Poet Laureate of Iowa Mary Swander, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Dennis Chamberlin, and Kennedy Center award-winner Matt Foss collaborated to create a drama called Vang (meaning “garden” or “farm” in Hmong). Swander and Chamberlin documented recent Iowa immigrant farmers. 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.
For any sensitive soul, it is not possible to be a witness to this play and not to be changed by it, not be moved by the gut-wrenching experiences of these recent refugees and immigrants. We applaud their ability to survive the horrific and find solace in their farms and gardens. — Dr. Judith A. Conlin, Executive Director of Iowa International Center
A Hmong family who fled Communist bullets and wild tigers through the jungle of Laos and across the Mekong River to the refugee camp in Thailand. A Sudanese man who was thrown into prison in Ethiopia for helping the Lost Boys and was left gasping for air through a crack under the door. A Mexican woman who taught herself English by looking up the meaning of the profane words that were hurled at her at her first job in a meat packing plant. A Dutch boy, dressed as a cowboy, who put the flag of the Netherlands through the paper shredder and declared, “I am an American.” These are some of the characters brought to life in Vang, a drama about recent immigrant farmers.
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 meatpacking 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 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 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.
The entire play runs an hour and has two actors, male and female, who take on the parts of all 8 immigrants. The play calls for a spare stage with simple movement and props. Dennis Chamberlin’s photos of the immigrants are projected on the walls of the theatre and bring both artistic grace and reality to the performance.