Community members smiled as they tasted different dishes and snacks from local businesses of the Little Mekong cultural district on University Avenue on Sunday, July 2, 2023. The event was artist Katie Ka Vang’s portion of Mixed Blood Theatre’s 12x12 series. Businesses like 88 Oriental Foods offered pork bites and Mogu Mogu during the interactive walking tour.
“I didn’t know there was a name for this area, and like an identity for the community,” said Minneapolis resident Siana Goodwin. “I’m really happy to know that, and the food was awesome.”
The event began at XIA Gallery & Café (422 University Ave. W.), where artist Vang and Mixed Blood Theatre artistic director Mark Valdez introduced themselves and their shared work. Valdez is the theater’s second artistic director in its 47-year history. Growing up in Texas, Valdez noticed a lack of representation and accessibility in the art world. A writer and director, Valdez wanted to make art accessible across different communities. His goal for Mixed Blood’s 12x12 series is to connect people to community and identity. The Little Mekong tour was the sixth event in the 12-part series.
“Katie is so deeply connected to the community,” Valdez said. “It was fun to watch her re-experiencing, relearning and reengaging.”
The theme of Vang’s event was alien butterflies. Actors dressed in colorful clothing and butterfly wings pretended to be from another planet. The two actors, called one and two, guided the group of attendees through the tour, starting from Xia Cafe & Gallery and ending at the Springboard for the Arts (262 University Ave. W.). The actors remained in character during the entire walk, speaking with cheerful voices, and encouraging the group to stay positive despite the hot weather.
“I love that they were helping guide us through everything,” East St Paul resident Anisa Mohamed said. “I love them, one and two.”
Born in Santana, Calif,. Vang moved to Minnesota at the age of 18. She now lives in Woodbury and calls the state her “home base.” Vang is a playwright with a background in art community organizing. Her artistic path began during her time as an arts administrator for the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (995 University Ave. W.). After managing the Hmong band, Shattered Echos, Vang began to realize that her passion for art was not solely based on experiencing but creating too. Vang has now been an artist for 18 years.
“I was a closeted artist and didn’t know it,” Vang said. “I wanted to be around art all the time.”
During her initial move to Minnesota, Vang felt out of place despite being a part of the large Hmong community in the state. After a few years, she began to gain pride in her Hmong heritage and felt more connected to the community. Over time Vang has cultivated relationships with vendors and businesses in Little Mekong. Many of the businesses Vang highlighted during the walking tour were businesses that she felt contributed to the community during the George Floyd movement.
“I want to be a patron of these places,” Vang said. “And the best way to do that is to support their work.”
Along with others, Vang has created plays based on her personal experiences as a Hmong woman, including a one-woman show called “Final Round” about her battle with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer and the associated stigmas. Her first musical, “Again,” with Theatre Mu (755 Prior Ave. N.), took place on March 29, 2023 at Mixed Blood Theater. The show lasted three weeks, and was sold out.
“When I was going through cancer, I was very public about it,” Vang said. “And it was actually the community that showed up for me.”
Vang plans to create more musicals in the future, and is working on a play set for October about the Hmong communities relationship with volleyball, as well as a Narrative Change Theatre project for next July. More at www.katiekavang.com.