Thursday, October 7, 2010

Refugee Nation and the Laotian Secret War

Post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman, bottom photo contributed.

I've been close friends with Bryan Thao Worra ever since we worked together at Hawthorne over three years ago.  By the end of my first day on the job, we were cirbbing Star Wars lines to each other; it was "buddy-ness" at first sight.  You could say we grokked each other, and we would know exactly what that meant.  And yet we haven't discussed much in the way of his Laotian heritage, opting instead for intricate arguments such as whether Hellboy 2 remained faithful to the source material.  Who needs to be burdened with personal details when you can both agree on the irony that Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight might very well be the defining portrayal of the Joker, in spite of the fact that the story never appeared in comic/graphic novel form?

That's what friendship is all about, right?

So when one of my closest friends started getting accolades for his involvement in the Legacies of War exhibit (Strib, City Pages, TC Daily Planet, Southwest Journal, and Asian-American Press, just to name a few), I took him up on an offer to see an exclusive preview of the "Refugee Nation" performance.  The play, interspersed with video clips of the carpet bombing of Laos, is both meaningful to those with direct experience with the subject matter, and accessible to newbies such as myself.  It begins with the traditional Laotian greeting of "Sabai dee," which means...

..."Are you well?"  But not just that, the greeting asks if you are relaxed, calm, at peace.  And so it is said slowly:  sabai deeeeeee.  To say it too quickly would be the equivalent of speaking like Blurr from the original animated Transformers series.  (Ask Bryan; he'll get the geek reference)

Laotian cultural references and spurts of spoken Laotian are sprinkled throughout the play like Thai chili peppers in papaya salad - often enough to keep non-Southeast Asians off balance, but spread out enough to make sure we can still handle the excitement, while making sure the performance is relevant to Laotians in attendance.  In so doing, the play connected people through our shared experiences.

When a rather naive college graduate (were we ever that clueless?  Nah, must have been someone else.) approaches an elder to ask about the history of the Secret War, she is rebuffed because the past is too painful for him.  The desire for youth to understand their history collides with the trauma that a refugee wishes would remain buried, like an unexploded munition, still waiting to go off.  If you speak to most any veteran of war, you will find that this is not just a Laotian experience, but a shared human experience.

A mother whose son became involved in gangs and is now jailed must deal with the dichotomous anguish of wanting her child to bear the responsibility for his actions, while also despairing that she may never see him again.  This shared human experience is compounded by the fact that her son was born in a Thailand refugee camp and may be deported to Laos, a country he has never known.

That child pantomimes gang warfare on the streets of LA today, in concert with a Laotian soldier from forty years ago who wound up in the Royal Lao Army at the age of twelve.  The juxtaposition of senseless gang violence and "organized" warfare is striking.

"Refugee Nation" depicts a people still searching for their place in this world, the aftershock of American bombs still affecting their lives today.  Many Laotians may not identify America as their home, but are unable to return to Laos - indeed, like some characters in the play, they may not even want to.  In Thao Worra's book "The Other Side of the Eye," a poem called "Burning Eden One Branch at a Time" epitomizes this sentiment:

"My feet dangling in the Mississippi have forgotten
What the mud in Vientiane feels like between your toes
While my hands hold foreign leaves and I whisper
'Weeping willow'
As if saying their names aloud will rebuild my home."

"Refugee Nation" and the Legacies of War exhibit are at Intermedia Arts through October 17.

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