Theater Mu’s Lily Tung Crystal: The more people hear Asian Americans’ stories, the more they'll treat us as the Americans we are

A woman sits in front of a fireplace.
Lily Tung Crystal in her home in Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between and

In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, MPR News and Sahan Journal are featuring Asian Minnesotans making history.

Lily Tung Crystal, who recently started her position as artistic director of Theater Mu, is originally from Los Angeles. Tung Crystal says that she has been wanting to do theater as a career 100 percent of the time and this was her chance.

“I knew that Theater Mu would allow me to concentrate on the art that I love and do my life’s work, my greatest passion: to be able to focus on increasing representation and creating anti-racist theater.” 

Her parents are Chinese immigrants who escaped China during the communist revolution in 1949. They met in Taiwan, fell in love and moved to the United States in the 1950s.

“When you’re talking about first-born generation, American-born Chinese, that’s who I am,” she said.

Tung Crystal graduated from Cornell University in New York and then moved to Shanghai where she lived on and off for nine years, and worked as a freelance foreign correspondent. She was also the first editor of the first English-language magazine called “Shanghai Talk.” While she was in China, she also continued pursuing her passion in theater and was a singer in a blues band called Hot Tofu.

After moving to San Francisco in the early 2000s, she started to take her career as an actor more seriously. Delving into the world of community theater, she soon started a theater company called Ferocious Lotus, whose mission was to tell Asian American stories.

Tung Crystal was doing a wide swath of writing, producing and work as a journalist, but near the end of her time at San Francisco she was writing and producing for Discovery Channel. She referred to the shows she worked on as “Docu-entertainment.”

Looking for an opportunity to leave television, Tung Crystal said she applied for the position at Theater Mu “on a whim.” After she received the offer, she, her husband and son decided to take the risk and move to Minnesota. However, six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She found that she needed to make use of her video skills to make theater accessible when people couldn’t attend in person.

“What do you know?” she said. “I’m still having to do video and television.” 

Tung Crystal said that when she was very young, her house had a mantel in front of the fireplace that she used to stand on, using a pulley from the fire screen as a microphone and the mantel as a stage. She would perform on this “stage,” and her mom noticed how much she liked to perform. While she was in primary school, her mother signed her up for voice and piano lessons.

‘’I was so grateful to her because she really supported my art,” Tung said. 

Even though her mother was supportive of her interest in the arts, Tung Crystal first pursued journalism because she didn’t consider art a viable career.

“In some ways, my parents are not traditional, but in other ways they are very traditional Asian immigrant parents,” she said.

Her dad is an engineer and her mom a chemist, and they encouraged their children to pursue practical careers. It was moving to San Francisco and meeting her husband, a professional jazz musician, that made her realize that her art and passions could be more than just a hobby.

“I feel very fortunate to live a life in theater and lead a company that is so meaningful to me and so many artists, not only within the Twin Cities but all over the country,” she said. “I’m so thankful to Theater Mu for bringing me here.” 

What does it mean to be AAPI in Minnesota right now?

First of all I’m grateful to the AAPI community. They’ve really supported me and welcomed me to the community. I’m also grateful that Minneapolis and St. Paul are progressive cities. I feel like they take the work of anti-racism seriously. I’m also grateful to the other BIPOC communities here in the Twin Cities because I think we all realize in order to dismantle white supremacy and move towards anti-racism, that work needs to be done together. We’re still learning about each other, and our work together is evolving, but you know, some of that work is done specifically in the theater with the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition; Penumbra Theatre, Theater Mu, New Native Theatre, Pangea World Theater and Teatro del Pueblo. We’re working in solidarity and in coalition to transform funding practices to make them more equitable. 

Another thing I’d say about being AAPI in Minnesota right now, and not only just here but nationally: The violence that has occurred in the Asian community is troubling and traumatic, and so I think that the AAPI community is grappling with that violence. Specifically here in the Twin Cities community, I think that the AAPI community is so activist here, that we’re really working hard to take care of our communities, be in conversation with them and fight racism and violence. And one of the reasons why we think that the violence is happening is because other people often see Asian Americans as not truly American, or other, or even subhuman. I feel like there is a contingent in American society that doesn’t see us as real people. And part of that is because our stories are not told widely in the media, in film, or on television.

At Theater Mu our responsibility, and being an AAPI organization in the community, is to tell those stories, tell those narratives and give a face and a voice to the people in our community. The more people hear our stories, the more we’re seen on stage in film and television, then the more people see us as the true Americans that we really are.

What figures have shaped you and who you are?

Growing up as Asian American theater artists can be challenging because we don’t have a lot of role models. I mean, there are more and more as we continue through time, but when I was growing up as a young Asian American actor, there weren’t a lot of role models. So the people that have really inspired me are those that paved the way, like George Takei. Like the playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, who told Asian American stories.  And in terms of social activists, Yuri Kochiyama [and] Grace Lee Boggs, who really led the way in Asian American activism and fighting for Asian American rights and equity. And they not only fought for Asian American issues, but they worked in solidarity with Black communities, because they knew that we could only gain equity for all by working together. And so those people really inspire me.

I’ll also say that in my life, it’s the everyday heroes, the artists and staff at Theater Mu that really inspire me. Our staff through this very challenging time, they’ve been incredibly adaptable, flexible, hardworking and smart. 

[There are] elders in our community like Rick Shiomi, one of the founders of Theater Mu. Josephine Lee, who is a professor at University of Minnesota, I think she’s amazing. David Mura, another writer, who’s an elder. And there are just so many people that may not be A-list, Hollywood well known, but their work is just as important, if not more important. They’re the people on the ground, doing that work, and continuing to fight for justice. 

Anna May Wong, she’s a trailblazer for all of us. So there are a lot of people who came before us. We just got this cultural treasure grant, and the reason we got it is because of the work of those who came before us, both as Asian American social activists and artists, but also the staff and artists that have worked at Theater Mu during our 28 years that we’ve been in existence. This is thanks to them. All the recognition is rooted in the work they have done.

What’s your vision for the future generations of AAPI peoples in Minnesota?

I hope that the AAPI communities will have a bigger voice and more visibility in the Twin Cities at large and that our children and their children will live in a society that’s equitable and just. I hope that we will live in a society where we’re no longer talking about diversity — the fact is that we all live here and that we all are Minnesotans — and that all our stories are told, and that our faces are seen in film and TV and on stage. That our stories and the stories of other BIPOC communities become the mainstream stories. 

Correction (June 10, 2021): The spellings for David Mura, Anna May Wong, David Henry Hwang and Penumbra Theatre were incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The article has been updated. It has also been corrected to reflect the professional background of the the artist’s spouse.

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