Twin Cities sees strong showing of Asian American theater

Hyunmin Rhee  and Eric Sharp are among the cast
Hyunmin Rhee (left) and Eric Sharp (right) are among the cast in the Guthrie Theater's production of "Vietgone."
Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater | Dan Norman

As the Guthrie Theater celebrates its 60th anniversary, the landmark theater has chosen to open their season with Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone. The show is a romantic comedy about two Vietnamese refugees who fall in love at a resettlement camp in 1970s Arkansas.

Director Mina Morita said that during the rehearsal process input from the local Vietnamese community was an important part of the story telling.

“We [had] a lot of conversations both amongst the cast and creative team about how we were reaching out.” Morita said, “[We] had spoken to some elders as well, from the Vietnamese community, in preparation for rehearsal.”

The show also hired a cultural consultant to help with the nuances of presenting a story with a specific cultural lens.

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While it is notable that the Guthrie is opening the season with an all-Asian cast that focuses on the Vietnamese American experience, “Vietgone” is not a new show, having premiered in 2015. Eric Sharp, one of the cast members, said that as more Asian plays show they can be successful, the more they are being produced.

“Now there is a critical mass of plays that have been found viable.” he said, “I hate that word, but it's true. There are plays like “Vietgone”... like “The Great Leap,” like “Cambodian Rock Band,” that not only Asian people know about now.”

While Asian voices have been part of the American theater as far back as the 1920s with the drama "The Submission of Rose Moy,” by Ling-Ai Li, Sharp has noticed wider recognition especially in the last decade. In fact, when Sharp graduated college nearly 20 years ago, he wasn’t sure what it looked like to have a career as an Asian American theater artist.

“My idea was that I was going to fit into this white American theater or this idea of what it means to be white on stage and that I would do that irrespective of my race.” Sharp said. “Well, you graduate, and then you find out very quickly that that's not the case.”

He found Theater Mu, which allowed him to explore what it means to be an Asian American artist, without compromising his ambitions.

“I always call it the happiest accident of my life” Sharp said.

A man in blue shirt poses on a stairway landing
Rick Shiomi poses for a photo at the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on Sept. 22.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Rick Shiomi, playwright and co-founder of Theater Mu, said he always wanted that to be the purpose of the organization, to act as both a theater that produces Asian work and give artists the opportunity to grow so they can work in other theaters.

“The thing I didn't want was for people in the larger community to be able to look at Theater Mu and say, ‘Okay, that's a little niche group,’” Shiomi said.

Much like Sharp, Shiomi did not think there was space for him to write theater from his Japanese Canadian view until he found the community of Asian theater makers in San Francisco in the 1970s.

“I actually wanted to become a writer for a long time, but really felt like, there was nothing that I could say, in an odd way,” Shiomi said, “because I had no understanding that there was an Asian Canadian, or an Asian American perspective.”

The Guthrie is not the only theater in town with a show featuring Asian artists and playwrights. Theater Mu’s 30th season opens Friday with the world premiere of “A Different Pond,” a stage adaptation of the children’s book of the same name. Meanwhile, Full Circle Theater premieres Shiomi’s new play “Fire in the New World” in October at Park Square Theatre.

Benji Stoebner and Hieu Bui play father and son
Benji Stoebner (left) and Hieu Bui (right) play father and son in "A Different Pond."
Courtesy of Theater Mu. | Amy Rondeau

Park Square is currently showing “The Humans” through Oct. 9. The show usually casts white actors in the one act drama, but director Lily Tung Crystal decided to cast Asian actors to play the daughters in the piece and portray them as Korean adoptees.

“I felt like this community in Minnesota would understand that choice, because so many in our community are Korean or Chinese adoptees,” Crystal said. “I don’t think that choice would have happened if they didn’t hire an Asian American director.”

The flourishing of dramatic arts in the Twin Cities comes during a nationwide rise in hate-motivated crimes toward Asians and Asian Americans.

“We believe at Theater Mu that one reason for the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence is because of the lack of our stories in film, television and stage,” said Lily Tung Crystal, who also serves as Theater Mu’s artistic director. “When people don't see our stories, then it’s easy for them to see us as other, or un-American, or even subhuman.”

Even with all the current productions running with Asian representation, Crystal says that there is still work to be done to ensure the work is recognized properly.

“Maybe right now there is a lot of Asian plays, but that’s not to say for the rest of the season there’ll be this flurry of activity.” Crystal said. “It can still be considered by some institutions that that’s a sort of outside thing to do ... like ‘we might consider doing an Asian American play this season, but not next season.’”

“Vietgone” at the Guthrie runs until Oct 16. Theater Mu and Stages Theatre Company’s “A Different Pond” runs until Oct. 23, and Full Circle Theater’s “Fire in the New World” opens Oct 19.  

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.