The mood at Friday night’s opening for Mu Performing Arts’ world premiere of “The Tiger Among Us” was triumphant, if a little bittersweet. Two years in the making, this show will be the last newly commissioned work to come to fruition under the sharp eye and guidance of company founder and artistic director Rick Shiomi. He announced in late November that he’d be retiring from his role of 20 years, at the helm of Theater Mu, a Knight Arts grantee, to pursue his own projects as a playwright and director.
The script for “The Tiger Among Us,” by San Francisco playwright Lauren Yee, bristles with wit and cross-cultural insight. Our story centers on the Xiongs, a small Hmong family living deep in outstate Minnesota, each of them at a crucial pivot in their lives. At the family’s head is Thao, a single father and first-generation immigrant transplanted long ago from his tropical home to the frigid climes of Minnesota, where he’s since built a life for his two kids, now young adults. His daughter Lia – played convincingly by a talented emerging Twin Cities actor, Gaosong Vang Heu – is a high school volleyball phenom and all-American girl who’s spent her whole life stateside; she’s looking forward to a college scholarship, largely unmoored from her father’s native culture. The son, Pao, is a twenty-something “ghetto wannabe” – ably played for laughs by Mu regular Maxwell Chonk Thao – a charming but hapless schemer with big city dreams, spinning his wheels working a dead-end job in smalltown Minnesota.
The play opens on the start of hunting season and the beginning of the father’s annual solo deer hunting trip. As it happens, something lays in wait for him, too: Thao is still haunted by the violence and upheaval of his youth, and long-held secrets from his refugee past are catching up to him, and to his children. By turns funny and poignant, the story’s an engaging one; director Ellen Fenster and assistant director Kathy Mouacheupao tease an easy, natural interplay throughout from among the cast.
The family in “The Tiger Among Us” is Hmong, and certainly that history is in many ways central to the story; but these characters aren’t cultural stand-ins for some cookie-cutter immigrant story. What’s disarming about the show, in fact, has far less to do with its capture of “the Asian-American experience” than its universality; the play’s worth your attention, not for the story’s Hmong-ness, but for its brisk wit and careful attention to the interwoven textures of generational relationships and family history.
Mu Performing Arts’ world premiere production of “The Tiger Among Us,” written by Lauren Yee and directed by Ellen Fenster, is on stage through February 10 at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th Street, Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, visit www.muperformingarts.org.