Real immigrant stories, told with puppets

"Immigrant Journey Project
In "Immigrant Journey Project," Mu Performing Arts worked with Asian-American immigrants to share their stories.
Courtesy of Kevin Duong

Mu Performing Arts has always focused on the Asian-American immigrant experience, but its latest production is different, said Artistic Director Randy Reyes.

He wanted to work with local immigrants to tell their stories, and even have them involved in the final production. That meant driving them back and forth to rehearsals, finding interpreters and providing meals.

"Really if you want to engage with a community, [if] you really want to tell authentic stories, you have to change your process," Reyes said. "You can't force them into a system that has left them out for so long. You need to adjust to make sure that they're comfortable, that they're actually a part of it."

With the Immigrant Journey Project, Mu is inviting audiences to get to know immigrants and refugees as people — not headlines. The show opens Friday night in St. Paul at the Steppingstone Theatre.

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Hmong elder Pa Lee Thao tells a story from her youth.
Hmong elder Pa Lee Thao tells a story from her youth in a refugee camp, while other performers re-enact the scene with puppets.
Courtesy of Kevin Duong

Actor Sara Ochs, who performs in the play, said she finds the production particularly moving.

"In this current moment in our culture, we think of immigrants as dusty historical relics or as the scapegoat for all our political and economic problems," she said, "or as this irritating other who doesn't know how to drive and is in the way — we don't think of them as human beings."

In the production's early stages, Reyes commissioned puppet artist Masanari Kawahara to lead a series of workshops with local community groups that serve Asian-American immigrants.

First, they worked on telling their stories. Then they made their own puppets that would act out the stories. Kawahara worked with queer youth, women's groups, and Hmong elders.

"The puppets they made [are] exquisite because some of the elders, the women, are amazing hand sewers, so they made these ornate costumes for the puppets," Kawahara said.

Khin Oo, member of SOY (Shades of Yellow)
Khin Oo, member of SOY (Shades of Yellow), with her puppet, Floyd.
Courtesy of Kevin Duong

Of the more than 50 people who participated in the workshops, 10 are in the show. They will move the puppets while professional actors read their lines, Kawahara said, or they will narrate their own stories while others act them out.

At first, people were skeptical of using puppets, said May Lee Yang, who with Kawahara and Hmong elders. "They were like, 'We're old, why are we playing with toys?'"

The group eventually came around to the puppeteering, though.

"There's something that's so tender," about using puppets for storytelling, Kawahara said. "And at the same time it's kind of fragile, and also it's so liberating".

The show runs through Aug. 20.