Monday, December 7, 2015

"Purple Cloud" by Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre

In celebration of 50 years of Asian American theater, Mu Performing Arts is presenting their 49th (if memory serves) world premiere play about the Asian American experience. That's an incredible commitment to new work, and to giving voice to stories that might not otherwise be heard. And while Purple Cloud is a specifically Asian American story, it's true what they say that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. This "hapa" (meaning mixed) girl's search for identity, family, and a place in the world is something everyone can relate to in some way, and told in an innovative, imaginative, fantastical yet grounded way by playwright Jessica Huang.

The story is introduced by four "jade pieces" (Jeannie Lander, Kylee Brinkman, Stephanie Bertumen, and Audrey Park) who act as narrators and also play additional characters. A teenage girl (played with much angst, passion, and heart by Meghan Kreidler) is first a witness to her story, and then the teller. We don't learn her name until the end of the play, and her struggle to find an appropriate name mirrors her struggle to find her identity. She tries on a crazy nickname given to her by her peers, and a Chinese name, until she finally comes to terms with her given name and all that it encompasses. (I will awkwardly refer to her as "girl" or "she" so as not to spoil that journey for you.)

hapa girl (Meghan Kriedler) and her dad (Rich Remedios)
(photo by Keri Pickett)
Hapa girl is part Chinese, living with her father Orville (Rich Remedios), who is also part Chinese. She wants to connect with her grandfather Lee (Alex Galick), whom we meet in flashback and fantasy. Through these storytelling devices we learn about the history of the Huang family in China and in Minneapolis, both recent and ancient. The Huang are the people of the Purple Cloud (it makes sense that they end up in the land of Purple Rain). The girl travels with her father to China to search for the Purple Cloud, thinking she'll find herself there, but ends up even more confused. Eventually she is able to accept her name and her whole history. Parts of her journey take place outside of time and place, but yet it's grounded in a specific reality so that it never feels too "out there."

the jade pieces (Stephanie Bertumen, Jeannie Lander,
Audrey Park, and Kylee Brinkman, photo by Keri Pickett)
One of the ways hapa girl describes her history and identity is through fried rice, which she actually cooks on stage! It smells so good, and if it really makes your mouth water you can purchase some fried rice at intermission (clever, and if I hadn't stuffed myself at Hard Times Cafe I just might have indulged). Besides the working stove on the kitchen set that is the girl and her dad's home, the minimalist set features some honeycomb cloud shapes on the edges of the stage, hanging panels, and a few folding chairs (scenic design by Theresa Akers). Costume designer Aaron Chvatal has dressed the jade pieces in cool and edgy pieces with a bit of sparkle, the white clothing of the American Huangs when they travel to China signifies the way they stand out as foreigners, and the deer costume is subtle and elegant.

Purple Cloud, a moving story of identity and family well-told by playwright and cast, continues at Mixed Blood Theatre through Decmeber 20.