Theater Mu Presents: The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals
Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay has made a historical and theatrical artifact in The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior and Cannibals, or as she calls it, “the Kung Fu Zombie-verse”.
The updated Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals (which originally premiered in 2013) serves as the saga’s second act. The remounted second act is preceded by the odyssey of a shaman warrior named Arun, who embarks on a mission to save her sister, and on the way, combats zombies who just happen to know kung fu.
Six women lead the ensemble, each bringing wit, silliness, grit, athleticism, and passion to their roles and to the stories.
Duangphouxay Vongsay has crafted a rich world full of respect for the past and a sense of determination toward the future. We are brought into aspects of the culture with the presentation of memorable and impactful Lao phrases, and into the lore and tradition that drives the plot. With the effective and progressive delivery of the contextual information in a beautifully poetic way, we’re then able to easily cheer for these characters as they fight to the death (and undeath?) and battle complex issues along the way, including the damaging impacts of colonialism and war.
Six women lead the ensemble, each bringing wit, silliness, grit, athleticism, and passion to their roles and to the stories. In both acts, Mara, played by Katie Bradley, draws laughs as the wacky, melodramatic, and cannibalistic villain you can’t help but love. Bradley’s consistency balances well with the dynamism of Sandy Agustin, Michelle De Joya, Soudavone Khamvongsa, Olivia Lampert and Hannah Nguyen, who all double roles in the acts. Nguyen kicks off the first act with an admirable fierceness and curiosity as Arun. Later, De Joya leads as Sika, bringing crispness, edge, and effective martial artistry to the second act, which varied in pace from what seemed to be a more reverent and reflective first act.
Speaking of martial artistry, the fight choreography was certainly a sight to behold and a consistent highlight for the audience in between moments of drama, comedic high camp, and intergenerational storytelling. While each character committed to the performance of kung fu, it seemed that it took a minute for the undead to fully commit. That is to say, I craved more zombie from the zombies, but by the second half, they’d all seemed to warm up to us and drag us deeper into their world.
What Duangphouxay Vongsay has written, and what Lily Tung Crystal brings to life in her direction, is a fantastical, bad-ass journey that highlights women and the women that come before and after them.
Certainly, there is a connection between Wu-Tang Clan, hip hop music, kung fu, and this show. There were a few references and lyrics (including a solid and humorous recitation of one of hip-hop’s most famous songs), but at a point I wondered if there was a deeper connection to the music. There was occasional use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is fine, but that requires confidence that the audience will not hear the dialect as a joke, but rather understand that the words are spoken by someone who speaks in AAVE. I don’t imagine that AAVE is an intentional link to hip-hop culture in this piece, but it could be interpreted as such.
What Duangphouxay Vongsay has written, and what Lily Tung Crystal brings to life in her direction, is a fantastical, bad-ass journey that highlights women and the women that come before and after them. This show has fans and a strong following for a reason. I hope there are many more additions to this saga, and that as it is read, studied, and performed, those who engage with this play learn about what it means to rightfully take up space when telling stories.
Captions were much appreciated, and according to the show’s site, they’ll be available on all Saturday performances.
The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals plays at the Luminary Arts Center in Minneapolis, MN through Sunday, August 13, 2023.