No sooner do we recognize the strength and achievement of the Asian American theater community, than someone raises the specter of “the withering away of the ethnic company.” That is, once there are plenty of Asian American theater artists in the Twin Cities, will we need a specifically Asian American company like Mu Performing Arts? Won’t companies like Mixed Blood and others serve the needs both for diversity in general and the Asian American community in particular?
Between the 1970s and 1990s, there was a tiny handful of Asian American actors working in the Twin Cities, inconsistently at best. Philip Gotanda had a McKnight fellowship in the 1980s but decided he couldn’t work on his play here because there were not enough Asian Americans to read his play. Even with companies such as Mixed Blood and others, there was no significant pool of Asian American theater artists. There were a couple of outstanding individual actors such as Randall Duk Kim and Jacqueline Kim but change doesn’t come from one or two individuals having singular success, it comes from a whole wave of talented artists coming into a community together.
Would all of these actors who have been helped by Mu have had the same kind of success as individuals if there were no Mu? Some perhaps, but it would have been hard for others. With Mu there is room for both individual success and the enduring impact of the group. We foster the growth of Asian American theater artists which fuels our own company and the field at large, so why should Mu wither away? (A parallel from the world of sports: Professionals point to the women’s golf school in Korea as the reason for the success of Korean players on the LPGA. Their success, coupled with other Asian and Asian American golfers has changed the face of the LPGA. Contrast this with Tiger Woods, who, despite his superstardom, has not caused a surge in African American players on the PGA tour.)
At Mu, we are in the early stages of this phenomenon. Such actors as Randy Reyes, Sun Mee Chomet, Eric Sharp, Kurt Kwan, Sara Ochs, Allen Malicsi, Eric Sumangil, Katie Bradley, Sheena Janson, Sherwin Resurreccion, Rose Le Tran and others are cast in productions at theaters around the Twin Cities. Mu hasn’t been the sole developer of their talents, but it has been a key supporter, and showcased them early in their careers.
Keep in mind, however, that being cast in mainstream theaters does not always mean artistic growth or opportunity; in some productions, Asian American actors still find old attitudes and racial stereotypes. And in some cases “yellow face” (casting whites in Asian roles) is still acceptable while “black face” is not.
Another problem with the question is that it assumes a binary reality: if one exists then the other cannot (or should not). If Asian American theater artists are flourishing in the general theater scene, is there a need for an Asian American company? The same question might be posed to Penumbra Theatre’s Lou Bellamy (not sure anyone would want to do that). Since it appears that African American theater artists are flourishing in the Twin Cities, do we need Penumbra? Several other local companies produce work by African American theater artists (Illusion Theater, Park Square Theatre, Mixed Blood Theater, Pillsbury House, for example); do we need a theater dedicated to the African American community and culture? I think yes. Penumbra serves as a kind of flagship for that flotilla of companies. I’ve always joked about trying to be “like Lou” but why can’t Mu be as successful as Penumbra, even while companies like Mixed Blood, Illusion, Children’s Theater Company or others produce Asian American works on occasion?
Mu plays a key role in the continuing development of new Asian American theater talent because it is part of our mandate and primary values. Other companies may do Asian American work on occasion, but their role is not to train and develop Asian American artists. So if the flow of Asian American actors were to somehow dry up, their answer to why they might use “yellow face” or not use Asian American actors in diverse casts, would simply be that there are no qualified Asian American actors available. That was the answer before Mu, that is the answer when “yellow face” is used now, and that would be the answer in the future if the pool of Asian American artists were diminished.
There are challenges in the broader vision of Mu. When an actor has the opportunity to work at a larger company, it is hard for them to stay with a Mu production. But that happens to every small theater. That’s why we at Mu are so intent upon developing more talent, so when an actor gets the chance to jump up, we have someone in the wings waiting for their opportunity. Losing singular talented actors to bigger theaters is hard, but in the broader scheme of things, more Asian American actors working on more stages in the Twin Cities is good for everyone.
Asian American actors in the Twin Cities were a rarity twenty years ago, but today they are an emerging and dynamic component of the larger theater community. Mu has been a key player in that change and will continue to play a significant role in fueling the ongoing vitality and diversity of the Twin Cities theater community.
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.