There are productions that make your brain glaze over as you constantly check your watch, praying for death.  There are productions that make you laugh until your face forgets how to make an expression other than a giant grin, like comedic Botox.  But then...oh then…there are productions that after they end, make you contort in your seat, dropping your knees to the ground and raising your arms to the air as your mouth rips open in a silent, primal scream and your friend asks, “Uh…are you okay?”

Theater Mu’s Man of God is one of those productions.

Based in St. Paul, Theater Mu’s mission is to produce “great performances born of arts, equity, and justice from the heart of the Asian American experience.”  The company’s first in-person production since the start of the pandemic, Man of God tells the story of four Korean high school girls who travel to Thailand on a church-sponsored mission trip, only to find a webcam in their hotel bathroom.  They quickly determine that the webcam was placed by their pastor, a revered man of God and the only adult chaperone on the trip.  What are they to do?

When this assignment came across my inbox, I was wary but intrigued.  As a devout, queer Christian who is currently in therapy thanks to some traumatic experiences with institutionalized religion, I was curious to see how the playwright dealt with the religious aspects of the story without either being preachy or thoroughly demonizing Christianity.  To my relief, playwright Anna Ouyang Moench managed to balance those elements deftly, not being afraid to question elements of what it means to have a firm belief system, but also respecting the boundaries of those who do.  The four main actors committed to the portrayals of these young women, and dug into these difficult discussions with an earnestness and honesty I greatly respected.  There was no fear of silence or pain, making the play’s myriad jokes land with a much-welcomed explosion of laughter.

Before the show opened, I chatted with Director Katie Bradley and actor Suzie Juul (Samantha) via email to learn more about the production.  As theatres start to reopen post-Omicron, I’m especially interested in which shows companies are choosing, and why.  Man of God is a complicated script with glorious comedic moments, something Katie was excited about.  “I was surprised by how funny it was,” Katie wrote.  “I was expecting it to be a lot heavier after reading the synopsis, but the show really takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster where you're laughing one minute and crying the next. I'm really attracted to material that has a blend of both of those elements and I think Man of God maneuvers between the two so successfully.”  Actor Suzie Juul, who plays innocent goody-two-shoes Samantha, agreed: “[The script is] poignant, funny, dark, and the dialogue is so realistic.”  As the play unfolded, I was stunned by the precision at which playwright Anna Ouyang Moench navigated the ups and downs of bust-a-gut comedy and terrorized silence without once cheapening the drama.  I’m a writer who dearly loves a joke, and this type of balance is incredibly difficult to find.

Katie is an actor as well as a director – Man of God is her directorial debut – so I was curious how that transition was for her.  As I arrive into my mid-thirties, I’ve noticed more actors making that transition, and Katie pinpointed why.  “I'm still an actor first and foremost,” Katie wrote, “but as I got older and further into my career, I began to want to make larger artistic decisions that impacted the entire show and not just the character I was portraying. …They say that an actor fights for their role and the director fights for the play.  This is so true.  My focus as a director needs to encompass the entire show and not just my own track.”  Not that acting isn’t challenging, it absolutely can be, but sometimes artists want more power over the story than just their character’s specific track.  Sometimes artists want to do more than contribute to the vision – they want to create the vision.

I’ve admired actor Suzie Juul for a long time, as I’ve known of her for many years through a friend of mine who works for Theater Mu.  Since Man of God covers difficult topics like sexual abuse, eating disorders, and pedophilia, I asked Suzie how she approached the script while keeping herself safe.  “I think it’s important to approach this kind of work earnestly, but it’s also important not to let the material leave with you,” Suzie wrote.  “Katie Bradley has proposed we have a ‘show ending’ tradition where at the end of the play we come back to ourselves and leave the show on stage. I think these rituals are extremely helpful in approaching this material in a psychologically healthy way.”  One of the first things we were taught in theatre school was to leave the outside world at the door when we entered the rehearsal room; but how often are we telling actors it’s okay to leave the theatre world at the door when they exit?  Actors spend hours outside of rehearsal learning their lines, working on their character arcs, and memorizing their blocking; what tools can we as directors and producers provide to actors to keep them safe away from the theatre?  As Man of God includes an (incredibly talented) actor who is only a senior in high school, I was pleased to hear that both Katie and Theater Mu are taking the mental health of their actors seriously.

Both Katie and Suzie spoke warmly of their experience with Theater Mu – an experience which was underlined by the overwhelming good energy in the space during opening night.  Katie wrote: “Theater Mu has played such an important part in my career and training. Not only has the company provided me with acting opportunities I would not have had in other theaters, but it's also served as an artistic home where I can cut my teeth in new ways, like moving into directing.”  Wrote Suzie, “Theater Mu is one of my favorite companies to work with, being in a room filled with strong, talented, compassionate, and hardworking humans who see me as I am is incredible.”  It’s hard to find a theatre home where artists feel safe to do their best work, and it’s clear from both women that they have found theirs in Theater Mu.

One thing that is incredibly important to me as a producer and playwright is to include women in the room when telling women’s stories.  Obvious?  Sure.  Does that always happen?  Sadly, no.  In leafing through the program, I noticed the pages were full of women in every imaginable part of the production, in every way involved in telling the story.  I asked Suzie if she believed this made a difference, and she answered with a resounding YES.  “When women get to tell stories about them[selves] it absolutely makes a difference. This production is a wonderful example of women telling stories about women - in this case the girls aren’t characters in someone else’s narrative. This is their story. They are protagonists, and they’re telling the story,” Suzie wrote.  A woman’s perspective matters.  Women telling their own stories matters.  Women’s stories matter.

I asked Katie if there was anything else she would like to share, and her response struck my heart.  She wrote, “I want to hit home this message that surviving is enough. There are so many Hollywood-esque revenge fantasies out there along with this belief that if you aren't extreme in your revenge and take down the abuser in a really grandiose way, then you've failed. I think it's really important to convey that just getting through it and working through it and finding a new space to exist and cope is enough.”

Surviving is enough.  Existing is enough.  You are enough.

I could write 50,000 words about this play, and none of them would be sufficient to communicate what it meant to me.  If you are a devout Christian who believes in the infallibility of the church and those appointed and ordained by the church, this maybe is not the play for you.  But if you are willing to be challenged, if you are willing to walk into a loving and vulnerable space and experience women’s stories, please come.  If you are a woman who exists, I don’t think it’s possible to walk away from this play not having felt something.  I dare you to walk away from this play not having felt something.

When You Go:

Theatre Mu presents Anna Ouyang Moench’s Man of God, directed by Katie Bradley.  Starring Louisa Darr (Jen), Suzie Juul (Samantha), Janet Scanlon (Kyung-Hwa), Dexieng “Dae” Yang (Mimi), and Rich Remedios (Pastor).  Presented February 18th – March 6th at Mixed Blood in Minneapolis.

Content Warning: This show contains dramatized fighting and references to sexual abuse, eating disorders, drug use, and paedophilia.  Director Katie Bradley would like to remind audiences that “Theater Mu is providing a ‘quiet space’ out in the lobby for people who need to step out of the theater at any time and there are also several mental health resources and connections that are listed in the program if folks do not already have those resources.”