Double Play

Café au lait meets java noir in Mixed Blood's racial romance 'Yellowman'
Ann Marsden

Like the proverbial seven-ton elephant, the man who runs a theater tends to sit where he pleases. So when Jack Reuler and I approached someone else's ticket office on a recent muggy later-summer afternoon, we had a quandary on our hands.

"Where do you like to sit?" Reuler asks.

"On the aisle, three or four rows back," I tell him. These seats, for my purposes, offer the best sight lines in a theater.

Reuler raises an eyebrow. "Well, then you're buying."

We've been talking theater, so I figure we're entering into a discussion of the best perch to see the actors' faces without putting one's neck into chiropractic peril. What I've failed to mention is that the house in front of us is the Metrodome, where the Twins will be playing a day game. Of course there are no truly good seats in the Dome, but a third-row ticket here is still too rich for a theater critic and an independent theater administrator. And so we opt instead for a post upstairs along the first base line.

As artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre—a troupe dedicated to the rich and motley spectrum of American identity—Jack Reuler has to be a versatile guy. This fall the company is doing shows about the gradations of skin color and skin caste, and autism, too. Recent seasons have seen the theater tackle African American widowhood, South Asian assimilation in America, and, notably, baseball, in a 2005 production of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out. So it seemed appropriate for us to conduct an interview not in his office, but in the concrete doggy bowl of the Metrodome during a Twins-Indians game.

We slip into our seats with one out in the top of the first—which, luckily, is a far more acceptable practice than sneaking into a dark auditorium after the first scene. Looking down at the plastic carpeting, I ask Reuler who is his favorite current Twin.

"Johann and Mauer are the real deal," he says. "But I also like the Nick Puntos of the world"—that is, the Twins' prototypical utility infielder. "It's the small-theater mindset. You need someone who can do 20 things well."

I'd call Reuler back for some elaboration a week later, and by then he had an answer ready for his all-time favorite Twin: utility guy Cesar Tovar, who in 1968 played all nine positions in the same game. "A Nick Punto for the ages," Reuler says.

Youthful would-be phenom Matt Garza takes the mound for his second big-league start, watched carefully by an artist who has kept his theater running for three decades.

"I've had one job in my life. I have a one-line résumé," the 53-year-old Reuler will explain a few days later. After graduating from Macalester College, Reuler planned to start veterinary school. Finding himself with some time to kill, Reuler discovered that government funding was available for public arts programs. "I started the theater knowing nothing really about it," he says. "At first it was more like a program, a social-service agency. It was a summer project that ran amok."

Reuler is easygoing, but he also has a manner of narrowing his eyes as though scanning his visual field for signs of bullshit. Under his ballcap he wears an expression of constant mild amusement. He says he spends about 50 nights in the theater a year and used to go to 30 or so Twins games, bringing his now-college-age daughter Taj when she was a baby. Now he's scaled back to about 10 ballgames.

Back on the field, Garza coughs up three runs early, then settles down. A couple of innings later, Reuler winces when the jittery pitcher fields a pop-up, as the rest of the infield frantically tries to call him off of it. The rookie successfully ends the top of the second inning, but not before nearly wiping out two other players in the process.

"He knows he wasn't supposed to do that," Reuler says as the clearly frazzled Garza walks off the field.

The Twins proceed to make journeyman Indians pitcher Paul Byrd look like the second coming of Bob Feller, while Reuler demonstrates the versatility of the ballpark gourmet, tucking into a garden burger, peanuts, and a citrus ice. (He's recently kicked a big Diet Mountain Dew addiction.) Reuler keeps his eyes glued to the field as he goes into his own pitch: Mixed Blood's fall schedule. First is Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, which will be staged at the Guthrie's new Dowling Studio. Yellowman was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002, and deals with the tricky subject of racism in the present-day African American community.

"We like being the first outside group in that space," Reuler says of the show, which opens September 28. "Everything's an unknown right now. We're in a position to help the Guthrie figure out what it's going to be."

Reuler admits that Mixed Blood may have caught the real-estate fever that has worked out so handsomely for both the Guthrie and the Twins: The theater is contemplating plans to expand as part of a larger West Bank redevelopment. In this scheme, the current theater would become a lobby for a new black box akin to the new spaces at the Guthrie and Children's Theatre Company.

After borrowing the Guthrie's stage, Mixed Blood returns for a home stand with Ken LaZebnik's Vestibular Sense, a comedy about a man with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

"For the central character, his autism is both an advantage and a disadvantage," Reuler says. "People who know the world of autism will recognize things, and others will see a good story with an eccentric lead character."

When it comes to having autism, "Some actors in the show do, and some don't," Reuler says with a wry grin. "We'll just have to see how good your eye is." Reuler adds that the practice of having non-disabled performers playing disabled characters is, for some in the disabled community, "parallel to blackface."

While we talk, Justin Morneau blasts his 31st home run, and Jason Tyner makes a nifty diving catch in left field. Still, it's one of those games when the home team is giving off waves of futility that easily reach the (semi-) cheap seats. Garza is gone after the fifth, and Byrd is probably as surprised as anyone in the place that he's on his way to a complete-game victory. The PA blares semi-intelligible rock and rap before each player's at-bat, and the white Teflon roof blinds those who dare stare too long. It's not a space given to romantic colloquies on the game, and so Reuler and I tackle such weighty matters as the success of fat pitchers (Reuler bids a "Boomer" Wells, I raise him a Bartolo Colon). Reuler's dad worked for Lane Bryant years ago, and around the house his family used to say that the overweight had "Dunlap's disease"—that is, their gut "done lap" over their belt. Having settled that hefty issue, Reuler recounts a lunch meeting years ago with Theater Mu's Rick Shiomi out in right center, when White Sox gargoyle catcher Ron Karkovice hit an inside-the-park home run (which is something like Jack Black winning an Olympic sprint).

The Twins ultimately lose 3-2, and the Dome starts to clear. On the way out, Reuler mentions his half-dozen (unsuccessful) attempts to win appointment to the Hennepin County Commission. He's been a proponent for years of the plan for separate Twins and Gopher-football stadiums, and predicts that the little-loved Metrodome will be concrete dust in due order. Despite the occasional fantasy about working as a postal carrier "in a good neighborhood in San Diego," Reuler stands to be running Mixed Blood long after the Twins are playing in the open air again. Still, for someone who is such a fixture, he looks over the landscape and sees change as the rule.

"There was a reawakening here after 9/11 about using theater for change," he reflects a few days after the game. "That seems to have subsided. It was driven by the notion that things might be coming to an end because of the bad economy—if we were going to go down, we were going to go down on our own terms. But I hope as a field we did learn something about using theater as a voice for change. I have certain Pollyanna tendencies, according to some people."

Leaving the dome, Reuler is similarly optimistic. "People being audience members at a Twins game is only good for theater," he says. "And vice versa. The point is getting people more and more interested in seeing live events." The Metrodome seals itself behind us with a whoosh.

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