Audrey Ingram
Audrey Ingram
November 29, 2013


Mary Swander's new work, "Vang," tackles complex issues with simple prose. In a word, it is beautiful.

It follows the journeys of four immigrant families from Vietnam, Sudan, Mexico and the Netherlands to the agricultural heartland of Iowa.

An undercurrent of war and violence pulls the stories of the Asian, African and Central American families, drawing to the forefront religious and ethnic persecution and the inevitability of catching civilians in the crossfire. But at its core, the play is not one of sadness and death, but one of hope and new life, grown from seeds in fertile Midwestern soil.

The play cuts across stereotypes - of class, of ethnicity, of agriculture.

In a region that hails ethanol and agrichemical corporations, this play challenges the typical view of agriculture as an industry, pulling the focus back to the local farmers markets and offering the audience an opportunity to get back to their roots.

In a similar vein, the play directly challenges the prevailing stereotypes of immigrants held by large swaths of the U.S. population.

The story of the Dutch, recruited to the U.S. for their dairy farm, contrasts sharply with the stories of the Mexican, Hmong and Sudanese families. Jan, the Dutch women, comments that it is not her Mexican workers that are trouble, stating that in a country where it is possible to achieve anything through hard work, some Americans apparently "don't to want to achieve anything."

Meanwhile, it is the Mexican immigrants, looked down on by so many, who are caring for our war heroes, reverently esteemed by those same individuals. It is simultaneously a heartbreaking contradiction and a beautiful expression of humanity. It is a sad reality that these heroes we hail for securing our freedom are discarded when they return home; yet it is almost fitting that these heroes are given a home by those who sought U.S. citizenship specifically because of these freedoms, and are therefore possibly more disposed to fully appreciate them.

The question that remains, then, is why we show so much animosity to these individuals who travel to our country for the ideals it was founded on.

Jan questions this in the play as well. "I am an immigrant, too," she explains.

As were nearly all of our ancestors, though, we seem to like to forget that. This country was founded on diversity, individuals who traveled from dozens of countries to come here because this was a land of opportunity and freedom. It didn't matter where you came from or what class you were in - the playing field was level here, hard work paid off, people could say what they wanted, were allowed to question their politicians.

Today, individuals across the world still believe America is a land of opportunity and hope. Despite the widespread corruption of politicians and corporations and the crimes they commit across the globe in the name of power and profits, and a strong current of hate for "outsiders," the poor, tired, huddled masses of the world still believe America is the place to be free. Shouldn't we welcome them with open arms?

But it was not Swander's intention to make any such claim. She writes not with the fervor of an advocate, but with the simple desire to record these stories. She avoids politics, allowing the stories to speak for themselves, and enabling each person in the audience to draw their own interpretation, approaching the play's content from their own background.

This simplicity is one of the things that makes the play so powerful. It does not level accusations or dictate a moral position. It simply tells stories, because we can learn from each other's stories. In the words of Swander, we simply have to "learn how to listen."

A powerful concept, listening. It requires us to question the beliefs we hold, which can be scary and challenging as well. More often than not, we discover that we are not so different from one another.

This concept is another overwhelming theme of the play. While the reception of the various immigrant families may have been different, the conflicting emotions they felt in their new country was the same. A sense of being in between, neither a part of their old country or their new. A deep, profound sense of loneliness. A struggle to distance themselves from past pain.

But none of these emotions is restricted to immigrants. Everyone in their life has at some point felt in between - whether it be that final summer after high school, a move to a new job, the end of a relationship. We all have pain in our past that strengthened us, but isn't something we care to address in conversation. We all face things that change us, in ways only we can understand, a reality that makes us feel, even if only for a moment, incredibly alone.

But we also heal. We move on. We share stories. We learn. We nurture. We grow, much like the vegetables planted by the immigrant farmers in Swander's play.

Swander is brilliant in her position as storyteller. She weaves together the stories, selecting poignant statements of beauty and grief, all the more powerful for being true verbatim lines, drawn from interviews, not from fiction. Dennis Chamberlin's photos are breathtaking, capturing the joy of the gardeners in soft light. Matt Foss' stage direction perfectly complements the simplicity of the play, able to be performed in the grandest theater or the smallest basement, with little more than a handful of scarves as props.

But don't take my word for it. See this play for yourself. Draw what conclusions you may.