courtesy of Theater Mu
In its very first year, Theater Mu, then known as Mu Performing Arts, didn’t put on a single production—they put on a stage reading instead. From April 15-18, 1993, 13 actors sat around in chairs, scripts in hand or laid out on music stands, and read seven new works by young Asian American playwrights.
Really, it’s quite a poetic start to a theater whose mission is to bring to life “great performances born of arts, equity, and justice from the heart of the Asian American experience,” as its website says. Now in its 25th year, the annual New Eyes Festival is one event out of about half a dozen that Mu puts on, and, arguably, it’s the one that changes the least in terms of format. It’s still a group of actors—of people, un-glamorized by the costumes or the stage lights—reading from a script that has been well-loved but unheard by many.
On March 17 at Mu Performing Arts Studio, four stories will be read with an hour-long interlude for dinner. At 1 p.m., “Seven Fingers, One Crash” by local actor and playwright Eric “Pogi” Sumangil is a one-person show that takes the 1965 Delano Grape Strike to outer space, and then “A Long Time Ago Today” is May Lee-Yang’s display of how history, magic, and life weave together to explain the world through folk tales. Right before supper, we go to a genre less inhabited by theater as of late—horror, courtesy of Prince Gomolvila’s ghost hunting brothers in “Brothers Paranormal,” and then to end the night is the Mu commission “Hot Doctor Asian Husband,” which delighted Theater Mu’s artistic director Randy Reyes with the sharp humor and sensibility that seems key to Leah Nanako Winkler’s writings.
“There’s a trajectory of plays that I think were more folktale oriented,” Reyes says, reflecting on when he first started working with Mu in 2005, “and now we’re to the whole gamut of everything in between where there’s adoption plays that came out, especially here in the Twin Cities, that switched from the narrative coming from the adoptive parents to the adoptees themselves, all the way to the more edgy work that the playwrights are doing now that are getting a lot of attention internationally.”
Every year, the plays are a Mu commissions, open call submissions and those recommended by a strong network of Asian American thespians. While Mu doesn’t promise anything to its non-commissioned New Eyes playwrights, for the past two years all three plays in each festival have been or will be put on the stage, such as “The Princess’ Nightingale” by Damon Chua, which is being realized through a collaboration with Steppingstone Theatre this May.
You can always read a great play on your own, no matter what you do, it won’t be the same as hearing the characters filter through your conscious with different voices by people who add their own nuance and experiences to the interpretation, says Reyes. Even without the full theater production, play readings like the ones at New Eyes still get you a step closer to understanding the play’s truths than you would reading it alone. Plus, you can discuss your thoughts on the story afterward with the Mu performers, other audience members, and sometimes even the playwrights.
“We need to find as many ways of encouraging writers to write plays from the Asian American experience, and I think the only way is to tell all of our stories to catch our diversity,” Reyes says, “and the way to have us be more visible in our community is by making sure that more of these plays get written and hopefully produced, and so this festival has been really instrumental to that development as far as Mu has been around.”