Fitting in is hard for any teenager, but for the woman at the center of Jessica Huang's Purple Cloud, that's exacerbated by her fluid racial identity. A mixture of multiple generations of Chinese, European, and American blood, the "Hapa Girl" ("hapa" is a Hawaiian term referring to mixed ethnicity) thirsts for connections beyond her Minneapolis home.
Huang's play, presented as a world premiere by Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre, merges drama and comedy, fantasy and reality into a thoroughly entertaining and moving work.
The piece is not just about the Hapa Girl, but also the two previous generations in her family. Grandfather Lee emigrated to the United States in the 1930s. Father Orville (Lee had an obsession with becoming a pilot) grew up in a household more focused on being American than Chinese. He's taken these lessons to his own daughter, who — along with listening to Bikini Kill — makes embracing her heritage part of her rebellion.
Things change when they receive a package from their grandfather. It contains four jade figures and a letter identifying the Chinese names that the pair have been given in the family registry. Lee dies soon after, so they make their first trip to Shanghai to bring their patriarch home.
Huang tells the story in layers, using a chorus of the jade figures (Dragon, Bird, Tiger, and Tortoise) to help set the scene or act as additional characters when needed. It allows us to see Lee's slow assimilation into America, from working as a mechanic in World War II (as close as he would ever get to flying), to eventually buying the repair shop where he has worked at for decades (but being forced to retain the original name).
The play continues to dive down into different flights of fancy. Near the end of act one, Hapa Girl imagines she is the host of a cooking show while preparing some fried rice. (This does more than set the scene; Mu has fried rice for sale at intermission.) Later in Shanghai, she attempts something similar as a woman on the street reporter, but her fantasy gets cut short as Hapa Girl discovers she doesn't fit in on the streets of China anymore than she does on an MTC bus.
This gets bound together by the depth and quality of both the writing and the performances. Huang pieces together all of these ideas into a coherent and moving whole. It's not just Hapa Girl's story. We learn a lot about her father and grandfather throughout the show, and grow to understand what motivates each of them to act the way they do.
The cast is led by Meghan Kreidler as the Hapa Girl. She takes the petulant teenager to unexpected depths. Her rebellion isn't just about making her father angry (though that's part of it). The questions about her identity come to dominate the character and Kreidler's performance reflects that.
There's something similar going on with Rich Remedios as Orville and Alex Galick as Lee, though there are different approaches to their characters. Remedios dances between the perpetually angry dad and a man having his own struggles with identity. Galick's character almost entirely lives in the memories and dreams of the other two, but showcases the strong dreamer that sat at the head of the family's American branch.
Director Randy Reyes helps to build an appropriate tone for the work, pushing the humor when needed and celebrating the play's spiritual side as well. It all makes Purple Cloud an engrossing and often moving piece of theater.
IF YOU GO
Through December 20
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 651-789-1012 or visit online.