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Racially diverse theater company comes 'Full Circle'

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The Full Circle cast rehearses a scene.
(From left) Marcos Lopez, Gaosong Heu, Elizabeth Cates and Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel rehearse a scene from Full Circle Theater Company's 365 Days/365 Plays: A 2017 Remix at Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A couple years ago, husband and wife team Rick Shiomi and Martha Johnson found themselves at loose ends. 

Shiomi had stepped down from Mu Performing Arts, an Asian American theater company he founded and successfully led for two decades. Johnson retired from a career teaching theater at Augsburg College. With more than 60 years of theater experience between them, they decided to put their new-found free time to good use.   

"We're looking at just all the cultural and political things that are happening, and we thought, 'Oh let's just go for it!'" Johnson said. "We have the time and we have the energy. Let's do it."

Rick Shiomi supervises rehearsal.
Full Circle Theater Company co-artistic director Rick Shiomi supervises a dress rehearsal.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Shiomi said they wanted to build a different kind of experience. Most Twin Cities theater companies, he said, are either mainstream white organizations or culturally specific theater companies focused on specific racial identities. "What we were thinking about was what if we had a group that was led by the group of us from different backgrounds."

They invited other theater professionals to join them as co-founders of their new company, which they dubbed Full Circle Theater. The goal: embody cultural diversity in every aspect of their work, including the front office, who's on stage and who's in the audience.  Once they had that, Shiomi said, "we wanted to look at material and plays that would not normally be produced either by the mainstream groups or by theaters of color."

Audiences will get a chance now to see the fruits of that work. Full Circle is rehearsing its latest production at Penumbra Theatre, where it will be performing for the next three weeks. 

Full Circle actors reenact the 1972 election.
(From left) Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, Ricardo Beaird and Marcos Lopez run in slow motion as they rehearse a scene alluding to the 1972 presidential election.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"365 Days/365 Plays: A 2017 Remix" is the product of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' effort in 2003 to write a play a day for a year, a sort of theatrical journal. Full Circle Theater is staging 47 of those short plays each evening.

"Some plays are five lines and some plays are four pages and some have this huge epic sweep to them," James Williams, an actor and a Full Circle co-cofounder who serves as a cultural consultant on the Parks show. Other plays within the play are simple, he added. "One of my favorites that we're doing is just about a young man holding open a door on a subway for people who are trying to catch the train." 

Many of the episodes, said Johnson, "are very specific to African-American life, and so for those plays, we even have African-American directors directing those plays with African-American actors but then many of them are about the mixed life of America."

Two Full Circle actors rehearse a scene.
Shana Eisenberg, right, and Siddeeqah Shabazz rehearse a scene.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Williams said it's exciting to be involved at the very beginning of a new theater company, and to have a say in its vision. 

"Each day we learn a little more about this process, about ourselves, and how we relate to working with each other and the work," he said. "A lot of people say we're all the same under the skin. I think we're similar, but there are pieces of our upbringings that we need to stop and take a breath and look at and share stories so that we get a deeper understanding into each other."  

Siddeeqah Shabazz and Ricardo Beaird turn into superheroes.
Siddeeqah Shabazz, left, and Ricardo Beaird transform into superheroes in a scene.
Evan Frost | MPR News

If you go

 365 Days/365: A 2017 Remix

Who: Full Circle Theater Company

Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N Kent Street, St. Paul

When: Runs through June 11