Asian American theater artists in Minnesota? How did this happen? In New York or LA, San Francisco or Seattle? Sure. But here in the Twin Cities? (I almost feel like breaking into a song from Music Man!) How did it happen that we have had such a dynamic wave of them over the past five years or so?
Mu Performing Arts was born in 1992, when Dong-il Lee, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota approached me to start an Asian American theater company here. I was only visiting the Twin Cities (or so I thought), but agreed to help him as best I could. Well, that old adage seems to have proven true, “If you build it, they will come.” Asian Americans were drawn to the company, and 20 years later they have changed the landscape of the Twin Cities and the national Asian American theater community.
Let me mention just three of the artist-leaders Mu has supported. In one of our first company meetings, a recent college graduate named Paul Juhn told us he had never acted but thought he wanted to try it. We cast him. During rehearsals for our first production, Paul was not doing very well, and we considered not having him in the performance. But we decided it would not be right to fire him from his first chance at acting, so we let him play his part. Paul demonstrated that rare quality of simply blossoming on stage: He was terrific. Audiences connected with him, and we realized he was a performer. Over the next two years he played many leads for us. He went on to the prestigious MFA program at UC San Diego, and from there to New York. He spent several years not being able to get arrested (as they say), but stayed with it and has become one of the most successful Asian American actors in NYC. We can’t take credit for all his success, but it’s a reflection of how Mu gave opportunities to Asian Americans at the grassroots level.
Jennifer Weir came to the Twin Cities from Minot, North Dakota. I remember her clicking her heels with her trademark enthusiasm and intelligence. She started as an actor but became both a taiko artist (a player and composer) and director, through her work with Mu. I remember her struggling with her first efforts at directing, but with her acute intelligence, she learned quickly and her last two productions as a director were outstanding (Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee and The Little Shop of Horrors). As a taiko performer she has tremendous energy and appeal, just emanating the joy of taiko on stage. Jen truly grew up as a Mu artist and is now a member of Mu’s Core Artistic Group.
And finally there is the saga of Randy Reyes, who I consider “the busiest man in show business” for our people. I saw him in a performance of Stags and Hens when he was in the Guthrie Experience program in the 1990s. I thought he was okay for a young actor. He was based in New York back then, and we never really connected. When I saw him in the Guthrie’s Comedy of Errors, he was brilliant as both of the servants. In 2005, Randy talked to me about moving to the Twin Cities and wanting to find an artistic home in an Asian American company. He offered to run an actor training workshop for free just to show me his work. When I saw what he was able to accomplish with our actors, I knew he had talent beyond his own acting. When the opportunity to produce Circle Around the Island by Marcus Quiniones at the Dowling Studio came up, I thought of Randy, and on pure intuition asked him to direct it. Little did I know that he hadn’t directed a professional production before, but the gamble paid off. Randy is a mainstay at Mu, a regular actor about town and a rising director in the Twin Cities. He speaks of Mu as his artistic home and is a member of the Core Artistic Group.
We did build it and they did come, in surprising numbers and with so much talent: Sun Mee Chomet, Kurt Kwan, Sara Ochs, Sherwin Resurreccion, Eric Sharp, Sheena Janson and many more. In fact there is another whole wave of young Asian American artists coming up behind them, like Maxwell Thao, Isabella and Francesca Dawis, Gaosong Vang and others. And there are promising playwrights like Katie Vang, Katie Hae Leo and Sun Mee Chomet.
Mu has been rewarded for its commitment to developing these talented artists, with a recent string of six out of seven productions making “best of” lists in the major local media. But these artists are also working all over the theater community here, whether it’s Asian American specific or not, because they bring so much talent and experience to the table. I believe the recent success of Asian American theater artists here is built upon twenty years of focused development by Mu. I hope it’s only the beginning of an enduring run. Graydon Royce has written that we may one day look back upon this time as the “golden era” of Mu, but I believe there are in fact even better days ahead.
An accomplished playwright, director, and performer, Rick Shiomi is co-founder and artistic director of Mu Performing Arts. Mu is active in commissioning and developing new work, and in 2011 published the anthology Asian American Plays for a New Generation with Temple University Press.