There are almost as many spirits as people in “The Tiger Among Us,” Lauren Yee’s feisty Hmong-centered play that premiered Friday in Minneapolis.
Directed by Ellen Fenster in a Mu Performing Arts production at Mixed Blood Theatre, “Tiger” revolves around a rural Minnesota household headed by a Hmong-American man who, inexplicably, remains unnamed (the character is played by Saikong Yang). He likes to hunt, which helps him to stay in touch with his heritage.
The father claims he has lived for years as a widower, and has two at-home dependents: twenty-something son, Pao (Maxwell Chonk Thao), a service worker; and a teenage daughter, Lia (Gaosong Vang Heu), whose volleyball prowess has made her an attractive prospect to college recruiters.
The spirits that permeate “Tiger” include the ghost of mother and wife May (Sheng Kong). She shows up near the father’s hunting stand and in memories of a river crossing in Southeast Asia. The spirits also appear during routine encounters between the Hmong and white American authority figures. Ancestral spirits also are evoked during a ritual chicken sacrifice.
In other words, Yee’s ambitious drama about a Hmong-American family adapting to life in the cold, surface-nice town of Perham, Minn., moves between the physical and the supernatural realms and between cultures.
This is all pretty slippery stuff that director Fenster navigates with skill. She uses the wide Mixed Blood stage to create a fluid momentum in Ron Albert’s set and with Mike Kittel’s shadowy lighting.
Fenster has a cast of mostly green actors who get under their characters’ skins, although rarely deeply. Thao is a natural at the script’s contemporary, street-wise humor. His delivery gives the play much of its raw, profane levity. Heu draws sympathy and warmth for her searching character. The two have strong sibling chemistry.
Both Yang, as the Dad, and Kong, as May, use charismatic silence to powerful effect in their underwritten roles.
Garry Geiken gives the most assured performances as a number of interchangeable white men who haunt the Hmong father’s world. He is effectively unsettling as a cop, a park warden and a neighbor who seems to materialize out of nowhere.
Playwright Yee avoids the trap of doing a play that is basically an introduction to the Hmong, who were recruited by the CIA to fight in Southeast Asia generations ago. “Tiger” is a smart and sassy play that could go deeper into its raised issues, including, for example, the real relationship that the father had with May. Still, the play makes a larger point about stories that families tell themselves. These mythic tales often contain things that make the tellers seem heroic, even if the stories are offerings at the altar of truth.
On Twitter: @RohanPreston