Katie Ka Vang will celebrate a couple of big deals next weekend — the March 31 opening of her musical "Again" and seven years in remission from Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The two are related. The Hmong American writer was first diagnosed in 2011, beginning a long journey that includes chemotherapy, remission, a clinical trial, a bone marrow transplant (her sister was the donor), a relapse, shifting to alternative medicines, more chemo and remission — not necessarily in that order and with other setbacks and triumphs along the way.
The main characters in "Again," writer Mai See (inspired by Vang) and filmmaker Quest, also have grappled with cancer. That becomes a common bond as Quest documents Mai See's life and both begin to find answers to questions that have vexed them.
Vang wrote the show with composer/lyricist Melissa Li, whose other work includes "Interstate" for Mixed Blood Theatre. Li is a musical theater veteran who won the prestigious 2021 Kleban Prize, but Vang is a newbie. So, while others spent the pandemic trying to keep their sourdough starters alive, Vang was boning up on musical theater.
"I put myself in situations where I could soak it in," said Vang, who benefited from seeing shows, listening to scores and participating in a two-week crash course at Nautilus Music Theater.
Vang, a current McKnight Fellow in playwriting whose "W.T.F." premiered at Mu and who also is working on a play about volleyball, knows "cancer" and "musical theater" seem like an unlikely fit. But things have gone so well that Vang is kicking around another project that brings them together. As she reveals in these five questions, it all comes back to that old advice to write what you know.
Q: It's your first musical. How did that happen?
A: When I'm going through something, I try to work through it in my art. I was newly in remission and wanted to try and write something about the cancer experience but I wasn't quite ready yet, although I didn't know it. I kept trying to push through and thinking, 'Why can't I do this?' I was in remission in 2016 and, in 2017, a friend of mine from out of town [Mia Chung] was workshopping a new musical theater piece locally and she said, 'It's a reading. It's super-rough, but you should come.' And I did and thought, 'Oh, holy [expletive], maybe the thing I'm trying to write shouldn't all be in text.' It piqued my interest in what it could be like to work with collaborators.
Q: How did you get cancer and musical on the same page?
A: Who wants to see a show about cancer? So it was really important to me that it had a lot of humor and another very important element was music, to balance the heaviness of what's being talked about. But it's not really about cancer. The characters form this unlikely friendship through talking about their experiences having cancer. Then, when Mai See relapses, it pushes them both to find the things they need to feel whole.
Q: Is learning to write in the format of a musical like acquiring a new language?
A: You know your first songs are not going to be good. At least the first two, I was like, 'OK, what's going on?' Because you collaborate with someone else, and they have different ideas and it's very different than working on your own. I do feel like not just anybody can do it. There continues to be a learning curve and I'm happy to be on it.
Q: Is it weird to have an actor [Dexieng Yang] playing a version of you?
A: Actually, it's relieving. They're not really playing me, although a friend of mine said when you write a character, every character is sort of you. So I think it's great. It's freeing. The folks in the rehearsal room massage it, so it becomes the thing it needs to be outside of me, which I think is what art should be, serving whatever community it reaches.
Q: Who is the ideal audience for "Again?"
A: The Hmong American audience is really my base, but having said that, when we had a workshop [last] April, it was very clear this is not just a Hmong play. It's a very universal play that centers Hmong stories. The cast speaks some Hmonglish [a blend of Hmong and English], but English is the dominant language.
Who: Book and lyrics by Katie Ka Vang. Music and lyrics by Melissa Li. Directed by Nana Dakin.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 16.
Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th St., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required at Sunday performances.
Tickets: Pay-as-you-can-$45, theatermu.org.