Katie goes to Bollywood

Local playwright and performer Katie Ka Vang combines Hmong ideology, Bollywood choreography and the power of identity in her one-woman show, “Hmong Bollywood.”

Local playwright Katie Ka Vang rehearses her one-woman show

Jaak Jensen

Local playwright Katie Ka Vang rehearses her one-woman show “Hmong Bollywood” on Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at the Pangea World Theater. The story is an expression of how she has dealt with her illness as well as her cultural identity through movement, prose, video installation and more.

Joe Kellen

What: “Hmong Bollywood”

When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday through March  24; 4 p.m., Sundays

Where: Intermedia Arts, 2822 S. Lyndale Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $15; $12 for students, seniors and groups

 When words fail local playwright Katie Ka Vang, she dances. Her preferred accompaniment is almost always the film staple of her childhood: Bollywood music. Growing up in a Hmong household that adored the colorful film genre, Vang visibly carries its energy in her body.

She was the first member of her family to be born in the U.S. While this creates a few confusing layers of culture for Vang, she feels grounded in her Hmong roots. The playwright refers to herself as a member of what she calls the “1.5 generation.”

“My siblings still grew up in the American school system. They have a different set of beliefs; they’re a little closer to traditional cultural beliefs,” she said. “I haven’t lost my language, but I feel a little more contemporary.”

Vang manages to find a balance. This is the spirit of “Hmong Bollywood,” her one-woman show that’s been in development with Pangea World Theater for five years. Vang ties her unending love for Bollywood to every facet of her life in the piece, insisting that the fantastical Indian films gave her something to hold on to in childhood and beyond.

“My mom was always like, ‘We are different, we’re immigrants, we have to look out, be scared of everything,’”**** she said. “I was very aware of my otherness, and watching Bollywood I was like — ‘aw, man! That girl looks different and that’s me!’”****

Meena Natarajan, the production’s director and dramaturge, has stuck with the play throughout its lifespan. Natarajan has continuously engaged with Vang’s distinct story although she isn’t especially attracted to the Bollywood aesthetic. Her interest lies in the territory of collaboration. Over these five years, the two have been working together to develop Vang’s poetic voice in tandem with the show’s focus on identity.

“I like working on pieces that I help people think about and create,” she said. “How do the actions of your parents, siblings and everyone affect who you are? I’m interested in the process of discovery.”

The process behind “Hmong Bollywood” is not only based on discovery, though. Vang also deals with the emotional elephants in the room, divulging highly personal moments in her story, including her turbulent childhood and her battle against stage four lymphoma last year.

“Theater is ritualistic for me and helps me face a lot of the fears and truths I haven’t been willing to look at. When I do this, it’s a part of me dealing with that,” Vang said.

Vang’s illness brought forth another sort of outlet besides playwriting. In order to cope with the potentially fatal news and leave a memento for her family, she began vlogging her experience with chemotherapy.

The videos cultivated a community of friends and family that helped Vang sustain herself until the doctors declared her   cancer-free last June. While this was a huge part of her life, it’s not the main draw of “Hmong Bollywood.”

“Parts of the piece are sort of me trying to understand what caused my cancer,” she said. “But I think if someone’s waiting for like, ‘Cancer Show,’ I think I’m going to need a couple more years to digest that.”

However, she recognizes that it’s become a permanent part of her perspective on life and performance.

“Post-cancer, I think I taught myself how to slow down,” she said. “It might not really be something that’s noticeable to anybody, but it’s become a part of the process.”

Most importantly, Vang wants the piece to be a testament to the healing power of art. For her, working on this solo isn’t just about developing new material; it’s her rise out of the darkness of her past and into the future.

“We say the word process, and it sounds very general, but it’s the fights, the struggles, the happiness, the successes,” Vang said, and without missing a beat, Natarajan piggybacked.

“It’s about learning to listen,” she said.