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West Bank Story

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 13, 2006

There is a play going on that highlights the awesomeness that is the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis. The play was recently featured in the Star Tribune. It is actually more about the West Bank itself than the production. After you read the article, ask yourself “why on earth is there only 2 churches and hardly any other Christian ministries on the West Bank?” Here’s the article in its entirety:

Mohamed Ali’s table stood at the far end of a West Bank vacant lot on a Saturday afternoon two weeks ago. He had been invited to set up a display and perhaps sell a few earrings, coffee mugs or hats at a community barbecue held on the site of Dania Hall, which for 114 years stood as a neighborhood rallying point. Business was slow so Ali had time to chat with a reporter about life in these parts for Somali immigrants; his friend, Abdikarim Isse, showed off an information guide he was publishing — the Somali Resource Directory.

Across the dusty lot, performers from Bedlam Theatre broke out with a song from the troupe’s new musical, “West Bank Story.” Bedlam helped organize this event as the final act in creating a show about the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Was Ali aware of the show, which opens tonight at Mixed Blood Theatre? No, he said. He has studied Shakespeare, but political theater is not his thing.

The distance between Ali and Bedlam — sharing the same space but at arm’s length — aptly symbolized the company’s attempt to build bridges and use theater as a galvanizing event for Minneapolis’ funkiest neighborhood. The Somali community bears best wishes for Bedlam, but few have fully embraced the effort. And Bedlam’s grassroots artists — who have worked with Somali students and invited neighbors to creative workshops — have produced a musical that is still more reflective of their radically progressive and anarchist roots.

“Art is just not that big a deal for the Somalis,” said Rhonda Eastlund, director of the Brian Coyle Community Center, a major gathering spot. “They’re trying to figure out immigration, trying to figure out how to search out the neighborhood.”

For Bedlam’s part, “We want to know our neighbors well,” said John Francis Bueche, one of the company’s founders and the writer of this musical that has two primary goals. Artistically, it is intended as an interpretive painting of a specific place and time; socially, it provides an event where the neighborhood can gather to look at itself on stage — true community theater built of creativity and involvement.

“It feels like a source of pride for residents,” added Maren Ward, another founder, who conceived the piece. “Just performing it gives us a chance to make connections.”

The West Bank or Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is the most ethnically diverse zip code in the state of Minnesota and the most densely populated between Chicago and Los Angeles, said Eastlund. On its western border, along Interstate Hwy. 35W, it is defined by the towers of Riverside Plaza. Somalis comprise the majority population, with strong contingents of Oromo, Ethiopian, Eritrean and other East African immigrants, Southeast Asians, Hispanics, Koreans and Middle Easterners.

Moving eastward, the neighborhood turns to business and entertainment along Cedar and Riverside avenues, with the legacy of 1960s and ’70s activism in such places as the Hard Times Cafe, North Country Co-op and Freewheel Bike. Many of the radicals who stoked that fire still live in the area, in new co-op housing. The final element is institutional — the University of Minnesota, Fairview Health Services and Augsburg University, on the eastern edge.

“You get this feeling on the West Bank that you have these little groups and they have their niches,” said Marya Hart, who lived in the neighborhood for many years and is composing the music for “West Bank Story.”Cedar Avenue is this big valley down the middle. The towers are on one side, the redeveloped housing is on the other side. And the question is, are those two sides of the avenue really talking to each other?”

Diversity is all around them

Hart’s question is what helped drive Bedlam’s quest with “West Bank Story.” The troupe is acutely aware of its place. In fact, Dar-al Hijrah mosque owns the building where Bedlam operates its theater studio and basement bicycle-repair shop.

During an interview with Bueche and Ward, several Somali youngsters wheeled their bikes through Bedlam’s back doors and headed for the basement. The bike business represents perhaps their greatest outreach.

Ward had the idea to do a play based on West Bank history. Key to that concept was the desire to reach outside Bedlam’s community of anarchists, co-op members, do-it-yourselfers, the young active left and alternative lifestylers.

They took their good intentions to the mosque, where director Abdi Salaam Adam suggested they look for connections with the Volunteers of America’s Somali high school at Franklin and Cedar Avenues. Adam, who is also a liaison for Somalis in the St. Paul school system, said the mosque has a great relationship with its Bedlam tenants but made it clear in an interview that the mosque is not promoting “West Bank Story.” Theater can be a hot-button issue for many conservative Somalis.

“Acting is kind of frowned upon, not encouraged,” said Adam. “There is a lot negativity portrayed in movies these days.”

Bedlam discovered that sense of caution when Bueche and Ward worked with students at the school to create a small show — vignettes based on immigrant experiences and family lore — that was performed for classmates and friends last month. The audience loved the show and the actors had a great time. But afterward, one young performer said she didn’t anticipate being in “West Bank Story.” She enjoyed acting in the school, but getting up on the Mixed Blood stage would be “too public.”

The notion of young unmarried women mixing with men in a theater is frowned upon by some in the community. It wasn’t until two weeks ago, after an extensive effort with the Coyle Center and other neighborhood groups, that Bedlam was able to find two young Somali women to play roles in the musical.

“Full speed ahead,” Bueche said with a grin at the May 20 barbecue. “We just got it fully cast last night.”

A history of immigration, radicalism

Bedlam’s Julian McFaul explains his “West Bank Story” set design — a series of flats representing past eras — as layers of history that we need to claw through to get to the present. Actor Laurie Witkowski, who lived on the West Bank for 15 years, said much the same when she described “West Bank Story” as an attempt to show how generational stories repeat themselves in a neighborhood long defined by its immigrant communities — from Snoose Boulevard to Bohemian Flats, to “Little Mogadishu,” as Mohamed Ali described the thriving life of Riverside Plaza.

“It’s about cycles, comings and goings, crossroads, how the dialogue is similar from different periods,” Witkowski said.

And in the end, the musical hopes also to be prospective as well as retrospective. Which takes us back to that windy afternoon two weeks ago as Bedlam artists stretched out a large sheet on the site of Dania Hall. Ward explained that she and her cohorts were soliciting visions of the West Bank’s future from the barbecue crowd, which would then be painted on the sheet as the final backdrop for “West Bank Story.”

There was an eerie resonance to the scene, recalling words spoken by the distant ghost of a Judge Rand, who dedicated this place in 1886.

“Within [the] walls [of Dania Hall], the spirit of intelligence, unity, friendship and brotherly love will be taught, and I trust, and sincerely hope, not only among the Danish citizens of Minneapolis, but the Norwegians and Swedes as well.”

Rand’s plea brings a smile now as we cluck our tongues over how silly it must have been to distinguish among these groups. Yet in their time, the divisions were absolutely real and the question they raise today is whether historians 114 years hence will grin at the quaint anxieties of ethnic neighbors pleading for cooperation in 2006.

“Nothing’s the same and nothing’s changed,” writes Bueche in “West Bank Story.”It’s just rearranged.”

WEST BANK STORY

What: Conceived and directed by Maren Ward for Bedlam Theatre. Book and lyrics by John F. Bueche. Music by Marya Hart.

When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Thu.; 2 p.m. Sun. Through June 25.

Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th St., Mpls.

Tickets: Pay what you think it’s worth opening weekend. $10-$15 thereafter. 612-338-6131.

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