"What are you?" It's a question that people of mixed race get all the time.
"Purple Cloud," a new play produced by Mu Performing Arts, explores what it means to be of mixed race. It's inspired by playwright Jessica Huang's own experiences growing up mixed race, and it tells the story of one family's journey of self-discovery.
"For most of my life I had been struggling with feeling outside, because I'm not white and I'm not Chinese, and I didn't really know where I belonged," she explained. "But there was a theater director in town ... and she saw me across the room and she pointed at me and said, 'You — you're hapa.'
"And I had no idea what that word meant."
"Hapa" is a term first coined in Hawaii for someone who was half Hawaiian, half white. But it's since grown to mean anyone who's mixed race and of Asian descent. The theater director — who was also hapa — told Huang about a website called "Hapa Voice," where multiracial Asians living around the world connect to discuss their experiences.
"Suddenly I had found a community, in a way," she said. "That feeling is what I'm trying to give to other people that may not know the word, or may not feel like they belong ... just trying to say, 'No, you do. And this is who we are.'"
Huang's play "Purple Cloud" tells the story of three generations, all mixed race Chinese, and how each of them wrestles with his or her identity.
"One thing that seems to be common among mixed race people is that we all identify differently from people in our family," she said. "So even my brother and I don't identify in the same way. We've all experienced the same things, but we've called it different things and have dealt with it in different ways. And one of the privileges I have is that my dad and my grandpa worked so hard and sacrificed so much, so that I have the opportunity to explore this."
Conversation about identity in hapa families is often difficult, thanks to the more stoic side of their Asian heritage. In "Purple Cloud," the father and daughter only begin to really talk about their family's history after a mysterious package arrives at their doorstep.
It's a surreal story, with dream sequences and four mystical women who serve as the play's chorus. It's the type of play Mu Performing Arts' Randy Reyes loves to direct. Reyes worked with Huang on the script over the past two years before staging it this month at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where it runs through this weekend.
Reyes said the play is full of imagination and heart. But he admitted there are challenges persuading audiences to see new work, especially if it involves race.
"There's so much going on right now and there's a feeling that that's the last thing that you want to engage in," he said. "But race is just a small part of this story. It's about family and about connection and a feeling of belonging to something. And I always think that theater's a great way to encourage empathy and compassion for people who aren't like you."
As multiracial identities become more and more prevalent in the United States, playwright Jessica Huang hopes other hapa people will see the play and realize that, while they might feel marginalized by other races, they have a culture to call their own.
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