The role of the ethnic theater company

In covering the Guthrie Theater’s 50th anniversary season last week, one thing became very clear; the lack of diversity on the theater stage is an ongoing national problem.

20 years ago the lack of roles for Asian American actors, and the lack of learning opportunities for aspiring Asian American actors, led Rick Shiomi to found Mu Performing Arts.

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Rick Shiomi

Photo by Lia Chang

Today Shiomi can list an impressive number of young actors who got their first acting opportunities at Mu, and are now regularly employed by other theaters around town.

On McKnight Foundation’s “State of the Artist” blog, Shiomi wrote that while theaters may be gradually diversifying their plays- and their casts – there will always be a need for his theater, and other similar ethnic theaters.

Mu plays a key role in the continuing development of new Asian American theater talent because it is part of our mandate and primary values. Other companies may do Asian American work on occasion, but their role is not to train and develop Asian American artists. So if the flow of Asian American actors were to somehow dry up, their answer to why they might use “yellow face” or not use Asian American actors in diverse casts, would simply be that there are no qualified Asian American actors available. That was the answer before Mu, that is the answer when “yellow face” is used now, and that would be the answer in the future if the pool of Asian American artists were diminished.

There are challenges in the broader vision of Mu. When an actor has the opportunity to work at a larger company, it is hard for them to stay with a Mu production. But that happens to every small theater. That’s why we at Mu are so intent upon developing more talent, so when an actor gets the chance to jump up, we have someone in the wings waiting for their opportunity. Losing singular talented actors to bigger theaters is hard, but in the broader scheme of things, more Asian American actors working on more stages in the Twin Cities is good for everyone.

You can read the rest of Rick Shiomi’s piece here.

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