Funded by a grant from the University, the artists will conduct interviews in cities with some of the largest populations in Southeast Asia in the state.
February 26, 2021
With a grant from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota, a theater project collaborates with Southeast Asian communities in suburban northwestern Minnesota to present stories in performances street theater.
When the pandemic struck, the artist team for the project, titled SEA Echoes Through Rivers, had to transition online, delaying the early stages of the theater project. In February, the artist team hosted the first storytelling workshop with participants who will write, perform and produce a series of street theater performances that will take place in late spring or summer.
The theater project is in collaboration with the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project and is led by two artists from Southeast Asia, Kaysone Syonesa and Sunny Thao.
Syonesa, who is also a former university, said that in 2006 she ran a small theater project which she was later 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 by making art – not necessarily just the piece itself – was amazing,” Syonesa said. “So when this project came up, I was like ‘I want to do this on a bigger scale with our community at large.’ “
Thao and Syonesa, who live in the northwestern suburbs, said the aim of the project is to raise voices and raise awareness of the issues facing Southeast Asian communities outside the Twin Cities in 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 state’s largest proportions of Asian populations are located in northwestern suburbs, such as Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.
“I think this project is important because it’s not like the voices that are being heard aren’t heard, 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 which provides funding to artists of color and Indigenous artists working in the Twin Cities and surrounding neighborhoods.
SEA Echoes Through Rivers attendees will interview community members to contribute their stories in theatrical production and attend workshops to develop their writing and performance skills. Currently all workshops are virtual, but once the script is complete, along with the artist team, participants will meet in person while following COVID-19 health guidelines.
Seng Xiong is involved in the theater project and said they grew up in a working-class, middle-class family in Brooklyn Park. Xiong said navigating their education as a queer kid and being surrounded by diversity taught them to see the beauty of differences.
“Having a creative outlet to really deepen these explorations of who I am and what these facets of my childhood mean to me as an adult is now a wonderful canvas to play with,” said Xiong.
Xiong said they were also working with their mother to present her stories of Hmong folklore and her experiences from Laos.
Xiongpao “Xp” Lee is involved in the theater project and has lived in Brooklyn Park for the past five years. Lee said that in light of the recent increase in violent discrimination against Asian Americans during the pandemic, he hopes the theater project elevates Southeast Asian experiences to broader conversations. on racial justice.
“I think it’s a great project to be able to really, hopefully present a lot of insight, conversation and beauty of Southeast Asian cultures,” Lee said. “Because I think it will help everyone get to know their neighbors better, be more exposed to diversity, and hopefully gain more information about the experiences of Southeast Asia.”