OTTUMWA — The public often thinks of farmers as white males of European ancestry living in isolated rural areas. And the public often thinks of immigrants as those who have slipped into the United States to take advantage of assistance programs. “Vang,” a play about recent immigrant farmers, blows both of those stereotypes and opens discussion about how farming is done in the United States and how immigrants have become part of the larger agricultural picture.
“Vang” will be performed on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in St. John Auditorium on the Ottumwa campus of Indian Hills Community College. The performance is sponsored by the IHCC Department of Performing and Visual Arts and is free to the public. The production is directed by Iowa State University theatre department professor Matt Foss who also stars in the show with award-winning actor Annie Feenstra.
Poet Laureate of Iowa Mary Swander, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Dennis Chamberlin and Foss, an ACT Kennedy Center award-winner, collaborated to create this drama called “Vang,” which means “garden” or “farm” in Hmong. Swander and Chamberlin documented recent Iowa immigrant farmers and Swander wound their words together to form a verbatim play that captures the immigrants’ journeys to the U.S. Hmong, Mexican, Sudanese and Dutch immigrants all speak of their struggles, survival skills and their intense desire to return to the land. Chamberlin took stunning photos of the immigrants in their greenhouses, farms and dairy barns. Foss added his theatrical brilliance to the production, bringing the story to life on the stage. Michael Ching, past executive director of the Memphis opera, composed music to underscore the play’s message.
The immigrant farmers in this production came from four continents, speaking over six different languages, with multiple experiences of the world. In their own ways, they adjusted to life in America. Some of these immigrants came to the U.S. as refugees from war-torn parts of the world. Others came fleeing poverty in their homelands. Still others came with money, invited to join agri-business ventures. Many of these immigrants landed in the U.S. and took the only jobs they could find — in meat-packing plants and auto repair shops. But all of these immigrants had grown up on farms and wanted to once again assume the livelihood that they had known in the past, the work that had formed the foundation of their cultural roots.
The entire play runs an hour and has two actors, male and female, who take on the parts of all eight immigrants. The play was written with a grant from the Iowa State University Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. Swander, Chamberlin and Foss hope to tour the play not only throughout Iowa, but across the U.S. and to Europe.