted just days before the opening of "WTF," stoked by Ka Vang's Facebook note urging a boycott of the play. Heated discussions have taken place online, by e-mail and in phone calls -- passion that may be addressed in an upcoming forum.

The play centers on two Hmong-Americans who confront a battery of issues, including polygamy and chemical abuse -- topics that Ka Vang characterized as "dirty laundry" -- before getting to a place of understanding and love. It is directed by Randy Reyes, who is Filipino-American.

"It's hard enough to have to worry about your lines and knowing your character," Chomet said on Thursday. "Now I have to deal with this?"

Grumbling and envy often color responses to casting in the theater world, where opportunities are few, especially for artists of color.

"I have worked in the service of this play and the playwright for two years," said Chomet, who was a dramaturg on the project. "Anyone was welcome to come to the readings and workshops. This is almost slander."

Ka Vang said that it pains her to cause a stink, but she would rather the play not be produced at all without a Hmong lead.

"I absolutely admire and respect Katie and Sun Mee and Rick Shiomi, who gave me my big break," she said. "It's not something I'm doing out of vengeance or vindictiveness." Mu did a reading of Ka Vang's one-act, "Disconnect," in 2001 and produced her play "From Shadows to Light" in 2004.

Ka Vang said on Thursday that she has not seen "WTF" or read the script.

"I question her intentions," said playwright Katie Ka Vang, who is sometimes mistaken for her current antagonist.

Ka Vang, a onetime Pioneer Press reporter, is friends with many of the players, and her sister is in the "WTF" cast.

Ka Vang, 36, is among the Hmong-American writers Katie Ka Vang, 31, has admired.

"It's disheartening to be attacked like this by someone you respect," the "WTF" author said.

Katie Ka Vang pleaded for artistic freedom, and a chance to enjoy the world premiere of her very first play.

"It's just a little story about two people who discover love after everything," she said. "I'm not trying to speak for the Hmong community, just myself."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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  • Speaking for a new Hmong generation

    Monday January 24, 2011

    Katie Ka Vang's play meanders a bit on its journey to flesh out the experience of young Hmong-Americans.

  • WTF

    What: By Katie Ka Vang. Directed by Randy Reyes. Produced by Mu Performing Arts.

    When: 7:30 p.m. today-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 6.

    Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 4th St. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $18-$22. 612-338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com.

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