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Theater Mu’s Stage of Justice, Power, and Community

Celebrating Over Three Decades of Asian American Theater, Storytelling, and Community Building

By Julie Yu

“When we’re telling good stories and we’re telling them well, then people pay attention. And that’s how we make impact. That’s how we spread the word about our communities.”

Lily Tung Crystal, Theater MU

For Theater Mu, the practice of art and the practice of justice have always been one and the same.

“Theater Mu is a social justice community art space,” shares the organization’s managing director, Anh-Thu Pham. “Even though it [is] an arts organization, Theater Mu consider[s] itself part of the community as well.” 

For 32 years, Theater Mu has occupied a critical space in the landscape of arts and culture across the Twin Cities: producing, funding, and cultivating art situated at the heart of the Asian American experience. Through its productions, Mu tells Asian American stories that have the dignity of complexity, interrupting and complicating conceptions of Asian American identity as a stable and singular monolith. In 2021, Theater Mu’s legacy of impact and its sustained commitment to its community were honored through a Regional Cultural Treasure designation. The Regional Cultural Treasures program, a regional initiative of America’s Cultural Treasures made possible by a collaboration of the McKnight, Ford, Bush and Jerome Foundations, provided unrestricted grants to ten arts organizations in Minnesota who have had a significant impact on the region’s cultural landscape.

“Organizations like Theater Mu, ethnically-specific arts and culture organizations, they’re not just about representation,” notes Bao Phi, an arts and culture program officer at the McKnight Foundation and a working artist who has performed with and written for Theater Mu. “They’re about an intervention—creating space for difficult conversations and complex stories, nurturing Asian American art and artists, and broadening the lens of what it means to be Asian American.”

Since its founding, Theater Mu has supported countless artists across disciplines through meaningful financial support, training and mentorship, and collaborative and complex roles and stories. In doing so, Theater Mu is increasing the number of Asian American theater artists working in the Twin Cities and across the country, and modeling a pathway forward for a more sustainable, vibrant, and expansive arts ecosystem.

“When people see that they can have careers in the arts, when they see that there’s a space for them, that there’s a place for their voice to be heard: then they are encouraged and have the confidence to do art,” says Lily Tung Crystal, Theater Mu’s artistic director. “And it’s important for that art to be done—because for us to be part of the fabric of America, for us to be part of the American narrative, our stories have to be told. And they must be told by Asian American artists.”

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By providing space and support for Asian American artists to write, produce, and act in Asian American stories, Theater Mu’s productions are generative, rather than extractive: capturing the diversity and depth of the Asian American diaspora. Just within the last few years, Mu has produced the world premiere of Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay’s Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals, a richly textured play centering Lao culture and history; co-produced Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band with the Jungle Theater, a resonant story of survival, family, return and repair, backed by a live band; and produced the world premiere of Katie Ka Vang and Melissa Li’s Again, the first professionally produced Hmong American musical.

These many collaborations and co-productions are testament to Theater Mu’s role as a connector, a partner, and a community-builder across the landscape of the theater arts: a role that animates Theater Mu’s work, both in celebration and in crisis. “During the early days of the pandemic, when a lot of companies, large and small, shut down, Theater Mu immediately thought about how we were part of the ecosystem of arts,” Pham remembers. “We had funding. We had our paycheck. But how [could] we make sure that as an ecosystem, our artists were still around when the shutdown was over?”

Almost immediately, Theater Mu pivoted its resources to stand up digital programming, providing funding for artists to create and collaborate, and enabling artists and audiences to connect and imagine during a time of isolation. It came as no surprise for its community, who had already seen Mu show up time and time again, far beyond the walls of traditional theater spaces: marching in the streets as a part of the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon movement; building labor equity in the theater arts by funding robust training fellowships for theater workers across disciplines and departments; expanding access to theater arts by implementing a “Pay as You Are” sliding price scale for everything from mainstage performances to family programming.

“There have been three large-scale protests against Miss Saigon in my lifetime, and Theater Mu folks were out there with us saying that this play is racist, sexist, colonialist,” remembers Phi. “And they did it risking their names and careers.” 

“There is also change we have seen within philanthropy that wouldn’t have been possible without Mu’s staunch commitment to coalition,” adds Sarah Bellamy, president of St. Paul’s Penumbra Center for Racial Healing. “They have been such a profound partner for us in that work: and together, we’ve been able to link arms and push in the right direction.”

Rick Shiomi, one of the four original founders of Theater Mu, notes that Mu’s growth has been a slow and deliberate evolution because it has always prioritized relational and responsive ways of being. “From its early days, the role of Theater Mu was to serve as a place where Asian Americans could gather and work together to develop their theater art,” Shiomi says. “Up to that time, there were a few individual Asian American theater artists, but they were either on the fringes of the theater community: or, if successful, considered anomalies.”

“Organizations like Theater Mu, ethnically-specific arts and culture organizations, they’re not just about representation. They’re about an intervention—creating space for difficult conversations and complex stories, nurturing Asian American art and artists, and broadening the lens of what it means to be Asian American.”


Theater Mu’s name itself (pronounced MOO) enacts this—the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life. “[T]he meaning of Mu has meant a lot to me,” says Zaraawar Mistry, a longtime Mu artist, teacher, and community member. “I believe that it is at the very core of who I am as an artist, i.e. we artists are the conduits for transformation, for others to experience and imagine much more than what they know.”

This power of connection has made Theater Mu’s work a site of care and coalition: building solidarity with other communities whose stories have historically been marginalized or flattened. “The work we do is multi-pronged and intersectional, and one of our visions is to widen circles in the stories that we’re telling,” shares Tung Crystal. “…We are interrogating how they’re intersecting with other narratives that also need to be highlighted in American social structures.”

Over the years, the widening circles of Theater Mu’s stories have become the trunk of a great tree, holding up an entire ecosystem of playwrights, producers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and artists, both across the Twin Cities and beyond. In their hands, the act of storytelling expands too—becoming a practice of both witness and solidarity, power and fragility, mirror and transformation. 

“Theater Mu has always been about the concept of movement as opposed to individual artists,” adds Shiomi. “Theater Mu has always known that even in the cultivation of individual artists, which is important and essential, there needs to be continuous development, the building and support of a whole movement of people. And even Mu itself is not individual. Its growth and success has made Mu a major part of the national movement of Asian American theater arts.”

“To finally see Asian American Art – not Asian art from Asia – but to see Asian American art and to see more of myself reflected on a stage, and just to figure out how healing that was for me, I started to invest in the arts.”

Anh-Thu Pham, THEATER MU

About the Author: Julie Yu is a writer in the Midwest.