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Going Full Circle and Beyond

The circle is a universal symbol of unity, wholeness, inclusivity and cyclical movement. During both the first rehearsal and opening night of Flower Drum Song at Park Square Theatre, members of Mu Performing Arts reflected on how Mu itself has come full circle on its 25th anniversary. Its once newest core performers, such as Randy Reyes, Sherwin Resurreccion, Katie Bradley and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, are now the elders as another generation of artists stream through. In fact, when Mu first staged Flower Drum Song about eight years ago, Sherwin had played the young man Ta and Randy his father, Wang. And just four years ago, Randy Reyes inherited the Artistic Director role from co-founder Rick Shiomi, who has since co-found a new company called Full Circle Theater.

First rehearsal of Flower Drum Song (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

First rehearsal of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Recently I asked Rick Shiomi to go back down memory lane to Mu’s beginnings, then return us to where it is now and, in conjunction, where he is now. My first surprise on this journey was that then University of Minnesota graduate student Dong-il Lee, not Rick, had initiated the founding of Theater Mu (the organization’s original name).

“I actually came here from Canada for personal reasons,” Rick admitted, “and I didn’t think it was even possible to do. I only knew one or two Asian Americans acting in the Twin Cities. I thought it would be too monumental a task.” Yet Rick agreed to go along for the ride.

However, Dong-il graduated within a year and moved to the East coast for a teaching position and, later, back to South Korea. Rick suddenly found himself heading Mu as interim, and ultimately permanent, Artistic Director.  But why didn’t he just stop then and go on with his life?

“By now, I saw that my future would be in the Twin Cities,” Rick said. “I had already committed my life to Asian American theater, and there was nothing here. I could certainly have worked with another theater, like Mixed Blood, that would do maybe one Asian American play in five years. I preferred to put in the hard work to develop Mu instead.”

The work was, indeed, hard. Rick compared the first five to ten years to “digging trenches to lay a foundation.” People came and went as Mu gradually built its first major wave of core performers to take it to the next level. In its 2003/4 season, Mu reached a new high with an all-Asian American casting of the Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures at Park Square Theatre, followed in 2005/6 with its landmark production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were exciting times for Mu.

In Rick’s opinion, “Mu has completed one cycle and is now starting on another, almost like a spiral. There is a certain circular sensation, especially for the actors who have grown up and now play the elders, but it’s a different place and time and their roles have changed.”

Rick, too, has let go of a cycle to begin a new one. He and four other longtime stalwarts of the Twin Cities theater community–Martha B. Johnson, James A. Williams, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth–founded Full Circle Theater in 2013. By doing so, they are going full circle in the sense of experiencing and implementing some of the same growth challenges and strategies faced by any startup, such as Mu in its younger days. However, this time around, they have all been “around the block” with collective knowledge to their advantage as well as a focus beyond Asian American theater. Listed as one of Full Circle’s core values is theater that “is multiracial and multicultural in its representation of life.”

Full Circle’s upcoming production, 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks: A 2017 Remix, will run at the Penumbra Theatre from May 26 to June 11. It will feature 46 of a collection of 365 plays written by Parks in 2002 (one play per day). In its 2007 premiere, 365 Days/365 Plays was lauded as “a national phenomenon….crossing ethnic, racial and economic boundaries.” Flower Drum Song patrons can take advantage of Full Circle’s special offer of $10 tickets by inputting the code FDS at brownpapertickets.com.

With regard to Flower Drum Song, Rick has strong memories of the powerful scene, in Mu’s earlier staging at the Ordway, between Ta and Linda Low–then played by Sherwin Resurreccion and Laurine Price, respectively–when she leaves to make it big in Hollywood. He also recalls the emotional father-son reconciliation dance between Randy and Sherwin as Wang and Ta. Another high point came when Sara Ochs, as Mei-Li, so movingly sang “Love, Look Away.”

“What were you feeling and thinking,” I asked, “as you watched Flower Drum Song to commemorate Mu’s 25th anniversary?”

“What a great evolution/revolution all of us have created!” Rick replied. “I felt great pride in the work of our veterans Sherwin and Katie, leading the cast, and Randy leading the company. And excited by the new talent coming!”

 

Martha B. Johnson, Rick Shiomi, David Henry Hwang and Stephanie Bertumen at opening night for Flower Drum Song (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Martha B. Johnson, Rick Shiomi, David Henry Hwang and Stephanie Bertumen at opening night of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

 

Flower Drum Song – Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until February 19

 

Flower Drum Song: Highlights from Opening Night

Being an introvert, I don’t often relish attending highly social events, but this Friday’s opening night for Flower Drum Song was an exception to the rule. If you have been following the blog posts related to the musical, you can’t have missed how personally meaningful this production has been for its Asian American participants.  Here were some of my personal favorite highlights of the evening:

David Henry Hwang joined us for the opening night of Flower Drum Song (Photo by Connie Shaver)

David Henry Hwang joined us for the opening night of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

1. Playwright David Henry Hwang not only attended the opening night performance of Flower Drum Song but also spoke during the pre-show reception as well as mingled during the post-show festivities.

Briana Belland and Meng Xiong were two of the Ensemble members in the cast (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Brianna Belland and Meng Xiong were two of the Ensemble members in the cast
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

2. The members of the Ensemble were amazing, playing multiple roles and singing and dancing their hearts out in such humorous numbers as “Fan Tan Fannie” and “Chop Suey” and, of course, the very emotional signature song “A Hundred Million Miracles.” Flower Drum Song could not have succeeded without them. The full Ensemble included Alice McGlave, Nicole Riebe, Ashley Kershaw, Kylee Brinkman, Brianna Belland, Michelle de Joya, Nikko Paul Raymo, Joseph Vang and Meng Xiong.

Katie Bradley played Madame Liang

Katie Bradley played Madame Rita Liang

 3. The biggest laugh resulted from a line delivered by Katie Bradley as Madame Rita Liang, a Chinese American talent agent, as she gave advice about how to handle the press to showgirl Linda Low: “They’re reporters. We don’t tell them the truth.”

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4. The ending when each cast member stepped forward to do that incredibly moving thing that you’ll want to see for yourself.

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5. The fact that the opening night performance preceded the beginning of the Lunar New Year, making the next day that much more special. The Proscenium Stage lobby was decorated with Chinese zodiac scarves that could also be displayed as wall hangings. They were created by artist and Park Square Theatre patron Jane Goodspeed, who had designed them as gifts to donors who donate $99 to sponsor nine students attending a matinee performance of Flower Drum Song.

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Flower Drum Song continues until February 19. As Mu’s Artistic Director Randy Reyes aptly puts it, “This story is for anyone whose family came to this country from somewhere else.” Don’t miss your opportunity to see this rich and moving musical.

Flower Drum Song: Featuring Stephanie Bertumen

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As part of the cast of Flower Drum Song, Stephanie Bertumen plays Wu Mei-Li, a new immigrant from China who falls in love with Wang Ta, played by Wesley Mouri.

This was Stephanie’s answer to the question: “What is most meaningful for you about the role that you play in Flower Drum Song–whether it be your particular character role, your overall role of being part of the production, or both?”

My love of the arts largely began when I was a young girl watching Rodgers and Hammerstein (and other classic) movie musicals. As I imagined myself in the worlds of the characters, I sang, danced, and acted my little heart out; but I didn’t realize the gravity of the fact that I was always seeing primarily White actors – White actors on the small screen, on the big screen, and onstage.

 Also, as a young person, I didn’t know that I would eventually be exposed to a world where there would be people who wouldn’t see me as capable and worthy as I saw myself. As I did come to this realization, however, my dreams started to shrink back in apprehension and I began to push away the Asian part of myself — a part that I feared made me too “different” to belong. It was not until I moved to Minnesota and encountered other Asian performers that my view of the world (and my view of myself) exploded: “Wait, I can actually be myself here? Someone wants me just as I am?” And so I began to come out of hiding, so to speak. 

 If I hadn’t ever started on the journey to acknowledging and loving the Asian part of my identity (with the help and support of friends and mentors, especially my own brother Randy Reyes), I don’t think I would have really continued to blossom as an artist, or at least not in the same way; so I am so thankful to be on this road. Now, I’m having experiences that I had started to believe were impossible. It is because playwright David Henry Hwang dared to re-envision Flower Drum Song that this gorgeous, smart libretto exists! It is because of his dream that my dream has become reality. 

 I am deeply grateful that, in this case of this production, it isn’t an either/or scenario: EITHER beautiful music OR a moving story; EITHER an Asian character OR a three-dimensional character; EITHER the main character OR the Asian character. No, for each, this show gives me both. Just as I myself am both — Asian American — as well as everything else that I am. I am Asian American; I get to be front and center playing a beautifully-written, three-dimensional human being; AND, yes, I get to act and sing and dance to music written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. 

 I do belong – and I belong in a way that is more meaningful than I could have ever imagined, and I am forever thankful for that.

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li and Wesley Mouri as Ta Photo by Connie Shaver

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li and Wesley Mouri as Ta
Photo by Connie Shaver

 

Stephanie’s Background

Park Square Debut Representative Theatre Children’s Theatre Company: The Last Firefly; History Theatre: Complicated Fun; Backyard to Broadway Productions: Right, Wrong, or Bomb! A Dating Musical; Mu Performing Arts: Twelfth Night; Casting Spells Productions: Disenchanted!; Theatre L’Homme Dieu (produced by Bloomington Civic Theatre): The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Training B.F.A., University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Actor Training Program

 

Flower Drum Song – Co-produced with Mu Performing Arts

Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage – January 20 to February 19

The Magic Number is 17

There are 17 performers of Asian descent in Park Square Theatre’s upcoming production of Flower Drum Song. 17. Seventeen. That might not seem like groundbreaking news, until you ask yourself: When was the last time you saw 17 Asian American actors in one production on stage or on screen?

Sure, there are The King and I’s, Miss Saigons, and maybe even Pacific Overtures out there, but now I’m struggling to name another big broadway musical with as many as 17 Asian characters in it, let alone Asian or Asian American performers. And if you add the qualifier of a broadway musical written by an Asian or Asian American playwright or composer, that number dwindles significantly.

Many people are quick to say that in recent years, we’ve come a long way in American race relations, and maybe we have. However, while blackface is considered a thing of the past, yellowface and brownface are still practiced with some regularity, even in 2016. Add to that the practice of Whitewashing, casting a white actor instead of an actor of color, sometimes changing the script to do so. Take a look at #WhitewashedOUT, #MyYellowfaceStory, & #MyBrownfaceStory on Twitter & Facebook for more stories from Asian Americans about [lack of] representation on stage and screen.

A few years ago, during a broadcast of the Academy Awards, I challenged my Facebook friends to name an Asian American who has won an Oscar for a project telling an Asian American story. I noted that by saying “Asian American” I specifically meant that non-Americans of Asian descent did not qualify, and that stories that were set in foreign countries, where Asian American actors might be playing foreign nationals, likewise did not qualify. I meant specifically Asian Americans telling stories about the experience of Asian Americans. I would happily stand corrected, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Tony Awards are slightly better, but not by much. Rarely has there been an Asian American story on broadway, and Flower Drum Song is one of those rarities. But it wasn’t until 2002 that an Asian American, David Henry Hwang, received a credit for writing the new adaptation of Flower Drum Song, which is the script being used for Park Square’s production.

So when you come to Flower Drum Song (opening Jan. 27) not only will you be watching broadway musical history in the form of an Asian American musical written by an Asian American, but you’ll be seeing 17, count ’em: 17, Asian Americans onstage. And you might not see that again for a while.

The Stage Manager Chronicles: Jamie Kranz

As we head into a new year, new productions are percolating at Park Square. The first one out of the gate is Flower Drum Song, a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. Weaving together a story about love, music and one’s heritage, this classical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical  promises to be something special. While the actors on stage number 17, the stage management team is significantly smaller. Leading the charge is Jamie Kranz, stage manager of Flower Drum Song.  Kranz’s beginning into stage management began almost accidentally. While enjoying some java at the campus coffee shop, she happened to see a notice advertising the need for an assistant stage manager. Kranz having had no idea what such a position meant, but the play “looked fun… and I was looking for an activity that had nothing to do with my major,” she said.

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Jaimie Kranz and House Manager Adrian Larkin look at the seating chart as they prepare for a large student matinee audience to A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Ting Ting Cheng.

That drama unfolded at Wartburg College where Kranz completed her undergraduate education. Nestled in Waverly, Iowa the college isn’t too far from her hometown in Mason City. After her education in Iowa, it was off to New York City where a Master of Fine Arts in Stage Management awaited her at Columbia University. The next stop down the road was Saint Paul where Kranz began her work with Park Square in 2006’s Anna in the Tropics as the play’s assistant stage manager, and guess who brought her on board? The same stage manager who had given her that first job back at Wartburg! Naturally, a stage manager such as Kranz is in high demand and she does plenty of work elsewhere around town. Companies like Mixed Blood, the Playwrights’ Center and the Children’s Theatre Company. In fact, she will be traveling with CTC’s show Seedfolks to Seattle this March and April! Then she’ll return and get started on Might as Well Be Dead at Park Square. With all of this work, what could Kranz possibly do to relax? She says, “In my spare time, I like to run and do yoga and occasionally indulge in the chocolate fudge cake from Café Latte. I’m currently in training to run the Disney Princess Glass Slipper Challenge in Disney World this February. It’s a race weekend that consists of a 10K (6.2 miles) run on a Saturday and a half marathon (13.1 miles) on the following Sunday.” Well, good luck and treat yourself to some cake when you’re finished! banner-flowerdrumsong-960x480-11-14 As for you all, be sure to catch Flower Drum Song on the proscenium stage between January 20 – February 19. Then when you see Kranz hard at work, be sure to give her a big “thank you” or if you happen to have some chocolate cake, I’m sure she would appreciate that too.

Theatre for You

Just last month, we were celebrating Thanksgiving, a special day connected to the Mayflower immigrants whose survival was aided by the native Wampanoag people.

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Now we are into December and, at Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage, we celebrate the holiday season with music composed by George Gershwin, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who significantly influenced the American musical landscape. There’s a good reason why his tunes are included in the Great American Songbook.

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From January to February, Flower Drum Song, a collaboration between Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts, will be featured on the Proscenium Stage. Based on David Henry Hwang’s version that won a Tony Award in 2003, the musical explores Asian-American identity through the lens of the Chinese immigrant story.

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Currently, A Raisin in the Sun continues to be performed on the Boss Thrust Stage until December 22 as daytime matinees for school groups and general public. The play centers on the dreams and struggles of a family descended from African slaves–those relocated to America against their will. Its audiences have included student groups with Somali and Hmong immigrants, both here in America to escape from the ravages of war, the latter endangered in their homeland for aiding America during the Vietnam War.

At Park Square Theatre, staff and audiences are made up of descendants of the at-some-point hated Irish, Jewish, German, Japanese, Swedish, Chinese, Italian, Mexican–the list goes on–immigrants who have claimed America as their beloved home. We ARE America, gathered together to make or behold some truly great American stories unfold on our stages.

You are warmly invited to Park Square Theatre, where we create theatre for you. (yes you.) and share stories to foster discourse and better mutual understanding. Bring your curiosity, and come with open hearts.

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