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Mu Performing Arts

From Awareness to Action: ‘Mu'-ving Forward

For an Asian American & Pacific Islander arts group, what does it mean to "go to scale" in social justice work? The leadership of Mu Performing Arts has been faced with that very question after its fruitful process of community engagement. Through dialogue with the board, staff, performers, and audience members, Mu is trying to develop new frameworks and language around what social justice means in and for their work.

In the play "Q & A," premiered by Mu Performing Arts, questions of Asian American identity are central. The director, David Mura, chose to employ a question-and-answer method to confront questions around racial and gender identity that can range from poilte social conversation to the most racially charged issues facing our society. This play was a recent example of the intentional step to bring ideas around social justice and gender to Mu's main stage.

Mu Performing Arts

Mu strives to provide a voice and vision for Asian American community and culture. It offers a unique blend of Asian and Western artistic forms in the expression of Asian and Asian American stories and music. In addition to taiko and theater performances, Mu organizes artist development to support the work of emerging actors, directors and playwrights. Its taiko classes serve approximately 200 youth and adult students annually. Finally, Mu's outreach programs and performances bring theater and taiko performances and residencies to schools, colleges, community organizations, and corporations throughout the upper Midwest. In the combination of all of these programs, Mu lives out its powerful vision of "filling every seat and transforming every heart through the power of theater and taiko."

Since its founding as Theater Mu in 1992, Mu Performing Arts has long aimed to move, provoke and challenge its audiences to understand, embrace and celebrate cultural diversity. Recent performances have melded traditional performance forms with contemporary drama, such as the modern issue of Korean adoptees unfolded in a play involving traditional Korean mask dance. Mu's productions also shine a spotlight on thought-provoking stereotypes, such as the image of the samurai warrior versus the cowboy. Now, however, Mu is going a step further to consider how to not only educate and challenge its audiences, but also to spur them to take action on the issues that touch and inspire them.

"We made an intentional decision to offer opportunities to the audience for how to take action [on issues brought up in a performance]." -Rick Shiomi, Executive Director

Through its recent community engagement process, Mu held structured conversations with board, staff, performers, and audience members. Stakeholders discussed how Mu has been successful at raising awareness about social justice issues within the AAPI community, from discrimination against GLBTQs to the concerns of Asian adoptees.  Pairing up with non-arts groups in joint convenings helped Mu see its own work in a new light. Mu is exploring ways in which key partnerships with community organizations can lead to this deeper work.

At one community engagement meeting, the board of Mu Performing Arts discussed its mission at length. Would a social justice framework fit for what Mu is trying to achieve in the long-term? Some board members became very energized by the possibility, while others remained cautious about whether a social justice focus would detract from the organization's overall mission or decrease the size of the audience, not to mention the resources and staffing that may be necessary, such as hiring a community organizer.

"Mu's partnerships with other activists and activist organizations have the potential to take their work that raises awareness to the level of taking action." - Don Eitel, Managing Director

One first step that some individuals voiced was to highlight social justice action opportunities that relate to each show. To some extent, Mu has already explored this method. For instance, in a production called "The Walleye Kid," the organization paired the performance with workshops and post-show discussions. In this instance, Mu learned that it was indispensable to have outside perspectives and strong facilitation in order to ground discussions about social justice issues.

Mu's community engagement process allowed them to look back and reflect on their past work, and then explore how social justice can become a true driving force for future work. Following the series of conversations, the organization is seeing how these learnings will influence its strategic plan. Staff not only plan to always examine and articulate which social justice issues are at the heart of their productions, but they also intend to design more community empowerment workshops and engage strategically with local partners. With this community-based, action-oriented approach, Mu Performing Arts is on its way to a path of "going to scale" in fostering social justice action.