Rick Shiomi returns to where it started with Yellow Fever

Sara Ochs as Nancy Wing and Kurt Kwan as Sam Shikaze.
Sara Ochs as Nancy Wing and Kurt Kwan as Sam Shikaze.
Photo by Eric Melzer
Thirty years after the success of Yellow Fever, Rick Shiomi wonders if he's had his Andy Warhol-dictated 15 minutes. 

"For most playwrights, you put in years of hard work leading up to your first success. For me, I had the success first, and followed it up with 30 years of hard work," Shiomi says.

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That hard work includes 20 years at the helm of Mu Performing Arts, the Asian-American theater company that has produced numerous intriguing pieces through the years. Shiomi is stepping down from his post at the company at the end of August, but he'll take the helm at a Mu production one last time when Yellow Fever opens this weekend at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.

In Yellow Fever, Shiomi plays with a number of different layers. At one level, it is a spoof of noir-ish, hard-boiled detective fiction. At another, it is an examination of issues surrounding being of Asian descent in America, and especially being Japanese American in the years following World War II.

"When I wrote the play 30 years ago, I was 10 years younger than the hero. Now I'm 20 years older than him, and he seems so young to me," Shiomi says. "I feel both the comedy and the detective noir style is still a classic framing that appeals to people."

The inspiration for the detective came from a man Shiomi had known in Vancouver. "He was a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese-American. He reminded me of a Japanese-American Colombo. He had this wonderful sense of humor, and he looked like Peter Falk," he says.

"One of the seminal events underneath the play is the internment of the Canadian and Japanese-Americans, and what happens to two guys who came out in opposite ways. One, the detective, is an outsider. The other is on the police force. He became a part of the government to prove his loyalty," Shiomi says. 

The play was part of an ongoing campaign in the '80s to get reparations and an apology from the Canadian and American governments for the World War II camps. "It actually happened. After the governments had admitted it, there was a slightly different landscape [for the play]. The issues of racism and social class are still with us. You can still feel them today, but they don't have the same immediate context," he says.

In the end, Shiomi looked more to Casablanca for inspiration than Sam Spade. As the different inspirations came together, the playwright found he had a winner on his hands. The show premiered in San Francisco, and then went on to a career-making run in New York. 

Then again, Shiomi the playwright has to step away when Shiomi the director takes over. "The danger is that I know the play so well I can get locked into certain things as a director. Every cast in every production is different. As a director, I have to allow that organic evolution."

Shiomi, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iveys last year, will continue to write and direct. Local performer, and longtime Mu contributor, Randy Reyes will take over Shiomi's post this fall.

For Mu, "the thing I'm most proud of is the creation of the talent pool we have. We have all these wonderfully talented people who are working together. I've done some great productions with these artists. The impact the artists in Mu have had on the theater community has been great. The artists we have gathered are impacting other companies. Our presence in the community is becoming greater," Shiomi says.

Yellow Fever
Previews Friday, opens Saturday through March 24
Guthrie Theater
818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis
For information and tickets, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.

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Guthrie Theater

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415


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