Mu Performing Arts gives local Asian American actors a voice
It was the day after our school’s big musical auditions for “Legally Blonde.” There was talk of intense competition for the lead roles, and with it, the typical rumors of not-so favorable picks.
As my friend and I shove our way through the overcrowded and boisterous hallway, we begin to discuss potential roles.
“I’m just hoping to get in,” I say with a nervous smile. “There are so many good freshmen this year – I’m scared they’ll take all the parts!”
“Same here,” my friend replies. “Hey, isn’t there some nerd character? Kate? You’re Asian, you could totally play her!”
I laugh. I don’t correct her, nor do I try to defend myself.
Later, as I sat in my math class, I began to wish I hadn’t brushed off my friend’s comment so easily.
The karate masters. The nerds. The foreigners. All are characters we often see Asian Americans playing in our day-to-day lives, whether they are onstage or on-camera.
However, these are frequently the only characters we see Asian Americans playing. While the lack of opportunities for Asian American performing artists continues to be a challenge, one group in Minnesota is trying to do something about it.
In 1991, Japanese-Canadian playwright Rick Shiomi was approached by a graduate student from the University of Minnesota for help to begin an Asian American theater company. Despite the few Asian American performing artists at the time, the theater was up and running by 1992.
Mu Performing Arts — originally known as Theater Mu — was the first, and remains the only, all-Asian American performing arts company in Minnesota. It gave a voice to the rarely recognized Asian Americans, and an opportunity for them to perform and hone their talents when few theaters would accept them.
Back in the late ‘90s, Asian American artists weren’t typically seen as lead material or even as ensemble material. One of the main reasons, Shiomi said, was a lack of precedent for successful Asian American actors and actresses.
“Individual artists like that (Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee) are often perceived by the community as exceptions. Like, Asian Americans can’t really act, but one or two of them are exceptionally talented (so) we’ll give them the opportunity. There’s no sense of larger acceptance of that general talent base,” said Shiomi, Mu’s former artistic director and a freelance director in the Twin Cities.
Not having a precedent means that there won’t be enough representation of Asian Americans in the performing arts, especially on TV.
Case in point: Earlier this year, an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” aired under the name “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra.” It sounded harmless, the title playing off a silly recollection of main character Barney Stinson getting slapped — a running gag on the show.
However, the show received a steady stream of online backlash for perpetuating Asian stereotypes — and worst of all, “yellowface.” Yellowface refers to the practice, originated by early 20th century filmmakers, of changing a non-Asian actor to look like a stereotypical Asian. The practice is identical to “blackface,” where white actors would use makeup to look black.
Shiomi believes that a lack of representation and sensitivity at the production level is the main reason why yellowface remains somewhat accepted.
“They create (that image) because in their minds, they think that’s what the audiences want. And that’s what they think people will sell … suddenly 500 million dollars means more to them than whether this character’s a stereotype or not,” he said.
Creating a solution to these challenges also had its own roadblocks. When it started, Mu attracted few Asian American actors and actresses — as there were few in Minnesota to begin with. The youth that Mu did attract, Shiomi said, also had little to no training to do full-scale theater productions.
Mu would face 10 long years of developing talent to begin “laying the foundations of the company.”
“It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I felt like we really started to have a more established company, that then (we could do) much more challenging, much larger-type productions,” Shiomi said.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Over the years, Mu has played a dual role of talent developer and opportunity producer, Shiomi said. Due to the low number of trained Asian actors and actresses to begin with, Mu began the “New Eyes Festival” — a workshop that gave young Asian American artists the opportunity to perform and develop their skills.
“What Mu has done is actually developed that precedent, developed that kind of, ‘Here’s a pool of people, not just one exceptionally talented person. Here’s a pool of people that have this talent, who are creative as directors, as actors, as playwrights.’ And I think that’s sort of changing the landscape,” Shiomi said.
Mu has also had an impact beyond the Twin Cities. Now recognized as a “vital center of Asian American theater activity” by journalists and policymakers, Mu co-hosted the 2nd National Asian American Theater Conference in June 2008. Four years later, Shomi earned the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement, a prestigious honor in Twin Cities theater.
INTO THE FUTURE
The foundation built by Mu has created hope for young Asian American actors. Naomi Ko, a 23-year-old Korean-American actor and writer based in Minneapolis, is accustomed to the racism found in theater, both onstage and on-screen. When she was younger, Ko said that her theater experience — and being cast as “grotesque characters” like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” — in middle school and high school left her jaded.
“I think Asian American actors really have to ask their directors, before they’re auditioning, exactly how they see their character,” Ko said. “And I think that, when I was younger, I didn’t do that. I never asked the reason why my directors in middle school and high school would cast me as those types of roles.”
Ko encourages Asian American actors and actresses of all levels to ask their directors how their character is going to be portrayed, and how their race impacts it. That’s especially true of typecasting.
“It’s hard, of course, to break beyond types,” Ko said. “I’ve been very, very selective of the types of roles I audition for, the types of productions I’m in. Because I refuse, 100 percent, to play any kind of ‘type.’ I can’t sacrifice that. I can’t do that.”
Ko gained awareness of Theater Mu while taking an Asian American Literature and Drama class class at the University of Minnesota. She gives credit to her (favorite) teacher, Josephine Lee, who first exposed the students to Mu.
“I think without Mu I couldn’t have met the kind of people I’ve met today,” Ko said. “Mu is very responsible for the career I have right now.”
Making an impact on each individual that happens upon Mu is a goal that the new artistic director, Randy Reyes, hopes to carry into the future.
“I’d love for us to be a beacon, like a home base for all Asian American theater artists and taiko (Japanese percussion) artists to come here,” Reyes said. “Not only to work professionally, but to do a training program to bring in Asian American artists from all over the nation … and continue to feature Asian American playwrights and plays, to do it in a way that people are excited about the art itself, and not just about the social justice issues.”
As a young Asian American actress, I am honored and privileged to have worked with Mu on multiple occasions. In fact, I recently finished a show at Stages Theatre Company in collaboration with Mu.
“Starry River of the Sky” takes traditional Chinese folktales and brings them to stunning, vivid life. The show opens the audience’s eyes to the beauty and possibilities found within the Asian culture.
Mu has given me so many opportunities to surround myself with a culture that I knew little about. Being an Asian American actor means taking on the weight of knowing that it is up to people like me to pave the way for generations to come.
Every time I perform this show, I’m reminded of this incredible race I am a part of and the Asian culture that I proudly embrace.