The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Rick Shiomi, Mu Performing Arts
One of the basic premises of Mu is giving voice to Asian American culture and artists. At first glance, one might not think that our production of the musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine would serve that purpose. And yet I believe there are several ways in which it does.
Katie Bradley, Sheena Janson, Randy Reyes, Jeannie Lander, Sara Ochs, Suzie Juul, and Maxwell Thao go Into the Woods. 2012 © Michal Daniel
Firstly we changed the context from the woods of Europe to the bamboo forests of Asia, creating an Asian cultural theme for this classic musical. The folktales take place within specific Asian cultural frames such as the Cinderella story in a Filipino setting, the Baker and his Wife’s story in a Korean setting and the Jack In The Beanstalk story in a Hmong setting. There are so many similar folktales in Asian cultures to the Grimm fairytales that the shift felt seamless. This Asian cultural expression was done through costuming and cultural forms rather than changing the text or music. For example, in our production the Witch used Korean hang sen (the long white sleeves) from Korean mask dance to work her magical powers and the group dance movements came from Japanese obon dancing. None of this was exactly traditional but rather inspired by these Asian traditions.
Secondly, with a cast of nineteen Asian American actors along with one Latina actor, we have given Asian American performers the opportunity to create an impact en masse through their talents, rather than be the anomaly in the typical mostly white productions. We are showing audiences that a talented Asian American performer is not the exception to the rule but rather a regular reality of the theater world here in the Twin Cities. The challenge to Asian Americans is that they have been largely ignored and treated as a minor nuisance in mainstream theater arts and our task is to change that perception, one audience member at a time. For too long “yellow face” (white actors playing Asian roles) has been the accepted practice, because producers have claimed there have not been qualified Asian actors. We are taking away that excuse in the Twin Cities, by showcasing top flight Asian American music theater performers such as Randy Reyes, Sara Ochs, Katie Bradley, Sheena Janson and many more in one of the most difficult Sondheim musicals, getting both rave reviews (see links below) and standing ovations.