Laos in the House started as a poem I had written about my cultural identity. As part of the spoken word group Yellow Rage, I got to perform it all across the country, and along the way met a handful of Lao American artists, including writer Bryan Thao Worra (who also had a poem called "Laos in the House", unbeknownst to either of us). What I learned from these talented folks whom I now consider my friends, was that as Lao American artists we had a common, collective yearning to see a visible Lao American presence, not just in the audiences of our shows but within the arts community itself.
As I researched more into the history of Lao Americans, I was disappointed that it was not readily available or accessible despite the vast index of the internet, and found that it was openly discussed among the Lao community itself, Philly in particular. Relentless to learn about this part of my history that even my own parents had never shared, I watched the autobiographical film Nerakhoon by Thavisouk Prasavath and discovered the truth about the U.S. Secret War in Laos, which turned many Laotians into refugees. From there, I found Channapha and her work with Legacies of War, where I was disheartened to learned that the remnants of the cluster bombs dropped in Laos during that time had not exploded and were in fact still embedded in the land, continuing to threaten Laotians living there today. And yet despite this horrible discovery, I also learned that the bombings had ended indirectly as a result of villagers who drew illustrations of their experiences to a U.S. educational advisor, Fred Branfman, who later testified to Congress.
As an artist and a writer, I often prefer to perform my poetry rather than having it read, and through my work which is often based on a personal narrative, I understood that telling my story was a way to share my history. Allowing those who want to share their story do it in the way they want it to be heard, that was the inspiration to start this project. It would acknowledge the work of Lao American artists sharing their owns narratives and give voice on behalf of those who cannot do so for themselves, in hopes of healing the scars of war and beginning the process of regular intercultural, intergenerational exchanges.
Hoping to bring that energy to Philadelphia, I applied for a Knight Foundation Challenge Arts Grant - and was awarded $25K. The project, titled "Laos In The House" is an initiative to engage the Lao American community through writing, performance and visual arts to promote storytelling as a healing medium for war refugees whose upbringings did not prioritize art education. This community-based work will be presented with national artists for the very first time in Philadelphia in May 2015.
Please, take off your shoes and join us.
--Catzie Vilayphonh, Laos In The House Creative Director