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Street theater project showcases stories from Southeast Asian communities

Funded by a grant from the University, artists will draw interviews from cities with some of the largest Southeast Asian populations in the state.
Image by Courtesy of Bryan Thao Worra
Sunny Thao, Hongfa Norasingh, and Kaysone Syonesa perform a play called “Naga Village” in the 2019 SEAD Project Gala.

Through a grant from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), a theater project is collaborating with Southeast Asian communities from the northwest suburbs in Minnesota to showcase stories in street theater performances.

When the pandemic hit, the artist team on the project, which is titled SEA Echoes Through Rivers, had to transition online, putting a delay in the early stages of the theater project. In February, the artist team held the first storytelling workshop with participants who will write, act and produce a series of street theater performances that will happen in late spring or summer.

The theater project is in collaboration with the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project and is led by two Southeast Asian artists, Kaysone Syonesa and Sunny Thao.

Syonesa, who is also a University alum, said that in 2006 she led a small-theater project that she was then inspired to develop on a larger scale, leading to the SEA Echoes Through Rivers theater project.

“In the end, I think I was in tears because it was just the love that the community that we built doing art — not necessarily just the play itself — was amazing,” Syonesa said. “So, when this project came about, I was like ‘I want to do it on a bigger scale with our broader community.’”

Thao and Syonesa, who live in the northwest suburbs, said the project’s goal is to uplift the voices and raise awareness of the issues facing Southeast Asian communities outside of the Twin Cities by making them visible through street theater performances.

According to data from the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, outside of St. Paul and Rochester, some of the largest proportions of Asian populations in the state are located in northwest suburbs, such as Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.

“I think this project is important because it’s not like the voices that are being told, are unheard, but I think they’re just unnoticed,” Thao said.

Last April, the artist team received a small grant from CURA’s Artist Neighborhood Partnership Initiative that provides funding for artists of color and Indigenous artists working in the Twin Cities and surrounding neighborhoods.

Participants in SEA Echoes Through Rivers will interview community members to contribute their stories in the theater production and attend workshops to develop writing and performance skills. Currently, all workshops are virtual, but after the script is complete, along with the artist team, participants will meet in-person while following COVID-19 health guidelines.

Seng Xiong is a participant in the theater project and said they grew up in a working middle-class family in Brooklyn Park. Xiong said navigating their upbringing as a queer child and being surrounded by diversity taught them to see the beauty in differences.

“Having a creative outlet to really delve into those explorations of who I am and what these facets of my childhood mean to me as an adult now is a wonderful canvas to really play with,” Xiong said.

Xiong said they are also collaborating with their mother to showcase her stories of Hmong folklore and experiences from Laos.

Xiongpao “Xp” Lee is a participant in the theater project and lived in Brooklyn Park for the last five years. Lee said in light of the recent rise of violent discrimination against Asian Americans during the pandemic, he hopes the theater project elevates Southeast Asian experiences to larger conversations about racial justice.

“I think this is an awesome project to be able to really hopefully showcase a lot of insight and conversation and beauty of Southeast Asian cultures,” Lee said. “Because I think that will help everyone to know their neighbors better, to be more exposed to diversity and to hopefully gain more education about Southeast Asian experiences.”

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