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Posts Tagged Wesley Mouri

Label Him Talented

 

Wes Mouri as Laertes
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Wes Mouri, who currently plays Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Park Square Theatre, had a propitious start to his acting career. Soon after graduating from Bethel University with a B.A. in Theatre Arts, he landed a role in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Bye Bye Birdie. This was a six-month commitment from October 2012 to March 2013 that required eight performances weekly of evening and matinee shows.

“I learned so much about myself,” Wes said. “It really hit home that this is a profession, not something that you just do for a couple of weekends. You have to be talented, but you also have to be invested in the work.”

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li and Wesley Mouri as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Since his professional debut at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Wes has appeared in numerous musicals in the Twin Cities, including last season’s Flower Drum Song, co-produced by Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts. He was proud to be cast in the lead role of Wang Ta, noting, “How often does a mixed-race man get to play a romantic lead?”

However, Wes was beginning to get pidgeon-holed in singing and dancing parts when Director Joel Sass offered him the dramatic role of Laertes in Hamlet.

“Joel’s frustrated when people are put into boxes,” Wes said of the man who’d also created this new adaptation of Hamlet. “He recognizes that not seeing people for their full potential stagnates their career. Even though I’d been playing young dancer types in musicals, Joel told me, ‘I know that you have the training and capacity to play another kind of role.’ He wants to grow the artist.”

Rehearsal scene: Wes Mouri (middle) as an upset Laertes being restrained by Maeve Moynihan (left) and Tinne Rosenmeier (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What Wes actually loves about theatre arts is that one doesn’t have to be stuck in a box. Being a theatre professional requires one to be a freelance artist. Besides acting, Wes also has experience in directing, marketing, stage managing and choreographing and knows that he will continually acquire new skills throughout his career.

Wes is very appreciative of theatre professionals, such as Joel Sass and Richard Cook, who willingly help artists break out of boxes through deliberate, inclusive casting choices. This process equalizes the chance for more humans to get a shot at roles and challenges norms to broaden the narratives. Park Square’s Hamlet, in fact, crosses both traditional gender and race lines in its casting.

Wes himself was not conscious that he could be limited by race until he was participating in a post-show discussion for Mu Performing Arts’ production of A Little Night Music in 2014.

“It was a big moment in my life,” Wes recalled. “I’d grown up in Rockford, Illinois, in a white-majority neighborhood. My dad is Japanese, but my mom is Caucasian. Both my parents are teachers. I attended a small private school, and everyone knew me as me, not as ‘the Asian kid.’

At the talk-back, a woman asked me what it was like to get to play the type of role that I would never have had a chance to play if Mu hadn’t produced the play. I had never considered that, and I just suddenly cried right on stage. I had never been boxed in as a dark-haired Asian. I’d always been surrounded by people saying I can absolutely do anything. Then I realized that the way I look could make it so I can’t do certain things.”

Wes Mouri as Laertes and Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet; Tinne Rosenmeier as an attendant in the background
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Knowing this made the first day of rehearsals for Hamlet particularly meaningful. According to Wes, “We walked in and knew that this is a unique and different production. Not only is it a very streamlined version of a classic Shakespeare work for adults and children; but the cast is half male and half female, with major roles being played by women. There are also five people of color out of ten. The fact that diverse school groups will see this show is wonderful.”

In Hamlet, who Wes is and what he looks like do not stand in the way of who he can become on stage. He is the headstrong young Laertes, brother of the tragic Ophelia and son of the politically powerful Polonia. He is the right actor for the part because he is talented.

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

Flower Drum Song: Featuring Wesley Mouri

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As part of the cast of Flower Drum Song, Wesley Mouri plays Wang Ta, the son of a Chinese opera actor and immigrant to San Francisco named Wang Chi-Yang. Ta is in love with Chinese American showgirl Linda Low but also falling for a new immigrant from China, Wu Mei-Li.

Recently, we asked Wes, “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?”

Here is his answer:

Flower Drum Song centers around Asian American theater performers fighting for representation and acceptance in a white majority society, while still desperately trying to uphold and honor the traditions of their ancestors before them. To some, it may sound like a dated plot line; but for Asian artists living in 2017, the struggle has not changed.

Representation of Asian stories, starring Asian characters, played by Asian actors is missing from the American theater. I know that might come across as a generalized and overly bold statement, but the Asian community in America has often been cited as “The Invisible Minority.” Cultural upbringing has created a “don’t speak up, don’t stand out, just put your head down and work hard” mentality for Asian Americans. Whenever an Asian person speaks up about discrimination, people respond by saying, “All of the stereotypes about Asians are positive! You’re really good at math and the girls are sexy and you know kung fu!” This only perpetuates the stereotypes of Asian characters in the media. Nerdy, de-masculinized men. Sexualized Asian schoolgirls. Mystic foreign martial arts masters. This is why a show like Flower Drum Song is so relevant and important to produce in our modern society.

Three-dimensional characters, with high stakes objectives. Romantic entanglements. Standing center stage and delivering a show stopper. These are opportunities that are taken for granted by many actors, but for the Asian performer, these opportunities often never arise. Asians can be the mysterious native (i.e., Bloody Mary in South Pacific), the sterilized simpleton (i.e., Chinese Laundrymen in Thoroughly Modern Millie), or the “Engrish”- speaking comic relief (i.e., Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Mrs. Swan from MadTV, The “Fa Ra Ra Ra Ra” Waiters in A Christmas Story, Mrs. Kim from Gilmore Girls, Rajesh Koothrapali from The Big Bang Theory, etc., etc., etc.) .For the Asian American performer, playing a leading role in any form of media is a huge deal. 

I’m playing a character named Wang Ta. He desperately wants to honor his father and maintain the Chinese opera traditions but also yearns to join the modern world with his “bold and brassy nightclub show.” He is head over heels in love with the unabashed Linda Low, yet also finds himself drawn to innocent and pure Mei-Li. On top of all that, he is struggling to pursue his American dream while holding on to his Chinese roots. Can someone be 100% Chinese AND 100% American? Now THAT is a challenging and interesting character for an actor to invest in.

I have been moved to tears multiple times during the rehearsal process simply by looking around the room and seeing this diverse cast of Asian American performers fully investing and pushing themselves to be more than a funny sidekick or a splash of color in the ensemble. The most meaningful part of Flower Drum Song for me is simply being a proud Asian American actor, playing an Asian American character, telling an Asian American story. It’s my first opportunity to do so, and I hope it’s not the last.

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

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

WESLEY’S BACKGROUND:

Park Square Debut Representative Theatre Mu Performing Arts: A Little Night Music; Guthrie Theater: South Pacific, The Cocoanuts, The Music Man; Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: Hello Dolly!, The Little Mermaid, Bye Bye Birdie; Children’s Theatre Company: Cinderella; Ordway: Broadway Songbook: Rebels on Broadway Training B.A., Theater Arts, Bethel University

 

Flower Drum Song – Co-Produced with Mu Performing Arts

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

Happy Mu Year!

 

The Chinese character 'xi,' meaning happy or joy Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt of Laughing Waters Studio

The Chinese character ‘xi,’ meaning happy or joy
Calligraphy and photography by Bob Schmitt

 

Theater Mu was founded in 1992, added Mu Daiko in 1997, then renamed itself Mu Performing Arts in 2001 to better reflect its taiko and theater programs. In spring 2017, Mu Daiko will spin off as a separate nonprofit entity to continue its work, still carrying its Mu indicia.

But what exactly does the term ‘Mu’ mean? According to Mu Performing Arts, “‘Mu’ (pronounced MOO) is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.”

In 2017, Mu Performing Arts will be 25 years old! This January and February, Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts partner to co-produce the musical Flower Drum Song in celebration of this happy occasion.

Most appropriately, an ancient form for the Chinese character ‘xi,’ which means happy or joy, pictorially shows a flower-like hand holding a stick and a drum to make music and a mouth singing.

 

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric 'Pogi' Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated Photography by T. T. Cheng

First rehearsal for Flower Drum Song: Eric ‘Pogi’ Sumangil and Wesley Mouri singing; Meghan Kreidler seated
Photography by T. T. Cheng

 

 Flower Drum Song – Park Square Proscenium Stage – January 20 to February 19

 

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Note: Minneapolis brush painter and teacher Bob Schmitt is professionally trained in traditional Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy by master painters Hong Shang from Shanghai as well as Lok Tok and Yitong Lok of Toronto, Canada. Learn more about him at www.shopatlaughingwatersstudio.com.

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