Chinese American theatremaker Lily Tung Crystal has climbed plenty of hills in her career. But it’s fair to say that, after completing her first year as artistic director of Theater Mu in Minneapolis/St. Paul, she has now conquered multiple mountains.
Mu’s illustrious history began in 1992 under the artistic direction of Rick Shiomi, who departed in 2013. Mu was then stewarded by Randy Reyes for the next five years; Reyes was dismissed by Mu’s board of directors in 2018, a decision only described by the company as “conduct that did not reflect the culture we strive to achieve.” Tung Crystal—a seasoned performer, director, leadership coach, multimedia producer, and founder of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company—was hired to replace him a year later, and she moved to the Twin Cities from San Francisco, taking hold of a season which had already been selected.
Like every other theatre company in the nation and throughout the world, that season was shuttered due to COVID-19 in early March, and online programming became the norm for 2020. Tung Crystal hosted Mu’s signature series “Mu-tini Hour,” where the biggest leaders and pioneers in the business, including the likes of George Takei, David Henry Hwang, and Lea Salonga, “Zoomed” by to share their expertise.
Then, two months later, the Twin Cities were rocked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, an incident that immediately spread into civil unrest and protests throughout the country. Systems nationwide were deeply examined, and a million conversations took root in the arts community. Theatre artists shed bright lights on the most inequitable and racist corners of the industry, and Mu quickly transitioned from a performance space to an ally.
Only the third artistic director in Mu’s history and the first woman, Tung Crystal recently returned to the Bay Area and reflected on the unique past year , what it means to step aside to amplify fellow Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) artists, and her feelings about a very special acknowledgement of her work from her son.
DAVID JOHN CHÁVEZ: There were some pretty intense challenges when you took over Theater Mu, and not all of them had to do with season planning, budgets and a lot of the more traditional things an artistic director is required to focus on. What did you deem to be the most important issues you needed to address when you first walked through those doors?
LILY TUNG CRYSTAL: With any artistic director transition, there are people for and against it, and people you’re going to gain and lose through the transition. I spent a lot of my first six months at Mu meeting with people. It was important to me to really understand the community and find out what people love and what they felt the challenges were at Mu, so that I could move forward with my own vision but honor what Mu had already built.
What were some of the most important things you learned from those meetings?
What astonished me was that in all my years doing theatre, I’d never encountered a theatre company that had such a loyal community and following. People love Mu—artists and fans alike. Everyone has just this great affinity for Mu and a deep love for the organization.
You’ve spent nearly 20 years in the Bay Area as a theatremaker, yet the opportunity to leave your home and everything you’ve built to take over one of the largest Asian American theatre companies in the nation was an incredible opportunity. How hard was it leave the Bay Area, but on the other hand, how easy was it to go to Minneapolis?
To be able to do the work I truly wanted to do as an artistic director of a theatre of color, and to be able to act and direct as well, was huge. I knew it was a great opportunity, yet it was also hard to decide to leave our home. When my husband and I were discussing our possible move in the car, our son and his two friends, who were nine at the time, overheard us talking. One of them asked, “Why are you moving to Minneapolis?” And my son replied, “You know, with adults, it’s all about the money.” Now, my husband is a musician and I’m a theatre artist—we didn’t choose the most lucrative careers in America!
So I told him, “Money is important, but for your daddy and me, so much of our work is about making a difference in the world. This job at Theater Mu will allow me to do my life’s work.” It was in that moment that we all realized that we had to go to Minneapolis. It took explaining it to a nine-year-old for me to realize what this meant for me.
There are moments of tragedy or trauma which have the potential to bring a transplant closer to their adopted community. Did having to lead a theatre company as an artistic director during COVID-19 and then the devastation that was George Floyd’s murder bond you further to your new community?
It’s been a unique time to be a first-year artistic director. You know, I came in during a crisis, and then COVID-19 happened, which was another crisis, and then George’s Floyd’s murder occurred, which was an incident of immense pain and trauma. The communities of Minneapolis/St. Paul immediately moved into a space of caring for each other and propelled the nation into social activism and the fight against anti-Blackness.
Before the pandemic hit, I had only six months to get to know Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I had started to feel at home there. But then with COVID, we were all socially distant and in our own homes, and I started feeling a bit separate from the community. All of that changed with George Floyd’s murder.
What did Theater Mu have scheduled at that time?
We were about to go into production for our 24-hour play festival, an event which gathered 30 Asian American theatre artists to write, rehearse, and present six 10-minute plays in one day, on May 28. It was to be a celebration of the end of Asian American Pacific Heritage Month. After the murder, I was in conversation with a lot of our Twin Cities artists, and there was so much anger, pain, and trauma in the city, especially among BIPOC people; we were feeling so much anguish about what had happened. (Note: The event, restyled as “TwentyPho Hour PlayFest,” is finally happening this Fri., Sept. 18.)
In that moment, Theater Mu, like many theatre companies throughout the country, used their voice and standing in the community to form alliances with the Black Lives Matter movement. There have been historical tensions among Asian American and African American communities, which may have added to some of the obstacles your company faced. How did Theatre Mu use its impeccable community standing to show up as an ally against systemic racism?
I have an amazing theatre staff, and we wanted to prioritize protecting our communities and our artists. Our mission at Mu has always been to amplify marginalized voices, and part of that mission is to know when to step aside to let other communities speak. We couldn’t in good conscience continue with the 24-hour play festival because that was a celebration, and none of us wanted to celebrate. For the four weeks after George Floyd’s murder, Mu became strictly a social activist organization.
Our three pillars are creating high quality art, telling Asian American stories, and fighting for equity and justice. During those four weeks, we only concentrated on the equity and justice pillar. Our staff and artists were protesting. We were donating supplies and cleaning up neighborhoods. Our whole social media presence was disseminating articles about fighting anti-Blackness within our own community. We were encouraging people to donate to Black organizations, and we didn’t solicit donations for our own theatre.
It’s interesting that you speak of protecting your theatre community. What did it mean to protect theatre artists of the Twin Cities at that time?
During that time, I was feeling very protective in the sense that, we were the epicenter of this nationwide movement towards anti-racism, both in society and in the theatre, and I felt a lot of discussions were happening on the coasts, in California and in New York, about anti-racist theatre.
In the national theatre spaces I was in, I would remind people that a lot of theatre artists in the Twin Cities couldn’t be in those Zoom meetings because they were out in the streets, taking care of their communities. I felt it was my responsibility to tell theatremakers around the country to think about the Twin Cities theatre artists and what they’re going through. They need to be included in the conversation that’s going on nationally about this racial reckoning.
If projections are correct, we will be back in theatres in some way, shape or form at some point in 2021. Based on the conversation that many theatre artists have begun throughout the nation, we are likely to see changes in the way theatre is created, disseminated, and consumed. What are you most looking forward to when theatre returns?
As BIPOC theatre artists and theatres of color, we don’t want to go back to what theatre has been, because it’s been a white supremacist structure. With the racial reckoning that’s happening in the United States right now, I’m embracing the idea that we can have anti-racist theatre. I think we’ve been working toward that for a long time. And, you know, it’s always been two steps forward, one step back.
The igniting of this revolution that occurred with George Floyd’s murder and the incidents that followed, as many social activists and leaders have said, we’re hoping the changes are real this time. There are so many people propelled to action who believe that change is going to happen, and if it does, I embrace that. As BIPOC artists we have all come up through a time where we had to fight to have our stories told and to get onstage at predominantly white institutions. Often when we got on those stages, or when our stories were told, we weren’t able to tell them in the way we wanted to. It has not been equitable, so I’m hoping that this movement will instigate real change.
You had shared a moment recently you had at dinner with your now-10-year-old son Cole. You mentioned that fighting racism is exhausting, and he said he was proud of you. What did that precocious observation mean to you?
I was really touched that he noticed the work I was doing. I felt so much love for him and so much emotion, because hopefully we can make the world a better place for our kids. I hope he and other BIPOC children won’t have to experience the pain and trauma of racism to the extent that we have. That moment just opened my heart asunder.
David John Chávez is a Bay Area based theatre critic and reporter. He is the vice-chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. Twitter @davidjchavez.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!