Rick Shiomi calls this weekend’s opening of “Yellow Fever” a “nice bookend” for his career with Mu Performing Arts.

“Yellow Fever” put Shiomi’s name on the theatrical map as a playwright when it first was produced in San Francisco in 1982. And shortly after he formed Mu in the early 1990s, “Yellow Fever” was one of the first works he directed with the Asian-American company. The Mu production that opens Saturday at the Guthrie Studio is his swan song as artistic director.

“There is an importance in the ritual of transition,” said Shiomi, who officially leaves Mu this summer. “I’ve spent 20 years here, and I’ve had a great time.”

Not that Shiomi is going anywhere. He has a couple of plays he wants to work on; he will return to direct shows for Mu and other Twin Cities theaters and he will do some consulting — “if someone will pay me. If not, I’ll give them my advice anyway.”

Shiomi has never taken himself too seriously, even while he has gone about the very serious business of building Mu into one of the nation’s leading Asian-American performing-arts companies. He is stepping down as artistic director and hoping to make a smooth transition for Randy Reyes, the actor and director who will succeed him as head of the organization. Shiomi leaves a solid foundation, as Mu’s annual budget has risen to $550,000.

Retirement will give Shiomi, who turns 66 in May, one more “kick at the can” as an independent artist.

“I’ve never been one to look back, no matter how great the times were,” he said. “What happens tomorrow is what keeps me jazzed about life.”

Fell into Mu

Shiomi, who was born in Vancouver and raised in Toronto, came to the Twin Cities in 1991 at the invitation of Martha Johnson, a theater professor at Augsburg College. He stayed and eventually married Johnson. They live in south Minneapolis.

Starting a theater company was not on his radar (“I thought my theater career was done”). Primarily a playwright before arriving in Minneapolis, he had little directing experience. That has reversed itself in the past two decades — which is one of the reasons Shiomi in retirement wants to get back to the keyboard with his ideas.

He has grown fond of directing — particularly musicals — but Shiomi’s greatest achievement at Mu is his development of artists and new work. Kurt Kwan and Sarah Ochs, who will play lead roles in “Yellow Fever,” have been mainstays at Mu. Reyes has thrived at the Guthrie, while Marcus Quiniones teaches, directs and performs back home in Hawaii.

“We have the actors,” Shiomi said. “We need to keep focusing on the artistic vision.”

Asked what he considers Mu’s successes, Shiomi mentions the exploration of the Korean adoptee experience and Japanese and Chinese folk tales. In the past few years, the troupe has done well bringing the Hmong-American experience to the stage. Rather than imposing a vision, Shiomi said, he wants dramatic ideas to rise up from the artists themselves.

“You cultivate the artists, and the issues will reveal themselves,” he said.

First great success

After a first production in San Francisco, “Yellow Fever” was staged off-Broadway by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in 1982. A good review in the New York Times gave Shiomi his 15 minutes of fame, he said.

In recent years, he has held some readings of the work and while it is always dicey to assess your own work, he found the emotions and core issues still relevant.

Shiomi has said that his play was inspired by the Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) experience with World War II internment camps. It is set in a once-thriving section of Vancouver whose residents were moved into camps. The hero, Sam Shizake (Kwan), is modeled on the film character Sam Spade. Ochs plays his foil and the play infuses the noir genre with political and racial intrigue.

“The urgency is not the same from when I wrote it, because the Canadian and American governments have since apologized for the camps,” Shiomi said. “But the play still feels honest and authentic.”

Shiomi frequently uses “we” when he talks about the future of Mu. “We’re looking for something that might include a theater,” he says when asked if he foresees the itinerant company moving into its own performance space. But that doesn’t mean he is considering a Brett Favre moment — to reverse his decision to retire.

“Not yet,” he said. “That might be coming as I get closer to the emotional impact that this change is going to bring.”

To keep that emotion from overwhelming him, he keeps himself focused on future projects.

“I’m very busy planning my life for after Sept. 1,” he said. “There are things I want to do, and I see a lot of excitement ahead.”


Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299