There is a question that lingers throughout the world premier of Theater Mu’s “Again,” written by Katie Ka Vang (book) and Melissa Li (music & lyrics), and directed by Nana Dakin:
Can cancer be funny?
Perhaps not the disease itself, or the toll it takes on body and mind. But certainly in the way one is allowed to approach their diagnosis, or in the way they’re allowed to present it to the rest of the world – who says cancer need relegate a life, and the fight to save it, to one of pity and woe?
The whole of the human comedy is rather absurd, anyway. And “Again” embraces that absurdity wholeheartedly – singing snails, dancing feces, risqué fantasies of beach romance – for a reminder that laughter is often the best medicine after all.
The synopsis (from Theater Mu):
“Hmong memoirist and cancer survivor Mai See meets a young filmmaker named Quest, who is inspired to document Mai See’s story despite suffering from chronic cancer herself. When Mai See relapses, their unlikely friendship helps her understand the things in life that are worth keeping and the things worth letting go.“
But comedy is not alone at center stage; the spotlight is shared by powerful representations of pain and loss inspired by playwright Vang’s own battle with the disease. Many of the details – discussions of “chemo brain” and how tough treatment truly is, described at one point as “…how much it killed me to stay alive,” are clearly personal, and help strike a necessary balance between humor and the understandable anger and frustration that comes of something as debilitating as cancer (and the medical bills that come with it).
This is the strongest piece of the story: It is a reminder that humanity does not disappear into hospital gowns; a person does not become their diagnosis, cancer does replace their identity, and hopes and dreams need not disappear with test results and marrow transplants. Both Quest and Mai See fight to “boss up” and maintain their goals – acceptance to NYU for Quest and the completion of a second memoir for Mai See – in spite of their condition.
“Again” is then as much a story of strength, compassion, connection, tradition. It is, importantly, also one of family: Mai See and Quest both have strained relationships with family members, Mai See with her sister Shia, and Quest with her father (“Patriarchy, right?”) and absent mother, who were forced to deal with cancer in their own way, with varying degrees of failure and success.
This is something to which I can relate. I lost my mother to cancer as a teenager – the same Leukemia from which Quest is suffering – and much the language and settings in the play were familiar: The cold hospital bed, the frustration with impassive doctors’ diagnoses, the inability to find the right words or actions to capture feelings of inner turmoil; it made me wonder what might have been going through my mother’s head as she lived her final days in a hospital room where not even fresh flowers were allowed.
This is not uncommon. 40% of Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes, and odds are good the majority of the audience has dealt with either their own diagnosis, or that of a loved one.
This is why humor is such an important part of the story – as humor is often necessary for survival. Too does it accompany notions of escape: Physical escape, represented by a particularly memorable song and dance in which Shia fantasizes about vacation to the beaches of Santorini, and mental escape, as Mai See spends more time in her daydreams, memories, and work on her latest memoir.
And the importance of personal and cultural pillars that remain immovable in the face of tragedy as well: “Hmong Pride!” helps the characters remember who they are. As do their favorite foods. Lessons from parents. The snail that returns again and again to help guide Mai See on her journey. And purpose, whether it be film school, publishing a book, or anything else.
The two leads carry this story well. Dexieng “Dae” Yang as Mai See and Melody Her as Quest create an endearing older/younger sister dynamic in their interactions, especially evident during their songs together. Their relationship too represents the duality of the cancer experience: Mai See is left sarcastic and somewhat bitter where Quest is infinitely optimistic; Quest’s infectious energy fills the stage and it is impossible not to forgive her as she continuously invades Mai See’s space.
Pagnia Xiong is incomparable as Mai See’s “Type A” older sister Shia – her voice and presence in both speech and song command every scene she is in. Aaron Komo steals the show in various roles, mostly as Mai See’s generally tone deaf but well-meaning boss obsessed with self care, but also as the doctor, object of Shia’s fantasy, and physical embodiment of Mai See’s snail guide.
The lighting and stage production deserve mention as well, used to reflect the inner workings of the character’s minds and the volatility of emotions; e.g., the news of relapse takes on an almost expressionist quality as the lights shift and Mai See’s frustration becomes palpable. The songs by Melissa Li similarly reflect mood, changing musical genre and style to effectively capture changing emotional states.
Theater Mu has never shied away from tough topics, approaching sexual assault in “Man of God,” murder in “Peerless” and the trauma of abuse in “The Last Firefly,” in thoughtful and engaging ways. This is one of the most intimate and personal stories the company has ever told, presenting a gloomy topic in a truly entertaining and humanistic manner; staging “Again” as a musical was a gamble that absolutely paid off.
Asian stories, artists and writers are at long last receiving due attention (and the aforementioned dancing feces would not have been out of place in the also absurd, Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All At Once”). “Again” is believed to be “the first professional musical production by a Hmong-American playwright,” and helps show just how welcome these stories are:
This could simply be called a funny and moving take on a devastatingly familiar topic. But whether or not cancer (or any potentially terminal illness) is something audience members have dealt with or are dealing with personally, the universality of connection, support, hope, perseverance, and the way we turn to the people we love most when we are most in need, is sure to resonate in a world that often feels overwhelming.
Fracturing relationships, continued sickness both physiological and societal, and what feels like a ridiculous number of ways to cope being sold to us at every turn, “Again,” if nothing else helps us to remember:
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
March 29 – April 16, 2023
Written by Katie Ka Vang
Music and lyrics by Melissa Li
Directed by Nana Dakin
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S 4th St, Minneapolis, MN 55454