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Theater Mu

Production photo from Four Destinies, performed by Mu Theater during its 2011–2012 season. Written by Katie Hae Leo, directed by Suzy Messerole, and staged, in its world premiere, at Mixed Blood Theater. Pictured are (left to right): Maria Kelly, Nicholas Freeman, Katie Bradley, and Sara Ochs. Photograph by Michal Daniel.

Theater Mu is Minnesota’s first professional Asian American theater company. Since its founding in 1992, it has impacted both local and national theater landscapes, helping to create a pan-Asian community of artists and presenting world-premiere productions that illuminate Asian American experiences.

In the early 1990s, Minnesota seemed like an unlikely place for an Asian American theater company to emerge. Yet when Dong-il Lee, a Korean graduate student at the University of Minnesota, proposed the idea of Theater Mu to Japanese Canadian playwright Rick Shiomi during one of his visits to Minneapolis, Shiomi agreed to help found the company. They partnered with Martha Johnson, a Euro-American theater professor at Augsburg College; Andrew Kim, a Korean American artist; and Diane Espaldon, a Filipina professional, to create Theater Mu in 1992. The company aimed to give voice to Asian Americans, especially those in the Midwest, and to contest their invisibility and exclusion from the stage.

One of Mu’s first tasks was building a pan-Asian talent pool. It drew from well-established Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Chinese American communities; southeast Asian refugee and immigrant communities that included Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese artists; and the state’s large population of Korean adoptees.

Mask Dance, Theater Mu’s inaugural production, showcased the stories of Korean adoptees. Their dual consciousness was reflected in the hybrid aesthetic that Mu became known for―a blending of traditional Asian performance forms with contemporary personal narratives about Asian American experiences. By bringing together artists from myriad ethnic backgrounds and experiences, Mu not only nurtured the formation of an Asian American Twin Cities community; it also shaped artists’ identities and their sense of belonging to a broader Asian America.

Multiculturalism was beginning to gain currency in Minnesota in the 1990s. As such, Mu used its well-timed artistic platform to challenge Orientalist tropes of the perpetual foreigner and exotic “other” as well as stereotypes of the model minority.

In 1997, Shiomi began teaching taiko drumming to interested Mu artists. Their passion for the form led to the formation of Mu Daiko, a professional taiko group. As taiko performances and classes grew, the company realized it needed a name change to reflect this expanded focus. In 2001, the organization became Mu Performing Arts, housing both Theater Mu and Mu Daiko.

After a decade, Mu’s theatrical aesthetic began to shift away from its initial hybrid style towards pieces that more explicitly engaged with political and social issues. In 2009, it announced a new mission statement that made social justice an explicit goal. This aided participation in activities like the 2013 protests against the Ordway’s production of Miss Saigon and forums on issues like yellow-face casting, Asian American stereotypes of the stage and screen, and employment equity.

Mu’s commitment to developing new plays continued as the company evolved, giving rise to countless young playwrights. Through more than fifty world premiere productions produced between 1992 and 2016, Mu also cultivated Asian American actors, directors, musicians, and designers. Following the lead of a wave of artists who were also accomplished singers, the company began producing mainstream and Asian American musicals, often in collaboration with larger theaters. Asian American casting of classics from the European canon rounded out their expanding aesthetic.

Through partnerships, Mu has increased its influence on the regional and national theater landscape. At the Guthrie Theater, Mu presented Circle Around the Island in the brand-new Dowling Studio in 2007. Circle marked the first time in the Guthrie’s history that a play conceived, performed, and directed entirely by Asian American artists was performed on one of its stages. Mu has since performed numerous times at the Guthrie and has partnered with many other Twin Cities companies.

Theater Mu is one of the largest Asian American companies in the country. It has developed a national presence through leadership in the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists and has helped to form the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition, alongside Penumbra Theatre Company, New Native Theatre, Teatro del Pueblo, and Pangea World Theater.

In 2017, Mu’s theater and taiko operations separated. Mu Daiko became a new organization―Taiko Arts Midwest―under the ongoing leadership of Jennifer Weir. The theater company returned to its original name―Theater Mu―under artistic director Randy Reyes.

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Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Lee, Josephine Ding. Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Lee, Josephine, Don Eitel, and R. A. Shiomi. Asian American Plays for a New Generation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Lemanczyk, Sarah. “Rick Shiomi: Carving a Space.” American Theatre, January 2009.

Lein Walseth, Stephanie. “Staging Race in a ‘Post-Racial’ Age: Contemporary Collaborations Between Mainstream and Culturally Specific Theaters in the United States.” PhD. diss., University of Minnesota, 2014.
https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/171422/LeinWalseth_umn_0130E_15694.pdf

McKnight Foundation. Rick Shiomi: 2015 McKnight Distinguished Artist. Minneapolis: The McKnight Foundation, 2015.
https://www.mcknight.org/news-ideas/playwright-rick-shiomi-receives-2015-mcknight-distinguished-artist-award-2/

Reyes, Randy. Email interviews with the author, April 13, 2007, and November 20, 2007.

——— . Conversation with the author, May 14, 2014.

Shiomi, Rick. Conversations with the author, April 18, 2007; June 22, 2010; June 28, 2010; and March 3, 2014.

Zia, Helen. Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Related Images

Triangles (1993)
Triangles (1993)
Mask Dance (1995)
Mask Dance (1995)
Into the Woods (2012)
Into the Woods (2012)
Middle Brother (2014)
Middle Brother (2014)
Martha Johnson and Rick Shiomi
Martha Johnson and Rick Shiomi

Turning Point

In 1992, a group of theater artists collaborates to found Theater Mu, Minnesota’s first professional Asian American theater company, dedicated to illuminating the complex stories of Asian American experiences.

Chronology

1992

Theater Mu, Minnesota’s first professional Asian American theater company, is founded by Dong-il Lee, Rick Shiomi, Martha Johnson, Diane Espaldon, and Andrew Kim.

1993

Shiomi becomes the company’s artistic director.

1993

Theater Mu produces its first Festival of New Eyes, a series of experimental works by emerging writers, at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

1993

Mask Dance, the company’s first full production, is staged in December. Written and directed by Shiomi, the play explores the theme of Korean adoption and blends personal narrative with traditional Asian performance forms.

1997

After teaching Japanese taiko drumming workshops for Mu artists, Shiomi founds and leads the taiko group Mu Daiko, and it becomes an official part of the company.

2001

The company changes its name to Mu Performing Arts to reflect its dual focus on theater and taiko.

2003

Mu becomes a founding member of the national Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists. Company leaders become a part of the steering committee for the first national Asian American theater conference (held in 2006 in Los Angeles).

2008

Mu Performing Arts co-hosts the Second National Asian American Theater Conference along with Pangea World Theater. The conference takes place at the Guthrie Theater’s new building and includes participants and performers from around the world.

2011

Mu publishes a new anthology, Asian American Plays for a New Generation, through Temple University Press, edited by Josephine Lee, R. A. Shiomi, and Don Eitel. Six of the seven plays are commissioned and/or produced by the company.

2013

Shiomi wins the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement. As a part of his acceptance speech, he invites everyone in the audience who has worked with Mu onto the stage.

2013

Shiomi retires after twenty years at the helm, and Randy Reyes takes over as artistic director.

2013

Mu artists participate in the protests against Miss Saigon at the Ordway Theater. The company organizes and facilitates a series of three local forums for discussion about the controversy.

2014

Mu becomes a founding member of the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition and works with four other companies to shift foundation giving practices and fight for equity in the field.

2016

The company celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary and produces its fiftieth world- premiere production.

2017

The theater and taiko functions of the company separate to pursue their individual missions. Mu Daiko becomes Taiko Arts Midwest under the leadership of Jennifer Weir, and the theater company returns to its original name, Theater Mu, under Randy Reyes.