By Dwight Hobbes
The Twin Cities’ Somali population grows increasingly visible, but public understanding of Somali communities remains limited. One area where something’s been done to gain insight and alleviate a clash of cultures is theater.
In 2004, Children’s Theatre Company staged the world premiere of Kia Corthron’s Snapshot Silhouette, a social studies lesson of sorts about two school girls, one a Somali immigrant, the other African American, bridging a gap between them to become friends. Bedlam Theatre, located for years on the West Bank in the heart of a neighborhood that, starting in the early 2000s, swiftly became all but exclusively Somali and Ethiopian, produced an installment of its West Bank Story.
In 2006 it continued the series of productions chronicling ethnic groups that had predominated in that area, devoting this particular season to Somalis. Executive Artistic Director John Beuche recalls, “There were some Serbian characters in the 1800’s section, and instead of translating into Serbian, we used Somali, with the help of youth we were working with at the time. When the White actors busted out with lines in Somali, most audience members didn’t know the difference, but Somalis in the audience would explode into little mini-conversations, pull out their cell phones and take pictures, text their friends.”
With the show’s success, says Beuche, “We’ve evolved our neighborhood youth programming. In 2009 we saw [much] teenage interest and expanded, adding OutLoud Spoken Word Open Mics, with help from Minnesota Spoken Word Association to get it started.” Outreach included productions the past two seasons at Bedlam Theatre’s annual Ten-Minute Play Festival.
Now, there’s Ku soo Dhawaada Xaafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood), directed by Beuche, produced by Bedlam Theatre and historic area venue Mixed Blood Theatre at Cedar Cultural Center, also a neighborhood fixture, prominent as the Twin Cities’ top draw for world beat music.
The new play marks a timely premiere, echoing attention that has fallen on Minneapolis’ Somali communities with news headlines about reported ties to terrorism. The principal characters are potentially star-crossed lovebirds caught up in a climate of contemporary, media-fuelled paranoia.
Abdi is a youth worker and college student. Nadifa is a high school senior. They both work on an anti-youth-violence committee and have their commitment tested when a friend of Abdi is arrested for suspected terrorism. Abdi is arrested, accused of sheltering his friend. Nadifa helps lead the fight to free both men, a cause that is taken up by family, friends and neighbors.
The script is by David L. Grant. Screenwriter-playwright Grant has worked with HBO, Showtime, Minnesota Historical Society and The Playwrights’ Center.
“Twelve or 13 years ago,” he reflects, “I sat down with [Mixed Blood Theatre Artistic Director] Jack Reuler, and we talked about the possibility of working on a play about the experience of the East African immigrant community in Cedar Riverside. So the seed was planted long ago, and ideas about what shape such a project might take have been percolating for a long time, fed by many hours spent in East African-owned cafes, restaurants and coffee shops listening to friends and acquaintances talk about their lives and their dreams.”
Ironically, after all the time and energy Bedlam Theatre invested in respecting and collaborating with the community there, Bedlam lost its home, which now houses a mosque and community center, Daral Quba. Beuche isn’t the least bit bitter about it, chalking the transition up to one of those bad breaks that come along in the course of things.
“It seems to be working well for Daral Quba, including Quba Coffee, which is open with tea, coffee, sambusas and flat screen [television] for soccer games where our lobby and fireplace lounge were. Quba Coffee is actually a sponsor of the opening weekend celebration for the show.”
West Bank Story saw several local youngsters join a cast largely comprised of Bedlam Theatre veterans. Ku soo Dhawaada Xaafadeena considerably expands that representation. Says Beuche, “We’ve gotten to work with the ensemble of 16 youth and young adults since December, and that’s been an amazing amount of time to build team spirit, acting skills and, most importantly, have them very involved in developing the story, generating and gathering feedback on the script as it’s developed.”
There are, of course, not a great many opportunities for Somali actors to acquire experience on stage. He says of that consideration, “A couple have had significant involvement in the Bedlam program over the years and/or high school. But for at least half, this year is the first year doing theater.
“Several, however, are pretty accomplished spoken word and hip hop artists and have had contributions to script for spoken word scenes,” Beuche adds, “and the individuals in the ensemble are all amazing, fun, smart.”
Cast member Hamdi Mohammed, who plays Nadifa, is very pleased with the experience. “[The character is] very realistic. I feel like there is part of me [in it]. I feel like her, but I don’t have both parents [in the U.S.].
“I can relate to her. She’s trying to do something for her community. She doesn’t look at the neighborhood and think of it as most people view it. It’s mostly outsiders who view it so negatively. She’s doing something to, like, make a difference. She doesn’t give up.”
Performances of Ku soo Dhawaada Xaafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood) at Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave. S. in Minneapolis, Saturday-Sunday, July 23-24 at 7 pm are free as part of an East African community celebration of entertainment and cultural events. Additional paid performances will be held Thursday-Sunday, July 28-31, at 7 pm. Tickets for the July 28-31 shows are $15 general admission, $10 student price, and free to Cedar Riverside residents. Purchase tickets in advance at 612-338-6131 or online at www.mixed blood.com.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.