One of the biggest reasons I came to the Twin Cities for college is the vibrant theater scene. West Bank alone is home to The Southern Theater, Theatre in the Round and Mixed Blood Theatre Company. In the long list of amazing companies here, there’s one I’m just getting to know that I hope has been written about many times over: Theater Mu.
A week ago, Randy Reyes, artistic director of Theater Mu, came in to speak with one of my theater classes. I was struck by the singularity of the work that Mu is making, namely art “from the heart of the Asian American experience.” Theater Mu was founded in 1992, when Asian American theater didn’t really exist in the Twin Cities. The company first formed Mu Daiko, a taiko drumming ensemble, and renamed itself Mu Performing Arts to reflect their broad artistic base of work. Now back to being called Theater Mu, the company is still Minnesota’s only pan-Asian performing arts organization, and is actually one of the biggest Asian American performing arts companies in the United States.
The artistic director, Randy, spoke on the subject of selecting and curating the pieces that will make up a season at Theater Mu. Mu is dedicated to producing new works from the perspective of the Asian American experience, but they’ve also put on shows ranging from Shakespeare to Little Shop of Horrors — with an all Asian cast. Their only twist or radical shift was performing those pieces with an all Asian cast, no justification necessary.
This got me thinking about what counts as theater with a social justice message or mission. For Mu, social justice is producing pieces by voices not often given the chance to be heard. That’s radical. But so is performing Romeo and Juliet with all Asian performers, unabashedly, without any convoluted or contrived reason why you’re seeing Asian actors.
Over the summer, I saw a new show at The Second City called She the People. It was written and performed by female performers, meant to unapologetically reflect the female perspective onstage. It sounded right up my alley. But I left the show feeling a bit disappointed. The sketches were fun, but stuck to the topics that audiences already associate with female comedy — drinking wine and righteous groups of mommies. I would have loved to see something branded as super female-driven and produced, but that still showed women as people, with a wide range of experiences. It would be radical in the fact that it put women in focus as human beings, going about their lives. Boring stuff. “Hey, how are you?” “Alright. You?” The range of female experience can mean many things.
At Theater Mu, that range might include radical theater that shows Asian actors detailing what it’s like to walk in their specific skin, whether that means the most benign or most politicized stuff. It is radical Asian theater that has its actors expressing their day to day lives and identity, or singing along to Little Shop of Horrors without explanation.