On Saturday night at Mixed Blood Theatre in Cedar Riverside, Theater Mu made something remarkable happen. The Asian American theater company, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, staged a world premiere musical about Hmong Americans titled Again. It’s being touted as “the first professional musical production by a Hmong-American playwright,” as Katie Ka Vang, who wrote the show with composer and lyricist Melissa Li, described it to MPR News. And the three Hmong American women characters in the show are all played by Hmong American women.
All of these factors make Again, which is playing through April 16 in Minneapolis, a groundbreaking musical. But what made last Saturday night remarkable was the audience. The unassigned seating in the converted firehouse was absolutely packed, with the show starting at least 15 minutes after the allotted time because more and more people kept filing in, patrons rearranging themselves and groups splitting up in order to find seating. The eager theatergoers were also largely Asian American. Theater Mu’s stated goal is not only to produce shows that capture the Asian American experience, but to “[empower] Asian Americans through theater.”
On Saturday night, as the audience crackled with excitement, it was immediately obvious this 30-year-old theater company has achieved its mission — not that it’s planning on stopping anytime soon.
By saying Again is about the Hmong American experience is certainly oversimplifying it. It’s also a deeply personal story for Vang, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. In this new show, her first musical (though she’s a prolific playwright), she explores all of the grief, anger and unspeakable things that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Except she’s taken these unspeakable things and, with the help of Li and director Nana Dakin, made them singable and danceable.
The story follows Mai See (played by Dexieng Yang), who starts the show having beat cancer and reading from her book that she wrote about the experience. Despite that optimistic beginning, we quickly see the cracks in her life: a nonexistent relationship with her sister, Shia (Pagnia Xiong), a dead-end job made worse by her clueless boss, Broc (Aaron Komo), and unpaid bills from her medical treatment. Those bills lead her to agree to be the subject of a documentary when Quest (Melody Her), a budding, college-bound filmmaker and superfan of The Year of Cancer, Mai See’s memoir, shows up one day. Mai See doesn’t want to open up, but she’ll try for $700, and for a young woman who is also fighting bouts of cancer. And then she relapses.
This is an intensely personal show, not just for Vang and the other creators, but for the community around Theater Mu. In an interview with Vang and Li in the program, the creation of Again is discussed (it was commissioned in 2019). An audience member who attended a public reading in April 2022 is quoted as saying, “This was the first time I’ve ever attended a performance where I could personally relate to the characters and work, both personally and culturally. I felt validated and affirmed in my experience as a Hmong woman.” That’s a powerful and important experience, and the entire team that has shepherded this show is responsible for making that happen.
However, looking at the merits of Again as a piece of theater alone, the show is a jumble of ideas, and it unfortunately just doesn’t come together into a satisfying musical. Its tone swings wildly from one extreme to the other, as do many of the other elements at play here.
For example, the song where Mai See gets the news from her doctor that she’s relapsed is called “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?” The setup is as passionate as the title, with fog spilling out onto the stage and the lights turning blood red, mirroring her rage — the doctor (also played by Komo) freezes in time, suggesting Mai See is unleashing her fury at this diagnosis in her head instead of in public. But the performance feels oddly tame, with the lyrics not able to convey to the audience the full brunt of this gut-wrenching experience, instead relying on the use of “fuck” and some well-worn lines, like talking about the “Hallmark sentiments” of those who try to console people with cancer. (The band here, however, is excellent, with Bob Kelly on piano and conducting, Eri Isomura on drums, Teiana Nakano on cello, Shawn Wang on bass and Kyle Simons Baker on guitar.)
There are many other things I could say here, but most of it can be summed up in one scene: the dancing poops. In this one hour and 45 minute show, with no intermission, the team manages to squeeze in a song called “Constipation,” about Mai See’s inability to poop, a side effect of chemotherapy. It starts with her on the toilet stringing together various ways to describe feces, and ends with two of the actors dressed in turd costumes swirling and twirling around front and center. This irreverence is part of the fabric of this show, which weaves in other fantastical elements, and is attempting to convey the truth about cancer, rather than the Hallmark version of it. But while that appears to be the goal, in practice we’re left wondering: what song would they have come up with if this was cut? Does this kind of obvious comedy detract from both the utterly real and utterly magical moments in the show? What about all the pieces of plot that were introduced and then never resolved, like Mai See’s money issues? If we cut this song, would there have been time to receive closure on those?
Maybe you’ll have a different reaction to Again. The three reviews that I’ve read of the show so far have all been glowing, so I appear to be the outlier. If you’re intrigued, you’ll just have to head over to Mixed Blood Theatre and see it for yourself.
at Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St.
Minneapolis, MN 55454
Playing March 29 – April 16, 2023
Learn more here