Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Reasons for Moving
Southern Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Deanne's review of Glensheen and Arty's review of Eleemosynary

Mai Moua Thao, Skye Reddy,
and Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle

Photo courtesy of Southern Theater
Reasons for Moving, now playing at the Southern Theater, mixes theatre, dance, spoken word, and design to present three separate but related sagas of families uprooted from their homelands and adapting to–or perhaps coping with are the more accurate words–life in the United States. Each of the show's three excellent performers presents the story of their own family and their personal experience migrating to new continents, being confronted with a new language, and needing to learn new practices to cope with everyday life, making Reasons for Moving a very personal and intimate-feeling affair. With these three, we witness the reality of different "reasons for moving," though all three cases are compelled by the need to escape perilous danger, and not a mere quest to climb up the ladder of success.

All three performers are simultaneously actor, dancer and storyteller. I find it helpful to think of each as a guide, leading us through their stories to reveal their universal elements as well as their historically and culturally unique qualities. Skye Reddy's ancestral homeland in the British Raj was ravaged by the partition of the subcontinent independent India and Pakistan, and further devastated by a civil engineering project that flooded their village into oblivion, prompting them to seek a new home. Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle's mother fled with her family from the despotic reign of Idi Amin in Uganda for the United Kingdom. She subsequently came to the United States on a student visa and ended up never returning. Mai Moua Thao was born in a refugee camp in Thailand which she left, still a young child, in the early 2000s. They were among the last Hmong refugees to relocate in the U.S. after fleeing Laos to escape vicious retribution by the Pathet Lao for helping the Americans wage "the secret war" that took place in Laos while a televised war was going on next door in Vietnam.

By these accounts, Mai is a first-generation immigrant, born before her arrival in the United States; Kalala is second-generation, born here to a parent who was born abroad; and Skye is third-generation, one whose American-born parents are the children of immigrants. In some ways these designations imply differences in individuals' experiences living in the U.S., such as in assimilation, income, and English fluency. Reasons for Moving, though, conveys the point that internalized memory of the place of origin, the journey to a new home, and the adaption to a new life is transferred across generations, as each storyteller draws forth not only their experience, but their inheritance from the generations before them.

The play is divided into five segments: Prologue, Travel, Childhood, Ghosts, and Epilogue. The primarily danced Prologue includes a gracefully evocative sequence that presents the actors across an immense field of water through which they must pass, the paradox of water as both a dangerous obstacle and a medium for transition. Projected images prepare us for the stories we will experiences, with data regarding immigration.

After setting the tone in the prologue, each of the performers tells their family's "Travel" story, going back to their homeland, the circumstances that uprooted their family, and the hardships they endured, enhanced with archival newsreel footage and photos of the real-world persons, places, and events that form the context of their stories, such as images of Idi Amin, and of the monumental migration of Hindus to India and Moslems to Pakistan at the moment of the partition. We know that Kalala and Skye are relaying the stories as told to them, and Mai was only alive for the the final years of her family's long trek. Though these narratives are relayed second hand, the actors deepen the stories with feelings, beliefs and understandings that come from something internal within themselves.

The Childhood chapter is a first-person account by each performer as a child of the refugee experience, whichever generation they fall into. These include harsh episodes from their youth, but also some of the delights and comforts of the values, culture and beliefs that survived the journey from a distant land to their new home. There are also accounts of conflict within families as the younger ones' experiences in a rapidly changing American society begin to chafe against those of prior generations.

The Ghosts chapter addresses the lingering influence of the lands left behind, whether as actual spirits that crossed the ocean to make themselves known in the new homeland, or internal memories, stories and practices passed on by elders or perhaps by DNA, that blossom like seeds wind-blown into a newly tilled garden that unfold with the flowers of the garden left behind. This segment is the most abstract, as it presents realms of experience that are less concrete and far more individualistic than the stories of Travel and Childhood. The epilogue places our three guides in the present, empowered to live their lives in this time and place, but with vestiges of their stories–their "reasons to move"–as lingering sources of strength and purpose.

The program compresses a lot of information and ideas into its ninety minutes, using a mix of styles as it does so. The resulting production is always evocative, abundantly graceful, deeply moving, and at times surprisingly funny, but also at times disjointed. This is especially true during interludes, one in which we are suddenly the audience for a mock game show, "Who Wants to Live in America?", with the odds stacked against the players, and another in which Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle presents a stand-up comedy routine. Kiwanuka-Woernle is an engaging presence and delivers this material with aplomb, but, like the game show, it is a jarring shift in tone. To a lesser extent, the different performance styles of each of our guides, while enriching in the sense that each appears to us in their full humanity, make the overall production feel more like a collection of curated pieces than a unified whole.

While the content is sometimes disjointed, as a performance piece, Reasons for Moving fully integrates text, sound and music, dance, costumes, set and lighting. Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento conceived and directed Reasons for Moving and worked with its three actors in writing the original texts–there are texts drawn from numerous pre-existing sources as well–and to create the choreography, a strong element throughout the production that is beautifully executed by the three performers. Nascimento worked with sound designer and composer Eliot Gray Fisher and lighting designer Thomas Barrett on the set design. This is a highly collaborative venture, no doubt facilitated by the fact that most of the artists, both on stage and on the creative team, are, or have recently been, affiliated with the Department of Theater and Dance at Macalaster College, where Nascimento serves as department chair.

The physical production is beautifully devised. The deceptively simple set conceived by Nascimento, Fisher, and Barrett employs fibrous screens that call to mind primeval materials, which can be pulled open to reveal the full stage, or, when pulled closed, create shadow images from behind, or capture projected images to create a sense of the actors behind the screens being immersed in their environment. The Southern's beautifully un-restored proscenium arch rising above the performance adds to the sense of historical context for the experiences depicted on stage. Barrett's intricate lighting design creates changing tones and sub-spaces within the span of the broad stage, while Fisher's musical compositions draw upon a range of the traditional music of the homelands, the urban vibe of America today, and electronic sounds that seem to originate in the very process of movement and transition.

There are a host of wonderful elements on stage at the Southern Theater, beginning with three performers doing beautiful work which clearly comes from deep in their hearts, informative and inspiring text, graceful and evocative movement, engrossing musical accompaniment, excellence in stage design, and a unifying message about the courage, hardships, successes and lingering presence of their past on those who have, and those who will face life-threatening Reasons for Moving.

Reasons for Moving runs through June 30, 2024, at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit

Concept, Direction and Dramaturgy: Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento; Original Texts: Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle, Mai Moua Thao, Skye Reddy Choreography and Actions: Skye Reddy, Mai Moua Thao, Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle, Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento; Media Design, Sound Design, and Composer: Eliot Gray Fisher; Set Design: Thomas Barrett, Eliot Gray Fisher, Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento; Costume Design: Lynn Farrington; Lighting Design, Scenic Objects and Technical Direction: Thomas Barrett; Assistant to the Lighting Designer: Emilia Brinkley; Voice Coach: Barbra Berlovitz; Movement Coach: Bob Rosen; Stage and Production Manager: Alexandra Whitman; Assistant to the Stage Manager: Jessica Nguyen.

Cast: Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle, Mai Moua Thao, Skye Reddy.