Putting on a Show with the Neighbors

Alison Morse talks with the collaborative team behind "Ku soo Dhawaada Xafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood)" - helmed by Mixed Blood and Bedlam Theatres, with a script by David Grant and the efforts of the Cedar-Riverside East African community.

1On stage at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, July 23-31.

What does it mean to get to know the folks in your neighborhood? In the case of two theater companies, Bedlam and Mixed Blood Theatres, it means bringing members of the community together to create a new play. In that spirit, Ku soo Dhawaada Xafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood), which will be performed at the Cedar Cultural Center this month, is a collaboration between the two theaters, playwright David Grant, and Cedar-Riverside’s mostly Somali East African community, many of whom live in Riverside Plaza, the skyscraping apartment complex that has been Mixed Blood Theatre’s next-door neighbor for the last thirty years. Bedlam Theatre, another neighborhood institution until they moved last year, still runs the Cedar-Riverside Art Zone for Youth at the Brian Coyle Center across the street from both Riverside Plaza and Mixed Blood.

“I’ve always thought of us as a neighbor to whoever lived next door… throughout our existence here,” says Raul Ramos, one of Mixed Blood’s resident artists and the theater’s Neighborhood Engagement Program manager. “We’ve learned about them, and we hope they’ve learned about us.” Ramos says he saw Cedar-Riverside’s East African community as simply the newest of many immigrant groups who’ve called the neighborhood home — until Sept 11, 2001. “[Since then] a very critical eye has been put upon [the East African community]. That critical eye broke down a lot of natural bridges that had formed: the bridge of trust; the bridge of acculturation…These are our neighbors and all of a sudden other people are looking at them with distrust.”

Indeed, for the last ten years, Cedar-Riverside’s Somali community has been the focus of increased, and mostly negative media attention, frequently accused of ties to terrorist networks and religious extremism. Both theaters saw a pressing need to offer a different perspective on the neighbors they saw every day, something closer to the multifaceted truth of their lives.

The press release for Ku soo Dhawaada Xaafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood), calls the play “an original show created by, for, about and with the people of Cedar-Riverside.” The collaboration is the result of a year-long process that began with the search for East African neighborhood liaisons. Mixed Blood’s Neighborhood Engagement Program “beat the bushes looking for young people who were interested in theater,” says playwright David Grant. Once they found eager participants, they “pulled the funding together to make being involved in this project a job.” Paying the liaisons “gave [their work] a certain legitimacy, not only in the hearts and minds of the liaisons themselves, but for their families and for the broader community, too.”

Mohamed Jama, “MJ” to his friends, is one of those neighborhood liaisons, and the young Somali man bubbles with excitement when he describes the project. “My culture has more to it than just terrorists,” he says. “We have our own obstacles and challenges, but at the end of the day we’re just like any other community. I think [the play] opens so many doors.”

His first task was to bring community members to gatherings, run by Maren Ward of Bedlam Theater, designed to gather information for the play. “We did multiple ‘story circles’ around the community, not just at Mixed Blood and Bedlam Theatres. We told people: ‘If you guys want to share, we want to hear your stories.’ And many people did. The Somali community, the East African community, is known to [have a strong oral culture], so it’s a traditional thing for us to sit around and share our stories.”

“We tried to set a safe space in the room,” explains Maren Ward, who says she often uses story circles as a research tool for Bedlam productions. “People got to know each other, got to do some mingling and warming up first.” Story circles held after Mixed Blood performances, when “people were already warmed up by watching a really juicy piece of theater that had them thinking about their own lives,” proved particularly effective, says Ward.

David Grant, an African American playwright with “a deep interest in Africa,” also participated in many of these storytelling sessions and gleaned information from them which he used to write the first draft of the play. “Every community likes to hold some things close, to not talk about them to people from outside because it feels so risky and uncomfortable. Certainly, the FBI and police scrutiny [on their community] was one of those things. [But in the story circles] people became much more comfortable, talking about American’s discomfort with Muslims and Islam,” says Grant. And those issues became part of the play. “But what has been even more satisfying is to focus on the stories that people were really anxious to tell. The personalities are so engaging; there’s so much really positive stuff going on.”

“We’re not pretending that we’ve captured some perfect, indelible image of this community, but it’s an image that feels authentic and true and very loving.”

One particular story circle — a mix of elders and young people — left a lasting impression on MJ. “One of the elders said: ‘Our youth ignore us; they neglect us.’ It was shocking because we, the youth, always thought they were neglecting us.” MJ replied to the elder: “You know, this is American mainstream youth you’re talking to. We’re on a different level of thinking.” He goes on, “That story circle touched me a lot because the elder was speaking about himself, and you don’t find that in this community — you really don’t.”

The collaborative process that makes Ku soo Dhawaada Xaafadeena so special did not end at the research stage of development. Sixteen young actors from the neighborhood’s East African community, now called the Voices of Cedar Riverside Ensemble, will perform in the July production, but they’ve been involved in refining the script for months, reading drafts of the play to community members for feedback. Casting young actors from the neighborhood, and involving them so completely in every stage of developing the project, brought Cedar-Riverside’s East African residents even closer this play. “In that first [informal reading], there were parents in the room listening to their kids,” remembers MJ. “In an immigrant community, you don’t see parents coming to a theater that they really don’t know much about. There were parents actually inside of Mixed Blood, giving comments to their own kid. For one of the readings, my mom came in for a couple of minutes. She saw my sister acting and she gave her advice.”

In fact, this has turned out to be a novel experience for all involved. “I’ve never written a play that was cast before I wrote it,” says David Grant. “I wound up writing and rewriting certain roles just based on who we’ve got… That made all of our young cast collaborators even before we began to ask them for feedback on where the story was going.” And the cast’s feedback changed everything, from whole scenes to the very title of the play, which is now presented first in Somali, with the English translation in parentheses.

The ensemble also helped translate over twenty percent of the play’s dialogue into Somali — no small feat. According to Grant, the Somali language has “a profound tradition of poetry, but it’s an oral tradition. Within Somali, you’ve got, not only regional dialectical differences, but also differences between formal and informal language” including a number of Somali-English hybrid words that Grant calls “Somenglish.” The cast read an early version of the translation (written by other Somali speakers) “and all of them were thinking, wow, we really appreciate their efforts but it’s not how most of us speak every day,” Grant recalls. So a small group of the play’s young actors spent hours revising the translations into “everyday Somali with some slang that the kids really use” and translated additional dialogue into Oromo.

“The translating has been really fun,” says Ward. “I’m seeing the cast fall in love with their language; wanting to know more, talking to their parents. It’s so interesting and inspiring.” But translation, of course, requires more than simply getting the words right.  On more than one occasion, feedback from the cast and community members guided Grant in writing scenes that worked better for Somali audiences. “I had a joke in the play that non-Somali audiences howled at, but the Somali community just sat on their hands. I realized how culture-bound my perspective still was… I rewrote not only the joke but the moment that gives it context. Now it’s one that everybody gets and can laugh at.” In early drafts of the play, Grant says he “was way too heavy-handed with an incident in which a kid is accused of terrorism. It’s such a sensitive issue in the community, so I took their feedback to heart” and rewrote the scenes in a more nuanced way.

“We’re not pretending that we’ve captured some perfect, indelible image of this community,” says Grant, echoing the sentiments of all the collaborators involved in Ku soo Dhawaada Xafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood).  “But it’s an image that feels authentic and true and very loving” — a vision of community crafted by a generous, experimental creative process where neighbors learn as much about themselves as they do about each other. And that’s true for all of us in the Twin Cities – we can all benefit from this engaging opportunity to get to know our neighbors a bit better.

Related performance details: Ku soo Dhawaada Xafadeena (Welcome to Our Neighborhood), a new original show presented by Mixed Blood and Bedlam Theatres, created by, for, with and about the people of Cedar Riverside; written by playwright David Grant, with Somali and Oromo translations by the Voices of Cedar Riverside Ensemble; directed by John Bueche; ensemble coaching by Maren Ward. The play will be on stage at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, July 23-31.