There were seven of us in the audience for the play Vang at Mount Mercy University tonight, and it’s a shame because I think what the seven of us experienced will stick with us for a while.
Vang is a Hmong word for “garden” or “farm.” As you probably recall, the Hmong were a southeast Asian people, a minority in Laos, many of whom sided with the Americans in the Vietnam War. When Communists took over South Vietnam and Laos, many Hmong fled and eventually made their way to the United States.
In a happier time when Iowa’s Republican governor declared the state a haven for refugees, some Hmong settled here, and a community centered in Des Moines sprang up that included a couple who ran both a tailor shop and a small farm.
The play Vang actually recounts four immigrant couple’s stories: Toua and A Vang, a Hmong couple from Des Moines; Joseph and Haime Malual, Sudanese immigrants—he was a PhD student at Iowa State when the play was written; Beni and Ramona Chavez, Mexican immigrants and farmers from Marshalltown; and finally Jan and Dorine Boelen, Dutch dairy farmers who basically moved farming operations form The Netherlands to Iowa.
The play was a collaboration between poet and writer Mary Swander, who interviewed the people depicted and wove their stories into the play script; and Dennis Chamberlin, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer who shot images of the people Swander interviewed.
The play is presented by an actress and actor who at first depicted Swander and Chamberlin, and then, in turn, each couple, as images of the “real” people are projected onto a screen. Each couple whose story is told has a poignant tale, often including harrowing adventures to get to the U.S. (although the Dutch couple basically had money from their farm in Europe and didn’t have the problems on the journey that the others shared). It was interesting to not only hear the immigrants’ stories, but also a bit of the back story of how Swander and Chamberlin struggled to find subjects for the project.
It was also interesting how similar and how different the immigrants’ stories were. One similarity: the people from Somalia, Laos and Mexico all were a bit shocked by Iowa’s winters. Joseph Malual, the Somali man, is quoted as saying, “How can people live here?” as his reaction to his winter-time arrival in Iowa—but when Iowa turned green in the spring, he realized how life here is possible.
Like the Germans and Irish and Scots and English and others who settled here in the 19th century—and the Native Americans who lived off of this land before that—the new immigrants all seemed to have a visceral, positive reaction to the black, fertile soil of this place. Iowa—whatever else you can say about this unpretentious, rather dull patch of the United States, there is something about the earth of the Earth here—what grows here surprises you and seduces you and makes you want, like a prairie rose, to send down deep roots.
Or at least that’s what I was left feeling after seeing Vang.
The Fall Faculty Series this year has included several Saturday events, and so far, I would have to say that innovation has not exactly been successful. While many parts of the series have been popular, getting MMU students or faculty to show up to a Saturday event seems dicey.
We don’t yet have a University social climate that supports weekend events, or so it seems to me.
And that’s a shame. Vang was grand. I wish you had been there.