How spookily appropriate.
Theater Mu is mounting an eerie, fantastical ghost story just as it recovers from the soul-shaking experience of abruptly firing its artistic director.
“The Brothers Paranormal” is a brand-new play that tells the story of a pair of Thai-American ghost-hunting siblings hired by an African-American couple to suss out the spirits haunting their home. The staging was long planned as a coproduction with Penumbra Theatre, where it previews Tuesday.
But the show also serves as an announcement of sorts: One of America’s most esteemed Asian-American companies is roaring back to life, mounting its first big production since artistic director Randy Reyes was dismissed last December for unspecified conduct that failed to meet the board of directors’ “high standards.”
And none too soon.
“We have been heartened by the love that we’ve received from the community, both at an individual and institutional level,” said Eric Sharp, one of seven members of an artistic committee formed to steer Theater Mu’s creative work. “Internally, we know that we are valued. But it’s been good to see that reflected in the larger world.”
“Paranormal” was supposed to be staged by Reyes, who led Theater Mu for five years. Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy stepped in to save the production. The Obie-winning director kept the entire creative team that Reyes put into place, including a cast led by Mu regulars Kurt Kwan and Sherwin Resurrección as the ghost-busting brothers. Then Bellamy added Lao-American playwright Saymoukda Vongsay as dramaturge. And he hired his former graduate student Sun Mee Chomet — the noted Twin Cities actor, director and writer — as assistant director.
Bellamy also led the team in talking to experts on Thai culture. They even visited a Thai temple as part of their research.
“A big part of that [effort] is to make sure that we get all the cultural nuances right,” Bellamy said. “We’ve gotten people to help with language so you don’t make any stupid mistakes or muck anything up.”
There’s a lot that can be mucked up in a show featuring Thai-Americans, a group not often represented on U.S. stages. In fact, “Paranormal” playwright Prince Gomolvilas insists he’s the only Thai-American playwright writing today.
“Whenever I talk to a journalist, I always ask them to prove me wrong,” he said. “I heard recently from a Thai-American student who said she’s interested in my work and playwriting, so maybe I’ll have some company soon.”
Gomolvilas worked on “Paranormal” for several years, with a handful of theater companies expressing interest all at once. As a result, the play is getting five productions across the country over the next year, in what Gomolvilas calls a “rolling premiere.” On Wednesday, the first of those productions opens under the aegis of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York City. Then there’s a formal opening at Penumbra in St. Paul the following day. Stagings will follow in Seattle and Indianapolis, the playwright’s birthplace.
Concurrent productions only enrich the play, said Gomolvilas, speaking by phone from New York, where he was attending tech rehearsals. (He plans to catch the Penumbra production over the weekend.) “I’m continually doing rewrites, changes and modifications, and I’ve been able to communicate those changes back to the team at Penumbra,” he said. “I also get e-mails and calls from Lou about questions on their end, and those have influenced the production here. It’s a true collaboration between theaters for the benefit of the work.”
“Paranormal” comes at a time when the horror genre is having a miniboom, especially with works made by artists of color. A follow-up to the 2017 movie “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s recently released “Us” (headlined by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) raked in $172 million as of April 25, according to Box Office Mojo. That’s in the same ballpark as John Krasinski’s 2018 release “A Quiet Place.”
TV and film traditionally owned the horror genre. But don’t tell that to Penumbra veteran Regina Marie Williams, who acts opposite longtime company member James Craven in “Paranormal.” A live theater horror show can “scare the bejesus out of you,” Williams insisted.
But the show offers much more than chills, she said.
“The play is fascinating because it is about family and loss and displacement,” Williams said. “You think about loss and displacement in the real world, and how we feel separated from our families.
“But the ghost is also displaced,” she said. “The audience, like the characters, are not sure what’s real.”
In writing the play, Gomolvilas said he was keen to explore themes that long occupied his imagination. The first of two children born to a waitress mother and lab technician father (who also worked as a bartender), the 46-year-old playwright has been fascinated with horror and storytelling since childhood. One of the first movies he ever saw was “The Amityville Horror,” released in 1979.
“I don’t know why or how a 6- or 7-year-old ended up in that theater but it scared the hell out of me,” he said.
Then again, the movie inspired a lifelong obsession with the supernatural, something Gomolvilas studied at San Francisco State University, where he earned undergraduate and master of fine arts degrees. “My past plays have dealt with alien abduction, spontaneous combustion, UFOs and now ghosts,” Gomolvilas said.
“Paranormal” also marks a milestone for Penumbra, with artistic director Sarah Bellamy especially keen on collaborating with other theaters of color. “Data show that almost 60 percent of arts funding nationwide goes to 2 percent of arts organizations, and almost all of those are white,” she said.
Penumbra and Mu have been collaborating for five years as part of the Twin Cities Theater of Color Coalition, she said. But “Brothers Paranormal” marks their first full coproduction. “It’s important,” Bellamy said, “that Penumbra and Mu … continue to lift each other up.”