The holiday season is special. It’s a time for gathering with friends and family; for being grateful for all of life’s gifts; for taking time to reflect on the year that was, and look ahead to the one that will be. For the Hmong community, and specifically in Wisconsin, it’s all of those things and more: this period ushers in the new year, and is traditionally hallmarked by celebrating the recent harvest and honoring ancestral connections.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, November 22, and in observance of this important time in the Hmong calendar, 34 East High scholars in ESL teacher and advisor May Choua Thao’s Southeast Asian language for native speakers classes put on five hour-long performances. The three-phase program honored Hmong customs, values, and traditions—an annual practice established in the school’s Forum space in 2006, and continued in the Margaret Williams Theatre ever since.
We aim to promote the Hmong language and Hmong literacy. We also give the students an opportunity to shine. When they’re in a big school like this, they can sometimes feel invisible, or like they don’t have a voice, and this event provides them a literal stage and spotlight. And finally, and maybe most importantly, we strive to educate both students and staff about what it means to be Hmong.
May Choua Thao
As has been the case with many events across the district, this year is the first post-COVID iteration of the performances. Although they have been staged for more than 15 years, it was the first time any of the 2022 scholars had participated, with most having no prior experience with theatre production or the performing arts. Their willingness to step outside their collective comfort zone to share insight into their heritage was equal parts inspiring and informative. The scholars performed for audiences primarily comprised fellow East scholars and teachers, but also included the performers’ families, as well as classes from Emerson and Lincoln elementary schools, and Black Hawk and Sherman middle schools.
The first phase, or act, of the show focused on the after-harvest period, which is akin to Thanksgiving, and saw scholars acting out skits centered on cultivating crops, then preparing and sharing a Hmong meal. The second phase focused on spiritual/cultural practices, specifically the act of “soul-calling,” and featured a student-artist playing the qeej, a ceremonially important Hmong instrument. The third phase emphasized communal celebration, and featured a show of Hmong fashions commonly found in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and the U.S, as well as scholars playing pov pob, a Hmong ball-tossing game.
According to Thao, the annual production has several key goals. “We aim to promote the Hmong language and Hmong literacy,” she said. “Because one’s ability to speak and read the language only serves to better connect them to the culture. We also give the students an opportunity to shine. When they’re in a big school like this, they can sometimes feel invisible, or like they don’t have a voice, and this event provides them a literal stage and spotlight. And finally, and maybe most importantly, we strive to educate both students and staff about what it means to be Hmong.”
In the U.S., Hmong New Year is less about a specific day than a season; it’s guided by weather and, for that reason, is celebrated at different times in different regions, typically ranging from October through December. The East High celebration, along with others in the Madison area, has historically taken place in November. It’s one of two significant Hmong-focused events that Thao and her classes undertake; the second is a Hmong literacy event that occurs in March, culminating in the compilation of a book composed of student-penned stories.
Similar to previous years, all aspects of the show were scripted, sourced, and choreographed entirely by Thao and the scholars in her classes—they developed the program, brought in traditional clothing and instruments, wrote and paced out the story, and even coordinated the seating arrangements together, as a group. The entire experience is one that’s served to bond them over the course of the semester, thus far.
“For me, the most rewarding part of this endeavor is seeing the pride in the scholars’ faces,” said Thao. “Living here, they’ve become Americanized—some don’t speak the language, and they’re not aware of many important aspects of Hmong culture. When you allow them to perform and tell a story like this to their teachers and classmates, it boosts their self-esteem and brings them happiness, and also draws them closer to their culture, each other, and their friends.”