Monday, August 7, 2017

A Wonderful Trip through The Immigrant Journey Project

The Immigrant Journey Project is everything that Refugia should have been but wasn't. I hope it has an incredible audience engagement; it deserves it.  

This little map was the most beautiful way to connect all audience members' families' journeys to the United States! 

When I was arranging to see The Immigrant Journey Project, the media rep I was in contact with made sure to send a disclaimer: "don't forget that these performers aren't professional actors!", she said. She needn't have worried. I can safely say that The Immigrant Journey Project is one of the most candid, moving, intimate works I've seen in a while, and the mixed cast is a huge part of it's success.

Let me back up for a second and start at the beginning. The Immigrant Journey Project marks the culmination of a three year long development process between Mu Performing Arts and several community groups, including CHAT, the Hmong Elder Center, SOY, Wilder and WISE. The grant-funded project was devised to help Asian-American elders and more recent immigrants to tell their stories through learning about theater and puppetry. The Immigrant Journey Project takes the scripts and stories written by dozens of participants and distills them into a series of short vignettes that shine a light on each of these unique narratives. The show is split into three themes: past (where Hmong elders tell of their lives as youth living in their villages); present (young immigrants talk about their recent immigration to the United States and their observations of cultural differences); and future (Mu Performing Arts cast members imagine a futuristic potluck in space). The result is a show that has it all - wonder, humor, ennui, heartbreak, gratitude, perspective and a whole lot of heart.

The Immigrant Journey Project opened with the story of Pa Lee Thao as she remembered sweet stories from her childhood in the village, such as losing a shoe in the river and going on dates. All of the vignettes told by the Hmong elders are told by the elders themselves in Hmong, which are then translated into English by one of the actors. It was so special and beautiful to see these wise community members become animated and engaged as they shared pieces of their past, many of which were beautiful and elegantly simple. The one exception was "Poison From the Sky 'Tshuaj Saum Ntuj' " by Cher Pao, in which he detailed how his village and their farms were poisoned by chemicals dropped on them during one of the many wars that devastated SouthEast Asia in the twentieth century. Pao's abrupt style was shattering, and the simple facets of his story laid bare the horror he witnessed as a young man. It was incredibly moving, and added a lot of gravitas to the rest of the show.

In between the Hmong elder's stories were two other biographical series. One, called "WISE," was the more modern telling of three young girls who are recent immigrants to America. Each has had a very different cultural and familial experience and has arrived to the United States for different reasons, but they also share several themes. Standouts included stories about the first time each encountered snow and the difference between foods and eating habits in their respective cultures versus the U.S. The girls were shy but engaging, and their vibrant, youthful perspective brought great energy to the performance. It was a joy seeing them work with the experienced Mu performers, with whom they clearly shared a warmth and comfortability that was inspiring to see.

The final series was the fictional and much more creative "Futuristic Potluck," staged by Mu Performing Arts' cast members. These were much sillier (and funnier) stories that were a huge hit with the children in the audience. There were some strong political themes raised in these potluck narratives, such as social anxiety, sexism, gender rights and cultural reflections on the year 2017 (from 50 years into the future of course), but the overwhelming sense from this series was community and positivity. Normally I would have found something like this potluck series to be really out of place and a waste of time in a show like this. However, when woven between the more serious and emotional true stories of the young and old immigrants featured here, the futuristic potluck provided a welcome dose of humor that helped break up each series of stories.

The live music on stage was unique and beautiful.

All of the stories of The Immigrant Journey Project were told through puppets made by the artists themselves under the expert tutelage of Masanari Kawahara (also known as Masa). I've seen Masa's puppets in action before but they never struck me quite as they did in this performance. Each puppet was clearly made with love and care, and it was so beautiful to see the artists represent themselves visually. Their vibrant and expressive use of color and shape made the puppets very relatable, and displacing their story through a puppet (rather than "acting" themselves) really helped to build confidence and project each person's narrative. The futuristic potluck puppets were abstractly creative (very reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy, actually) and a whole lot of surrealist fun. They were also shockingly expressive, a testament to the strong voice work of the Mu cast members.

The Immigrant Journey Project is exactly what we need more of in Twin Cities theater and an inspired choice for Mu Performing Arts to wrap up their 25th season. It is such a brilliant way to bring real-life stories to the stage in an authentic, respectful and engaging way. I love that it was able to give back to the community both in terms of training and arts, and in educating the audience about these vital stories. The Immigrant Journey Project is everything that Refugia should have been but wasn't. If you went to see the latter show, I strongly urge you to support The Immigrant Journey Project too. These are real stories from real refugees and immigrants about their real experiences in both of their homelands, and I am certain that any audience can find something to learn from these brave artists.

Tickets to see this show (at the new-to-me and fabulous Steppingstone Theater) cost only $10, and rest assured that any money you spend will be well utilized by Mu Performing Arts to continue this kind of community-focused work. My only wish upon leaving the theater last weekend? I would love to see this project re-created with the many other incredible immigrant communities we have here in Minnesota. While this is technically outside of Mu's mission and scope, they have proven themselves to be expert custodians of such narratives, and I hope we can apply their expertise to lift up other communities as well.

I highly encourage everyone of all ages to check out The Immigrant Journey Project with Mu Performing Arts at Steppingstone Theater before it closes on August 20. It's the perfect way to wrap up your summer theater series, and it's a model for artistic community engagement in the future. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

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