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Fall Arts Guide 2019: Theater Mu ushers in a new era of Asian-American theater in the Twin Cities

Theater Mu had a hit on its hands last August with its hilarious 'Hot Asian Doctor Husband'.

Theater Mu had a hit on its hands last August with its hilarious 'Hot Asian Doctor Husband'. Rich Ryan

“There was a certain degree of skepticism,” remembers Rick Shiomi about the early years of Theater Mu, recalling even a “disbelief that Asian-Americans could be onstage and could draw an audience” in Minnesota.

Shiomi is one of the living legends of Twin Cities theater, one of the few artists to earn a Lifetime Achievement Ivey Award. He’s now on his second local company, Full Circle Theater, but he’s best known as the co-founder and longtime leader of Theater Mu, a company producing work “from the heart of the Asian American experience,” as its mission statement puts it.

This fall, Theater Mu is entering a new era as it welcomes artistic director Lily Tung Crystal. An acclaimed theater artist who founded San Francisco’s Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, Crystal will take the helm of an organization poised to continue its upward trajectory with bold new work. But she is also joining a community still reeling from the company’s 2018 split with Shiomi’s successor, Randy Reyes, who exited amid questions of conduct.

“The potential for her to come in and thrive is great,” says Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre, a peer organization that’s often partnered with Mu. “The potential and opportunity for her to bring a divided community together as she leads an institution is also great.”

Shiomi launched Theater Mu in 1992 with colleagues, including Dong-il Le, who was then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Though Shiomi was living in Toronto and traveling widely at the time, he agreed to join the effort to launch Mu in Minneapolis. “Gradually,” Shiomi says, “I ended up moving here and taking over the company.”

Mu became “an Asian-American theater presence that didn’t exist in the Twin Cities,” says Reuler, cultivating “a talent pool of writers, designers, directors, actors... Rick and Mu have created an Asian-American talent pool in all areas of theater that are the envy and desire of theaters everywhere.”

New artistic director Lily Tung Crystal

New artistic director Lily Tung Crystal image courtesy Theater Mu

As the organization grew, Shiomi saw a welcome rise in representation across the local scene. “Where once it was hard to find an Asian-American actor in the 1990s,” he says, “Asian-American actors are now seen on almost every stage in the Twin Cities.”

Mu stretched its legs by mounting and reimagining large-scale musical productions like Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and A Little Night Music. Shiomi said he’s particularly proud of the company’s take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, a comic opera that’s famous for its earworm melodies and infamous for its racial stereotypes.

“It was a critique of British society,” says Shiomi about Mikado’s original conception. “So I simply returned it to British society and removed all the pseudo-Japanese stereotypes involved in it. Then I discovered that it was quite a funny and wonderful theater piece.”

In 2013, Shiomi was succeeded as artistic director by Randy Reyes. Well-known and widely admired, Reyes spotlighted fresh talents. “Randy really initiated a major shift in programming,” says Shiomi, “from a mix of classical and contemporary works to a greater focus upon the most recent new plays being generated by younger playwrights.”

Many, then, were shocked when the company cut ties with Reyes in 2018, citing “conduct that did not reflect the culture we strive to achieve at Mu.” The organization didn’t get into specifics, but board chair Reginaldo Reyes (no relation) cited the #MeToo movement as context.

Looking back, Shiomi says that given Reyes’ long history in the company and the community, it was no surprise that there would be differing views over how the situation was handled. “There were naturally some friendships and affiliations that were important for some of the people.” At the same time, many felt there were “certain principles and leadership responsibilities” to heed.

While the situation was a shock to Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, an actor who’s frequently performed with Mu, he believes the community is moving forward. “The Asian-American artist population is a much closer-knit group than what I’ve seen in other places,” he says. “There is a feeling of family. People can be upset with each other and we can have conversations and work it out.”

Hopes are high for Crystal, says Shiomi. “The good news is that she’s coming from the outside. She’s in a position to start a healing process, saying it is of no purpose to have a divided community in an ongoing sense.”

Crystal has been a longtime admirer of the company. “As an Asian-American performer growing up, one always heard about Theater Mu and knew of the tremendous work it was doing.”

She wants to begin at Mu, “doing the work with the community collaboratively and with empathy,” she says. “My goal is to talk to the artists, the board, the staff... do one-on-one meetings with people, ask them what they love about Theater Mu, what the challenges are and have been, and how they envision moving forward artistically.”

Despite the past year’s leadership transition, Theater Mu has continued to produce strong work—including the recent world premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler’s hilarious Hot Asian Doctor Husband, and a co-production of The Brothers Paranormal with Penumbra Theatre. Mu and Penumbra are both members of the Twin Cities Theaters of Color Coalition.

Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy says that Shiomi called him two decades ago to offer support for the African-American company’s mission. “It was the first time anybody outside of my community stepped forward like that,” says Bellamy. “The old post-colonial game is to divide and conquer, and we’ve got the divider-in-chief right now. Rick broke that mold.”

Shiomi’s hope is that Theater Mu can continue to advance conversations that are specific, and essential, to Asian-American experiences. “The mainstream audience has really accepted the fact that they’re seeing Asian-Americans in nontraditional roles,” he says. “If we can get to a place where diversity becomes natural, we’ll have a much healthier arts community.”

“We’re definitely not just one thing,” says Sumangil about the increasingly varied Asian-American experiences being explored onstage. “It’s not just about, ‘I’m going to go to a Mu show and hear about the Asian-American perspective.’ There are multitudes within that.”