Tuesday, April 4, 2023

"Again" by Theater Mu at Mixed Blood Theatre

"At Mu, we believe universality can only be found through specificity." I agree with Theater Mu’s Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal. Here she’s talking about their new original musical Again, but it's true of all of their work. For 30 years, Mu has been telling specifically Asian American stories from the Asian American perspective, about universal themes of life that anyone can relate to. Again is about Hmong American women living with cancer, an experience that's all too familiar to many people. The story isn't about being Hmong, it's about being human – relationships, career crises, disease, grief – from the specific background of the artists. Despite the heaviness of the theme, I found the musical to be much lighter than I expected, really more about friendship, community, and perseverance than loss and dying. The talented four-person cast (some of whom are purportedly making their professional theater debuts, although that's hard to believe) is charming and fun to watch as they bring this story to life. See it now through April 16 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
the filmmaker and the author (Melody Her and Dexieng Yang)
(photo by Rich Ryan)
The protagonist of the story is an author and cancer survivor named Mai See. She's working in a book store and starting to write a new book when a fan asks her if she can film her for a documentary. Quest is a young woman who has been living with recurring cancer since she was a child. Mai See reluctantly agrees (partly for the stipend) and the two begin talking about their experiences, not just with cancer but also family and other aspects of their lives. Mai See's past is told through flashbacks and dream sequences (some ridiculously funny), including her now strained relationship with her sister Shia. After their parents died, Shia took care of Mai See throughout her illness, a care that was perhaps not reciprocated. Quest decides to search out Shia for the documentary, angering both sisters, but beginning the healing process. Mai See and Quest continue to face health challenges, but they do it with humor, grace, and a little help from their friends.

the sisters argue while the filmmaker looks on
(Melody Her, Pagnia Xiong, and Dexieng Yang, photo by Rick Ryan)
Director Nana Dakin nicely navigates the time, tone, and reality switches in the script by Katie Ka Vang. Two rotating walls convert the set from living room to book store to doctor's office to memory (scenic design by Alice Endo). Dexieng Yang is funny, endearing, and relatable as Mai See, a woman just trying to live her life without cancer getting in the way. College student Melody Her is adorably enthusiastic as Quest, Pagnia Xiong makes the most of her scenes as Shia, and Aaron Komo rounds out the cast stealing scenes in a number of roles (human and otherwise). Characters are dressed in realistic lived-in clothing, but the fun in the costume design comes out in the fantasy sequences (costume design by Khamphian Vang).

The score by Melissa Li (who also co-write the pandemic-interrupted musical Interstate, which I sadly never had the chance to see but my colleague at The Stages of MN saw three times) is funny and brash, poignant and emotional. The off-stage five-piece band led by Bob Kelly on piano (with music direction by Denise Prosek) sounds great and keeps things moving.

A new original musical is a rare thing these days, a new original musical by Hmong American women even more so. Again is a universal story of family, community, and living with disease, as told from the Hmong perspective, with music and humor to lighten the drama of the situation.