Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Name Jar
Stages Theatre Company / Theatre Mu
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Color Purple and Apples in Winter

Vivian Nielsen
Photo by Amy Rondeau
Unhei is in first grade when she arrives at her new school in America, having just moved there with her mother from their home in Korea. Unhei is well-mannered and bright, but shy and overwhelmed by all that is new for her. She really wants to fit in and be like the other kids at school, but right off the bat something sets her apart: her name. In The Name Jar, Unhei faces the dilemma of whether to keep her Korean name, and everything that is attached to it, or to adopt a new American name.

The Name Jar is a world premiere co-production of Stages Theatre Company and Theatre Mu. They are ideal partners for this play: Stages is in its fortieth year as one of the upper Midwest's leading theatre companies for children and youth, and Mu is the region's premiere Asian-American theatre company and one of the largest in the nation. The play is based on an illustrated book by Yangsook Choi published in 2003.

The play begins with a pantomime in which Heewon (Unhei's mother) lovingly sends Unhei off for her first day of school. Approaching school, Unhei stands on a bridge that looks down on the playground, where the other students are happily playing games, having animated conversations, and displaying their exuberance for the start of a new day. When the school bell rings and their teacher, Mr. Bill, calls them to order, Unhei steps into the classroom and is immediately the center of attention as "a new kid."

The other students are friendly and well-meaning, but their high energy and assertiveness intimidate Unhei. When she tells them her name and they are unable to pronounce it, they laugh at how odd a name it seems. This further makes Unhei feel different and isolated, when all she wants is to feel "normal" like the other kids. She tells her classmates that in one week she will choose an American name to replace her Korean one. The other students devise the idea of a name jar to help Unhei decide on her new name.

Over the course of that week, Unhei and Heewon talk about the meaning of her name (it means "grace"), its significance to their family and in Korean culture, and Unhei's feelings about having a name that makes her different from the other children. Mr. Kim, proprietor of a local Korean market, fosters Unhei's interest in her name by showing her the traditional name stamps he carves. Unhei has a phone conversation with her grandmother, Halmonie, who is back in Korea, and one of her classmates, Amari, reaches out in friendship to Unhei. The week runs its course until it is time for Unhei to select a new name from the name jar, with her classmates breathlessly looking on.

The cast is made up of nine student actors and two adults. The student actors are of various ages, from fourth graders to a high school senior. The number of lines they speak and their prominence vary more or less accordingly, but they coalesce wonderfully as a whole, creating a sense of high spirited first grade classroom culture, each student with his or her own quirk. Director Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan has done a splendid job of forming a unified ensemble, even when the scene calls for the frenetic activity of a playground, and guiding them through transitions that are smooth, and often playful.

Vivian Nielson, as Unhei, has by far the largest role, and the young actor carries it off beautifully. She has a capacity for expressing feelings, not only in her speech, but also non-verbally. For instance, when the soon-to-be classmates are first viewed on the playground, full of noise and rabble, Nielson silently conveys Unhei's mix of feelings: apprehension, curiosity, eagerness, and sadness. The other standout among the student actors is Alimah Sure Asia as Amari; she who conveys a true sense of empathy for her new classmate and a genuine desire to be a friend to her.

Jeannie Lander is excellent as Heewon and Halmonie, Unhei's mother and grandmother, authentic in expressing both women's love for Unhei, and their desire for Unhei to fit in and be happy in her new home, but also to retain her knowledge and affection for Korean ways. As Heewon, Landers focuses on creating order for Unhei, such as in their Korean alphabet lessons, while as Halmonie, an active empty-nest grandma, she expresses a lightheartedness that is a balm to Unhei. Keivin Vang brings heart to his performance as Mr. Kim, revealing love for the traditional arts and values he shares with Unhei. As the teacher Mr. Bill, Vang is more subdued, gentle and patient with Unhei and the other students. Surprisingly, the teacher is not as forthright in helping Unhei with her dilemma as he might have been.

The design work for The Name Jar serves the play well, with a cleverly functional and colorful set design by Sarah Brandner providing spaces for the playground, the classroom, Mr. Kim's store, and Unhei and Heewon's cozy apartment. Samantha Fromm Haddow has designed apt costumes for each of the characters, Alice Endo's lighting design contributes to establishing atmosphere, and Gretchen Katt's sound design brings the sounds of school and of an urban neighborhood to the stage.

The play reflects on the process of assimilation and the fact that all of us who do not have Native American ancestors can trace our heritage to people who, when they arrived, were "different." Unhei wants to eat American food rather than Korean food, and is asked to explain exactly "what is American food?," considering that right across the street is an Italian pizzeria, a Mexican restaurant, and a Kosher deli. We know, from an historic perspective, that at one time each of these was viewed as new an exotic food but over time has become mainstream fare. All Unhei understands is that Americans eat those foods, but do not eat kimchee (a view that has already changed since the book was published in 2003).

Stages recommends this production for ages five and above. The play runs just sixty minutes and is consistently engaging–with some audience participation, such as during a lesson on the Korean alphabet–so that most young audience members will not have difficulty sitting through it. There is one caveat: When Unhei and Halmonie talk by telephone, they speak in Korean, with an English translation of their conversation projected onto the set. Therefore, either some primary reading ability or an adult whisperer seated beside a non-reading child would be helpful.

The Name Jar tells a delightful, affirming story that can be a springboard to conversations about being at peace with one's identity, or multiplicity of identities, as is often the case in today's world; about seeing value in diversity and difference; and in having empathy for those working through a feeling of being different–to welcome them while respecting their difference. The Name Jar is a most enjoyable and uplifting show for both children and adults that reenforces values for a world where diversity is the norm.

The Name Jar, a co-production of Stages Theatre Company and Theatre Mu, runs through April 14, 2024, at Stages Theatre Company, Hopkins Center for the Arts, 1111 Main Street, Hopkins MN. This play is recommended for ages 5 and above. For tickets and information, please call 952-979-1111 or visit

Playwright: Susan H. Pak, adopted from the book by Yangsook Choi; Director: Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan; Set Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume and Makeup Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Alice Endo; Sound Design: Gretchen Katt; Prop Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Dialect Coach: Patrick Chew; Language and Cultural Consultant: Aerin Park; Technical Director: Jim Hibbeler; Stage Manager: Emily Carey; Assistant Stage Manager: Melanie Salmon-Peterson.

Cast: Alimah Sure Asia (Amari), Jack Brey (ensemble), Laila Fritz (ensemble), Keira Guevara (Rosa), Easton Johnson (ensemble), Jeannie Lander (Heewon/Halmonie), Airon Manson (ensemble), Abigail Medina (ensemble), Vivian Nielsen (Unhei), Luke Rowan (Ralph), Keivin Vang (Mr. Bill/Mr. Kim).