JOURNEY TO THE MIDWEST: My Long and Winding Road through Asian American Theater from the West Coast to the Midwest

Rick Shiomi

I came into playwriting in the 1980s through a most circuitous and “on the job” type route.  I was a poor poet and prose writer, but fortuitous encounters with two people changed my career and life.  The first was a man by the name of Gordon Kadota who helped me organize the first Powell Street Festival, a Japanese Canadian festival in Vancouver in 1977. It was at that festival that I truly learned about my cultural and political heritage as a Japanese Canadian, and Gordon inspired me by his resemblance in terms of humor and insight to the television detective Columbo.  

I wrote a short story inspired by Kadota that I showed to the second person, my friend Philip Kan Gotanda, who asked me if I would ever consider adapting it for the stage. There was no Asian Canadian theater at the time, so I took his recommendation to submit it to the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco. That was 1980, and over the next two years, I worked with such artists as Marc Hayashi and Lane Kiyomi Nishikawa to turn the short story into a play. That first play was Yellow Fever, which launched my career as a playwright in March 1982. It was a hit in San Francisco and received both the Bay Area Theater Circle Critics Award and the “Bernie” (the award from the then-San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Bernie Weiner). I sent the play to the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and they produced it in December of that year, getting rave reviews by Mel Gussow in the New York Times and Edith Oliver in the New Yorker. Yellow Fever was then produced around North America and later in Japan and remains my major contribution to the canon of Asian American theater plays.

And so I gained entry into the world of Asian American theater and had the great good fortune of working among such emerging playwrights as Philip Kan Gotanda, David Hwang, and Velina Houston in the Bay Area, along with actor/directors like Marc Lane, Emilya Cachapero, Judy Nihei, Amy Hill, Dennis Dun, and Kelvin Han Yee.  In fact, I remember David in 1979, in the back of my apartment in Vancouver (he was there on a music tour with Philip), writing his second play The Dance And The Railroad, which would join FOB as one of his early classic plays. It was a magical and memorable time spent with a boatload of talented theater artists who would explode into many different areas of artistic expression. And those years from the late 1970s through the mid 1980s have come to be considered the “Golden Era” of the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco.

Born in the 1960s as a significant theater movement, Asian American playwriting is now in its fourth major wave of playwrights. The first wave had such writers as Frank Chin (Year of the Dragon), Wakako Yamauchi (And The Soul Shall Dance), and Momoko Iko (The Gold Watch), whose works reflected the primary emergence of Asian American history and community as told in the style of American naturalism. These plays and playwrights are the canonical first pillars of modern Asian American drama. I remember watching video recordings of both Year of the Dragon, featuring a young George Takei and the wonderful Tina Chen, and And The Soul Shall Dance, and marveling at the intensity and authenticity of their stories and voices.

By the 1990s I had written a number of plays, including Uncle Tadao, Play Ball, and Rosie’s Café, that had really expressed many different facets of my views of the Japanese Canadian/American experience. I began visiting Minneapolis in the early 1990s as a speaker and workshop leader at Augsburg College. During one of those visits, I was asked to help a Korean American doctoral student (Dong-il Lee) to start up an Asian American theater company. From my early visits to the Twin Cities, I had wondered whether it would even be possible for such a company to exist, but in spite of my misgivings, I agreed to help him start the company along with co-founders Martha B. Johnson and Diane Espaldon, which was named Theater Mu. Mu is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese ideogram meaning the shaman/artist/warrior that connects the heavens to the earth through the tree of life.

Theater Mu was founded in 1992, and after the first year, Dong-il Lee moved on to teach at a university on the east coast and I stepped in to become the interim artistic director. From that point, along with a handful of other artists, I was able to develop Theater Mu into a stable small theater company that generated many new plays featuring local performance artists. Our major productions of new plays included Mask Dance, which was about the issue of Korean children adopted into white American families in Minnesota; Song of the Pipa, about the traumatic immigrant story of renowned pipa player Gao Hong, who escaped the Cultural Revolution in China; and Circle Around The Island, by Marcus Quiniones, which told the story of his Filipino family in Hawai‘i and how he learned hula.

As Theater Mu developed we began to receive submissions from playwrights around the country, including Lauren Yee, Julia Cho, and Michael Golamco. Two plays stand out from this early wave: Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco and Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee. The former had a wonderful sense of humor by playing off the classic work, Cyrano de Bergerac, where the protagonist’s identity as Asian American serves as “the nose” and letters become the medium of the characters’ miscommunications. The latter delves into the absurdist perspective of a Chinese American family so far removed from their cultural and community roots that they often hold the same views and prejudices of the dominant American culture. Both of these plays have been produced by various Asian American theater companies with considerable success, and more recently Lauren Yee has gone on to growing success with her new plays King of the Yees, Great Leap, and Cambodian Rock Band.

At the same time we were encouraging the development of local playwrights, such as Katie Hae Leo, Sun Mee Chomet, May Lee-Yang, Katie Ka Vang, Eric Sharp, and Saymoukda Vongsay.  Theater Mu produced Four Directions by Katie Hae Leo and wtf by Katie Ka Vang. After I departed Theater Mu, it continued to produce these playwrights, including Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals by Saymoukda Vongsay and Middle Brother by Eric Sharp. Sun Mee Chomet continued on with her writing and performing her solo play How To Be A Korean Woman. Theater Mu recently had great success with the production of May Lee-Yang’s The Korean Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity.

By the time I left Mu Performing Arts, it was an established theater company with a budget of over $500K and had produced over forty new plays. It had become an early developer of promising new voices in Asian American theater. It was a founding member of CAATA (Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists), which is the service network for Asian American theater, providing services and information in ways similar to the way TCG (Theater Communications Group) serves American theater in general.

In my own particular individual projects, I was fortunate to receive two grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in their Building Demand For The Arts program (Exploration & Implementation rounds) to work in Philadelphia to develop a presence and demand for Asian American theater in that city. That project began in January 2014 and will ultimately wind up in June 2021 (with 2015 off between grant rounds). It involved the development of the local Asian American theater artists that led to  the formation of PAPA (Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists) and a successful production of Tiger Style by Michael Lew. However, the most significant playwriting event was the related production of Caught by InterAct Theatre that I directed in the fall of 2014. Written by Christopher Chen, Caught proved to be an extraordinarily clever and insightful play that used the premise of an exhibition and lecture by a Chinese dissident artist to explore a myriad number of layers of assumptions we have about art and politics. It was a huge success for InterAct Theater and had a major impact upon my work in Philadelphia, and has since been produced across the country with considerable success.

I have had the good fortune to have been initiated into the world of Asian American theater during the “Golden Age” of the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, to have written many plays that have been produced across North America and in Japan, to have been a co-founder and the artistic director of Theater Mu for two decades, and to help to foster the development of Asian American theater in Philadelphia. All along the way, I have had the opportunity to develop, direct, and produce new plays that are contributing to the body of the Asian American theater canon.

Rick Shiomi has been a playwright, director, and artistic director in the Asian American theater movement since the 1980s. He was a co-founder of Theater Mu and the Artistic Director there for twenty years. He is a co-founder and currently a co-artistic director of Full Circle Theater Company in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

This “literary address” is part of a series of 20 addresses commissioned by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Association for Asian American Studies. Penned by leading Asian American (and in this case, Pacific Islander) poets, writers, playwrights, graphic novelists, and literary scholars, the addresses assess the state and future of Asian American literature and offer a wide-spanning re-imagination of its place and consequence.