“The whole crazy experiment worked better than I imagined” Randy Reyes admitted the other day.
Three Mu actors, Eric Sharp, Meghan Kreidler and Michael Sung-Ho, took David Henry Hwang’s searing examination of Chinese-American culture and presented it in Chinese restaurants in towns around Minnesota.
Reyes came up with the idea after noticing that in towns he visited outside the Twin Cities, more often than not if there was more than one eatery in a community it was a Chinese restaurant. He raised money to stage the show in the actual restaurants, with a $5 ticket covering not only the show, but a buffet meal too.
The tour started at the Jin Hu restaurant in Perham, Minnesota, midway between Detroit Lakes and Wadena. Actor Eric Sharp says having done site specific shows before he knew to expect the unexpected, and Perham provided that.
“Our assumption was we were going to buy out the restaurant, and ours were going to be the only patrons coming in. But what ended up happening, of course, was that people from Perham just wanted Chinese food, so they ended up just coming in and they were completely confused as to what was going on,” he laughed.
“We had one side of the restaurant that was our patrons watching the show, and one side of the restaurant just eating orange chicken and doing their own thing.”
He also said in the past people have tended to be quiet when they see a show is underway, but that didn’t happen at all in the restaurants.
“People were just as loud as they would have been normally. Plates falling and crashing in the background, people coming in and out. Doors slamming. It was controlled chaos.”
But the cast believed that just added to the ambiance, and the efficacy of the show.
Hwang’s three characters represent different aspects of the Chinese-American experience, ranging from the someone steeped in the ancient history of the Chinese people to a young man who despises anyone interested in their heritage. He is the one who uses the acronym FOB, “fresh off the boat,” to describe new immigrants.
Sharp said reaction to the play changed the farther they were from the Twin Cities.
The further out that we went, these issues that the play brings up, like about Chinese-American immigration, are very new. The idea of immigration, I know, is not a foreign one to them, but in order to have a conversation about it, you need to broach that in any situation.
What we found in Perham in particular is that people wanted that permission and our production was that permission that they had to start talking about those issues, and they welcomed it. We had really robust discussions after both performances there.
Sharp said doing the show in active restaurants allowed them to break another barrier for the audiences too. “We were introducing them to neighbors in their own community, namely these restaurant owners. And as we would reveal details of these restaurant owners lives and careers here.”
Usually audiences wanted to know about how the individual restaurant owners ended up in their community, Sharp said:
But then going more deeply about how this Chinese family has not seen another Chinese family living in town this entire time that they have been in this city.
That our faces as the theater artists coming in were the closest approximation that they have had to diversity or other Asian-Americans that they have had in a long time, and I think that was incredibly important.
As the production got closer to the Twin Cities they began meeting audience members who knew about the theater scene in the metro. “What was interesting there,” Sharp said, “Was people had no clue, as I didn’t before I moved here, that there is a culturally specific theater scene in the Twin Cities, that we can support an Asian-American theater in the Twin Cities.”
Mu held post performance discussions after every show, and heard repeatedly how the play moved many audience members. Some of the restaurant owners also said they were moved that people in the community cared to find out about their personal histories.
The performers were also glad to see other Asian-Americans in the audience. “In Rochester we had probably five at our last performance,” said Sharp.
And one man was a Chinese-American immigrant himself, and talked about growing up in Hopkins, and he had seen this article about the play and wanted to check it out, and was very very forthcoming about how hard it was to grow up as an Asian-American in Minnesota.
And then later in the bathroom when Michael (Sung-Ho) was changing his costume this guy just came in and broke into tears because he was just kind of overcome with the experience of seeing another Asian-American on stage and then hearing a story that was close to his own.
Randy Reyes, who directed the show says they have collected a lot of documentation, video, stories, surveys that have proven that this model works.
“People are hungry for the experience, no pun intended of course,” he grinned. “The art the culture the food, the whole experience.”
Now Reyes says Mu are looking at how else it might work, and maybe even a national model of how to talk about immigration “and how a community got empowered around food, around the restaurant business,” he said.
For people in the Twin Cities eager to see the show Mu will do a main stage production of “FOB” at Mixed Blood in January. “We are hoping to change Mixed Blood into a Chinese restaurant. We will see what the set designer thinks of that,” said Reyes.