Jessica Huang's "Purple Cloud" is all about names: the names others choose for us and the ones we choose for ourselves, names that tell where we've come from and names that signify where we're going.
This world premiere, produced by Mu Performing Arts, thoughtfully explores the concept of identity as its teenaged protagonist embarks on a journey across three generations and two countries.
Huang's work isn't Mu's first foray into the question of cultural identity; last season's "Middle Brother," by Eric Sharp, tackled this subject within the context of Korean-American adoption. In "Purple Cloud" the central character, identified for most of the play as Hapa (meaning "mixed") Girl, is a Chinese-American Minnesotan.
The play elides time and space as it relates the story not only of Hapa Girl (Meghan Kreidler), but of her father and grandfather. Lee Huang, played with elegant grace by Alex Galick, left China for America during World War II. He subsumes his desire to be a pilot in favor of working as a mechanic to provide for his family. His son Orville (Rich Remedios) views himself as a fully assimilated American, the identity he thinks his father expects of him.
Orville's daughter, on the other hand, struggles with a sense of not belonging anywhere. Her confusion crystallizes in her rejection of her given name.
Magical flights of fancy jostle comfortably with commonplace elements under Randy Reyes' direction. A narrative frame is provided by an ensemble of four actors — Jeannie Lander, Kylee Brinkman, Stephanie Bertumen and Audrey Park — who set scenes, offer commentary and take on the roles of secondary characters. Often they seem to people Hapa Girl's imagination, as in a scene where she performs as a celebrity chef to the cheers and encouragement of the ensemble. Theresa Akers' beautifully evocative set of sculptured shapes and translucent hangings is transformed into a variety of settings through Barry Browning's magical lighting design.
The pace of the play occasionally flags under the weight of Huang's complex symbolism, but strong acting and solid direction keep it grounded. Kreidler lends Hapa Girl a credible veneer of sullen teenage angst and the scenes between her and Remedios create a sharply poignant sense of the multi-faceted relationship between this father and daughter. Similarly, Galick presents a complex portrait of a man who's doggedly committed to his new homeland while yearning for his old.
The search for identity that stretches across three generations in "Purple Cloud" offers a thoughtful and ultimately universal exploration of what it means to belong.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis theater critic.