It wasn’t until Rick Shiomi moved to Vancouver and began working with the Powell Street Festival in the 1970s that he began to learn about his Japanese-Canadian roots in the community.
The playwright, who was born and raised in Toronto and has lived in Minnesota since the mid-1990s, credits the time he spent on the West Coast as a “turning point” that influenced his career as an artist.
Shiomi is now being recognized for his career as a playwright, director, producer, theatre artist and musician with his receipt of the 2015 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.
“Even though most of my theatre’s been done in the States, it’s actually the basis of my understanding of myself as an artist,” he told the Straight by phone about his time in Vancouver.
Shiomi co-founded Theater Mu in St. Paul, which is dedicated to bringing Asian-American voices to the stage. The theatre company, which he ran as artistic director from 1993 to 2013, became known as Mu Performing Arts. He also established the taiko group Mu Daiko in 1997.
Shiomi said his award-winning play Yellow Fever was informed by what he learned in Vancouver about his family’s background and Japanese-Canadian history.
“I actually knew very little about my family’s history and how it ended up in Toronto, coming from Vancouver,” he said. “There was very little talk about the past and things like that.
“But when I came to Vancouver and then got involved in the Japanese-Canadian community there, I learned the history and learned the story of my own family, and then in a sense sort of discovered what I always considered my motherload of material, from which I would write my first half a dozen plays.”
Shiomi’s grandfather came to Canada in about 1890, and his family lived on Alexander Street, next to the Japanese Language School.
“My family was really rooted in that community,” he noted.
After Shiomi got into theatre, he learned that his grandfather ran a traditional, Kabuki-style theatre company for more than 10 years.
His uncle was also interested in theatre, and was doing some acting in the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War.
“They were doing contemporary plays in the camps at the time, as a form of recreation,” Shiomi recounted.
He said it feels “fantastic” to be recognized with the McKnight Distinguished Artist award. The honour, which is now in its 18th year, includes a $50,000 award.
“Given the breadth, scope, and importance of Rick Shiomi’s artistic legacy, there is no single yardstick by which to measure his impact,” McKnight president Kate Wolford said in a news release announcing the award.
“It is multifaceted, trailblazing, and extends well beyond his commitment to Asian American theatre in the Twin Cities, and we at McKnight are honored to celebrate his accomplishments with this award.”
“It’s really, in some ways, a local award here in Minnesota, but it recognizes sort of the whole expanse of my work in Asian-American, Asian-Canadian culture and theatre,” Shiomi noted.
The playwright’s work also includes Play Ball, Rosie’s Cafe, Walleye Kid, Mask Dance, and Journey of the Drum. His work as a director has included an Asian-inspired production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his direction of plays including Into the Woods and The King and I has generated “groundbreaking opportunities” for Asian actors, according to the McKnight Foundation.