Mu, Penumbra bring a cross-cultural ghost story to life
Are you frightened of ghosts? The answer may depend on your cultural background.
A new play looks at two different cultures and the spirits that haunt them. It's called "The Brothers Paranormal," and it's a joint production by Penumbra Theatre and Theater Mu.
Penumbra Theatre specializes in stories of the African-American experience; Theater Mu focuses on plays about the Asian-American experience. While the two have collaborated on projects over the years, "The Brothers Paranormal" marks the first time they've co-produced a show. That's partly because it's so rare to find a play that revolves around both communities.
The play tells the story of an older black couple displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The wife keeps seeing the ghost of a young Asian woman in her home. They hire a ghost-hunting business run by two Thai-American brothers to investigate.
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"I understand the outsider experience. I know what that is like in the United States," said Penumbra's founder Lou Bellamy, who directs the show. "But I don't know and didn't understand the trauma of an immigrant experience, and this play begins to blend those two together. And the effects are staggering — long-lasting, generational, intergenerational."
The two theater companies hired playwright and author Saymoukda Vongsay to serve as both dramaturg and cultural consultant on the production.
"It's really scary — which I love!" Vongsay said.
Ghosts and superstitions are very much a part of daily life in Southeast Asian cultures, Vongsay said. She grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, just a few blocks from Penumbra Theatre, in a home that was often filled with both Lao and Thai immigrants.
"And so it feels good to be part of a project that elevates those stories and their experiences," she said.
Vongsay helped the cast incorporate Thai cultural gestures into the play. She likes to think of them as "Easter eggs" for Thai audience members, who will immediately recognize their significance. Vongsay said she's proud of the play, which addresses some uncomfortable issues:
"There's a line that one of the characters says: 'You don't have to come from disaster to feel like your life is a disaster.' And so as someone who is ethnic Lao, and whose family are former refugees, that really resonates with me. Especially mental illness — it's not talked about. We're told to just to sweep our problems under the rug, and then we figure things out later when it's much too late."
In "The Brothers Paranormal," characters question whether they're seeing ghosts or just symptoms of their own mental breakdowns. Theater Mu's managing director, Shannon Fitzgerald, said the play does a skillful job of showing how both African-Americans and refugees live with the legacies of trauma. And how their stories, at their cores, are quite similar.
"I think that's the beauty of this, that there's this common theme of displacement, that all of these audiences are going to be able to say, 'Oh, this is our story, too,'" she said.
Fitzgerald hopes the show will inspire Theater Mu audiences to see more Penumbra shows and vice versa. Both Penumbra and Theater Mu are members of the Twin Cities Theaters of Color coalition, or TCTOC. It works to build more, and more accurate, representations of diversity on Twin Cities stages.
"The interesting thing to me with TICTOC is yes, Theater Mu is about racial justice, it's about social justice conversations. We need to be involved in those conversations," Fitzgerald said. "But we're a theater company — we make theater! And so to me, taking the conversation that they have with the Twin Cities Theaters of Color coalition and being able to move that into the space that is the work that we actually do, is really, really exciting."
"The Brothers Paranormal" runs through May 26 at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. In conjunction with the show, Penumbra and Mu are also co-hosting two nights of traditional Asian and African ghost stories — with ice cream — in the nearby park.