The Minneapolis theatres exploring Asian American life in the Midwest, one scene at a time.
By Julia Shiota
In the fall of 2011, I saw my first contemporary play performed in the Mixed Blood Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. A thick layer of snow already covered the street a full two weeks before Halloween as a group of us ducked into the small theater space, peeling off layers of snow gear that we carefully piled onto the backs of our seats, though it all ended up on the slushy floor anyway. The performance was Four Destinies by Katie Hae Leo, performed by Theater Mu and assigned by our professor as part of an Asian American literature course, the first of its kind offered at the small liberal arts college I attended. It was also the first play I had ever seen that focused on Asian American identity—in fact, the first I’d seen featuring Asian American actors at all.
Theater Mu began in 1992, stemming from the imagination of Dong-il Lee, a Korean director, performer, and PhD student at the University of Minnesota, who formed the organization with co-founders Rick Shiomi, Martha Johnson, and Diane Espaldon. Lee left a year after to teach on the West coast, and Shiomi stepped in as the new artistic director. Shiomi, who hailed from Canada, was fairly new to the area and didn’t yet know any actors, so he took a grassroots approach, seeking out locals to fill out his casts. The oral history of Theater Mu tells of Shiomi going into Chinese restaurants, asking if anyone wanted to act in a play, regardless of whether or not they had any acting experience. Eventually, under Shiomi’s direction, Mu became the second-largest Asian American arts organization in the United States.
The world of theatre is, generally speaking, very white. But for decades, there has been a vibrant theatre community in Minnesota specifically producing and sharing the stories of minority groups, particularly the stories of Asian American life, in the Midwest. While more well-known venues like the Guthrie engage in “color-blind” casting as a means of promoting diversity, other theatres—like Theater Mu—are thinking through what meaningful Asian American representation actually entails.
Mu’s production history brims with the classics of Asian American theater, like the work of David Henry Hwang, famous for his 1980 Obie Award winning FOB (“Fresh Off the Boat”), which tackles conflicts arising between new immigrants and more established Asian Americans. But alongside newer Asian American classics, Mu also produced Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and even Steven Sondheim musicals, such as A Little Night Music and Into the Woods, using all-Asian casts. Meghan Kreidler, an actor who has performed with Mu over the years, recalled her experience starting out in the Minneapolis-St. Paul theater scene. Kreidler is half-Korean and had her training in classical theatre, which means—she said with a rueful smile—that most of the roles were historically for white actors. Because of that, her early-career exposure to a broader range of roles through Mu was instrumental. “Not only did they provide me with my first opportunities to act professionally,” she told me, “they exposed me to my identity in a way that I had never engaged with it before.”
Kreidler recounted her experience playing the Countess Charlotte Malcom in the 2014 production of A Little Night Music. She had been in her early twenties at the time, which is younger than how the role is typically cast. “It’s really cool when you’re given an opportunity to stretch that way, when you’re not typecast.” Kreidler said, looking back on the role. “Because then your imagination about what you can be, and the possibility of being something more than just one small thing, it just bursts wide open.”
Mu’s mission statement explains its name as “the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.” The Chinese character in question is 巫—meaning shaman—while the Korean word for shaman is mudang. But back in the hushed quiet of the theatre in 2011, my Japanese-trained ears misheard the name as a homonym: mu, 無, as in nothing, naught, zero. This is the same character we use in words like 無理 (impossible, unnatural, immoderate) or 無くなる (for something to go missing, for something to be reduced to zero). I remember thinking the name was prescient, like a bit of subtle, yet cutting satire I was privy to.
The joke among many non-white citizens of the Midwest is how often the region is papered over in white by media, how often people of color are overlooked in favor of the “Heartland” narrative of a white, rural, conservative Midwest. I imagine how humanity will recreate this imagined Midwest in the future, piecing together an image based on haphazard scraps of movies, television, and discarded artifacts that might manage to survive the climate crisis. I wonder if they, too, will fall for the conclusion that no people of color existed in these spaces.
It’s hard not to think this way when the mythology of the Midwest tends to swallow non-white identities. Shiomi himself, for all the passion he put into Theater Mu over the course of his decades-long tenure as artistic director, was initially skeptical of the possibility for an Asian American theater troupe in Minnesota. In a piece for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he writes, “From my early visits to the Twin Cities, I had wondered whether it would even be possible for such a company to exist, but in spite of my misgivings, I agreed to help.” There is a part of me that recoils slightly when I read this because, although Shiomi is reflecting on the Twin Cities of the 90s, this same sentiment lingers today.
But like most things, the character 無 can’t fully be reduced to simple nothingness, either. It is, after all, the same character that is used in 無限, infinity. And while there is always something of a void embedded within the concept of infinity, there is also something else—endless possibility.
It’s this sense of endless possibility that Leah Nanako Winkler, award-winning playwright and writer for film and television, conjures up through her work. Mu produced Winkler’s award-winning play Two Mile Hollow in 2018, and, in 2019, commissioned and performed a second play, Hot Asian Doctor Husband. Her work delights in presenting Asian American and mixed-race characters in settings where they’re not expected to be. “I really love the idea of showing people that there are Asian Americans in red states or even in the Midwest more broadly. People would never guess that one of the biggest Asian American organizations exists in Minneapolis.”
Winkler can speak directly to the misconceptions around the demographics of these regions—she lived in Kentucky after moving from Kamamura, Japan as a child. When people ask her about that move from Japan to the United States, they inevitably ask about her culture shock, about how different Kentucky must have been from Kamakura. But she grew up in a Japanese community linked to the large Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. The bigger culture shock for her was moving from Kentucky to New York City. “I was used to being the whitest person in my Japanese school,” she says, shaking her head with a bemused laugh, “And then all of a sudden, I’m the only person of color in this college [theater] program I enrolled in.”
I first came across Winkler’s writing through her play God Said This, which centers on a mixed-race family in Kentucky as they attempt to navigate the cancer battle of their matriarch, Masako. Winkler is assertive about addressing how Asian American identity is framed in the play; after the list of characters at the front of the book, the playwright’s note explicitly states: “James, Masako, Hiro, and Sophie are meant to be a mixed-race family, and remember that Kentuckian doesn’t always mean white.”
Like Minnesota, states in that porous space that encompasses the Rust Belt and the Midwest end up depicted as nearly completely white with no second thought. And whatever Asian American characters manage to wiggle their way in are one-note, a sort of window dressing for the main white characters. In God Said This, the Japaneseness of the family is front and center—but Masako and her two biracial daughters, Hiro and Sophie, are given space to be Japanese in different ways. None of them are stereotypes; they are messy, earnest, and complicated, while also being Japanese.
When I first read the play, I cried. And when I later tried to give a brief synopsis to friends, I burst into tears again. As someone who is mixed race, it’s rare to see a story like mine told at all, let alone in an immersive, incisive way. All I could stammer as I reached for a tissue was: I just have never seen myself depicted this way before.
I expressed this sentiment to Winkler, who said the play was critically panned as simply another “cancer play.” In his review of the 2019 Off-Broadway performance, New York Times theater critic Jesse Green praises the work as a whole, but notes at one point that “the play, working so diligently to unpack ethnic and social stereotypes, falls right into the theatrical kind. This is the familiar ‘family with too much crazy going on’ variety, a very popular dramatic cliché.”
I can appreciate Green’s position, but, as I scrolled through the review, my mind wandered back to my first read-through of the play—that gut-wrenching feeling, as if a pair of eyes had suddenly turned on me with an unexpectedly encompassing gaze. It was a sense of understanding I had never felt emanating from a text before. On the most basic level, God Said This is the first time I came across my own name, Shiota, in a story. When those six familiar letters leapt from the page, I felt my heart stop—this simple moment of recognition, encountering a character who has your name, has never happened to me before. How can we speak of dramatic clichés when the bar for representation is this low?
“Don’t we also deserve great cancer plays?” Winkler’s voice rang in our conversation with the same conviction that threads through her work. “Don’t we also deserve those types of narratives that have depicted white people for years? I’ve never seen one with a specifically Japanese matriarch before, which is why I wanted to put it out there.”
There is an argument for skepticism here. How much can theater truly change about the world? As with other debates around the power of the arts, this skepticism is warranted. Yet I can’t shake that feeling of sitting in the Mixed Blood theater in 2011, seeing a nuanced story of Asian American identity acted out on stage. And I can’t shake how I felt a few months ago holding Winkler’s play in my hand, seeing so much of myself unexpectedly reflected back. There is something tangible here, in the stories being told through Mu, Mixed Blood Theatre, and Penumbra Theatre that I hope leaks into the mainstream world of film and television.
One of the hallmarks of Mu’s history is its focus on producing and commissioning work from up-and-coming playwrights who are Asian American themselves, thus offering a wellspring of new roles and stories for actors like Kreidler to delve into. Kreidler herself has starred in some of these newer plays, like Jessica Huang’s Purple Cloud and Winkler’s Hot Asian Doctor Husband. Both plays explore mixed-race identity, taking on the push and pull of acculturation in ways that still, even today, remain unexplored in other mainstream media.
When I heard Kreidler describe how much she gained from these experiences, both personally and professionally, I felt a resonance. In page after page of Mu’s production history—often in collaboration with Mixed-Blood Theater—I see how many of the stories I had hoped to see in film and television are already being summoned into reality on the stage.
As we started winding down our conversation, Kreider pointed out another key element of Mu’s impact, both regionally and nationally. “The reason why there aren’t a lot of Asian people doing theater is because if you don’t see yourself reflected in it, then you don’t feel like it’s a place that you belong,” she said. “So you don’t end up pursuing it.” By cultivating artists to create and perform these stories, Mu creates a chain reaction. As Kreidler said, “It’s going to help open up more doors and possibilities for there to be more authentic casting for things within Asian American theater.”
Many of the playwrights who worked with these Minnesota theater companies are now working in Hollywood, writing roles made specifically for Asian American actors. But while there has been more representation across media, it’s still slim pickings. Winkler herself is working on developing some of her work for film, bringing the strength of her voice along with her and, in the process, opening doors for other Asian and biracial actors to find theirs.
It is, in many ways, like watching someone conjure up something out of almost nothing. But when the conjuration is done right, when you are able to see yourself depicted in new ways by real, living human beings on a stage, there is a type of magic at play. Having felt the electric sensation of being seen in this way—of touching this magic, if only briefly—it’s impossible to forget. ■
Julia Shiota is a writer and editor living in Minnesota. Her fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in Catapult, Poets & Writers, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
Cover image: rehearsal of the Mixed Blood Theater production The House of the Spirits. Photo by David Brewster/Star Tribune via Getty Images.
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