In 1992, Theater Mu was founded in St. Paul to tell stories from the heart of the Asian American experience, and now, we are in the middle of celebrating our 30th anniversary season. Four world premieres inspired or created by local artists made up our mainstage line-up, but we wanted to add an event that honored the people who created the foundations for Asian American theater. Thus, the AAPI Generations Conference was born.
The event takes place May 19-21, 2023 in St. Paul and brings together local and national Asian American arts leaders, community organizations, and artists. Highlights include an opening conversation with playwright David Henry Hwang, actor Amy Hill, and Mu co-founder Rick Shiomi; a play reading that reflects on seminal works by six of Asian American theater’s trailblazers; and a conversation led by More Than a Single Story that brings together Lana Salah Barkawi of Mizna, Ananya Chatterjea of Ananya Dance Theatre, and Mu’s leaders Lily Tung Crystal and Anh Thu T. Pham.
It’s a lot to pack in one weekend – and that’s not including the other performances or community-led breakout sessions – but as the staff reflected on what a national Asian American theater reunion looked like, this was the only way we could picture it.
Since the beginning, Theater Mu’s mission has been intertwined with social justice, so of course it made sense to hold space for discussions on representation, combating AAPI hate, and disrupting the gender binary. We are a theater that finds its origins in waving down Asian Americans on the street to ask if they want to become actors, so of course we commit to spotlighting newer works (this year’s readings being “House of Joy” by Madhuri Shekar and “Holy Shitake: A Wok Star Is Born” by Katie Chin, daughter of the late restaurateur Leann Chin).
We also remember that we only thrived because of our community’s spirit of abundance. To this, we pay tribute to the arts-based activism organization Asian American Renaissance, and we welcome other arts organizations such as Wattanak Dance Troupe and TaikoArts Midwest, both of whom are holding small performances and panels during the conference.
The staff is so proud of everyone who is going to be a part of the AAPI Generations Conference, but as we look ahead to the 2023/24 theater season, we know there are many more stories to share. After 30 years, we’re still only scraping the surface of experiences within our Asian American communities, and to truly tell them all, we need to be here for another 30 years, and another 30, and another, until the end of time.
And our stories need to be told, now more than ever. According to a report released in March this year, the FBI found a 167.4% increase in hate crimes (279 to 746) against Asian Americans from 2020 to 2021. From March 19, 2020, through March 31, 2022, the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate noted that two thirds of the nearly 11,500 incidents it recorded involved harassment, with one in six incidents involving physical altercations. The multi-year report further notes that 40% of all incidents occurred in public spaces and that 27% took place in businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies, or retail stores.
Art is a way to fight this hate, healing and galvanizing those who create and consume it. Shiomi once said, “My theater work came out of my community activism, and became an extension of that activism. Being Asian American, there are so many hurdles to get across in terms of creating awareness and recognition of Asian American theater, wherever you go. Those two are, for me, wedded together completely.”
Similarly, Tung Crystal says, “When those around us do not see us on stage, film, or television, they often perceive us as other. We at Mu know that the more we uplift our stories, the more we are part of the narrative of America. … The key to universality is through specificity. The characters we champion must be full, real, and complicated, and only then can we inspire true empathy and understanding.”
While the headlines may be more full than ever with Asian American triumphs – does “Everything Everywhere All at Once” ring a bell? – we hope to be part of a movement, not a moment. So please, join us at the AAPI Generations Conference as we honor the founders of Asian American theater who have made today’s milestones possible, and dream with us as we consider what the future can hold.
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