Imagine U premieres a new version of “The Ballad of Mu Lan” this weekend


Yiming Fu/Daily Senior Staffer

“The Ballad of Mu Lan” tells the ancient Chinese legend of a girl who dresses up as a boy to take her father’s place in the army. This new telling incorporates traditional Beijing Opera elements and fuses the traditional story with contemporary music.

Jenna Wang, Reporter

The story of Mu Lan stretches back to sixth-century ancient China and has been told countless times since then, most notably in Disney’s 1998 animated movie “Mulan.”

Imagine U’s “The Ballad of Mu Lan” began its performances Thursday in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts and will run through March 6, which the show’s cast said is a version audiences have never seen before.

One of the play’s most notable features is its traditional Chinese theatrical style based on Jīngjù, or Beijing opera.

“It’s a totality of theatre, where you’re expected to be a quintuple threat,” said Alvin Chan (School of Professional Studies ’21), the show’s writer and director. “They’re expected to do everything, like act, sing, dance, fight and flip.”

Because Chan needed more time to train the cast in the style of Jīngjù, he also taught a theatre class at Northwestern called “Beijing Opera Movement and Combat” outside of rehearsal.

For Communication junior Jonyca Jiao, who plays Mu Lan, having the opportunity to take the class for the production set an important precedent.

“Northwestern has never done something like this,” Jiao said. “This is a huge step for the theatre department to see a different world and type of theatre presented on stage. It’s really good for me to also see my culture and my background presented on stage, especially in America, so this is very special to me.”

This version of the production is more authentic to the original Ballad of Mulan than Disney’s version, Jiao said, as it will emphasize Mu Lan’s role as a warrior rather than focusing on romance as a core theme.

Chan first encountered the story of Mu Lan through Disney. However, he said his research into Mu Lan’s different iterations inspired him to write his own version where “there doesn’t need to be a talking dragon or a love interest.”

Instead, Chan said he wanted his version to be more true to the original intent of the story.

“(I decided) to not shy away from the dark parts of the story but also still define what it really means to have friendship and camaraderie regardless of gender,” Chan said.

This version of Mu Lan features an all-female cast. Chan said he felt the decision lent itself well to the story and the Jīngjù form, which is traditionally only male.

Communication freshman Sofi Pascua is one of the female actors in the production that portrays two male characters: the Xi Xia King and the advisor.

“The Xi Xia King is the villain,” Pascua said. “He has this monster laugh and this giant spear. And the advisor is this old, 100-year-old man who just kind of waddles on and offstage. So it’s been really fun playing these super large and dramatic characters.”

As an Imagine U production, “The Ballad of Mu Lan” is geared toward children and families. In addition to the performances, Imagine U will also host creative drama workshops and a preview event at Evanston Public Library.

For how different these characters can be from the actors themselves, there are also some commonalities. Though Jiao said she recognizes that she and Mu Lan come from different time periods and backgrounds, she believes their values align.

“I see a lot of similarities between us, like I see this strong will, I see that she battles against patriarchy and against traditions that hold her back, so I see a lot of myself in her,” Jiao said. “She is like a hero figure for me, so it’s just my honor to portray her and my understanding of her.”

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Twitter: @jennajwang

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