“It’s not a scary neighborhood; it’s very friendly. I usually get lunch at the market right over there.” Hamdi Mohamed points across Cedar Avenue. “I’ve probably gained a few pounds,” she jokes. Mohamed, 18, doesn’t live in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood but, thanks to a joint production between Bedlam Theatre and Mixed Blood Theatre, she now has a gaggle of new Cedar-Riverside friends.
Their message? Cedar-Riverside is not the neighborhood many Minnesotans think it is. “It’s more than just what you see on the news,” Mohamed explains.
Mohamed and over 15 other East African young adults (ages 15-23) make up the cast of Welcome to Our Neighborhood, presented by Bedlam and Mixed Blood, and performing at the Cedar Cultural Center from July 23-31. The production will cap off an eight-month collaboration between community-based “story circles” and playwright David Grant. Members of the cast agree that Grant’s role in the project has been respectful and sensitive to their cultures. “It’s been a back-and-forth between him and us,” Mohamed explains. “We would talk and tell stories, then he would go and write and come back and share with us, and we would give him our opinions.” Inside the script, actors have the chance to share their own personal spoken word pieces, and both pre- and post-show entertainment will feature original East African music.
“We began in December of last year,” explains Bedlam’s youth program coordinator Andi Cheney. “Once we got into rehearsals, we wanted the kids to think of this as their summer job.” Don’t let that “job” word throw you, though. “It’s been super fun,” Chaltu Berento, 17, admits. “At first, I didn’t know anybody. Now we’re all close friends.” Part of the bonding process came thanks to a script-wide translation into Somali, a language not everyone in the group was fluent in. Berento, like many of the other actors, plays a handful of characters, including a hunched-over store owner sporting a fake beard. It’s clear the comedy is broad and physical, and she agrees: “It’s a funny, funny show.”
Shemse Nuru, 20, is happy to be back onstage with Bedlam, after appearing in this year’s 10×10 Fest at the Capri and last year’s Aniga Adiga at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. He rattles off the ethnicities of the cast: “We got Ethopians, Somalis, Oromians.” He thinks for a moment. “We even have an American,” Nuru adds.
“East African culture says we’re not supposed to date,” Berento explains. “Islam says we’re not even supposed to touch until we’re married.” Mohamed elaborates that just to be social with members of the opposite sex, even in a group setting, falls under the suspicion of many of their parents. “Theater is a way to let it all out,” Mohamed says, “what we deal with from our parents and from our peers.”
Welcome to Our Neighborhood seems to have two audiences in mind: East African adults who don’t know what it’s like to grow up in America, and Twin Cities residents who might have something to learn about the Cedar-Riverside community.
Through it all, a cultural pride shines brightly. “My culture, my religion, that’s Shamse,” Shamse Nuru explains in the third person. “That’s just who I am.” Nuru is one of the many actors to call Cedar-Riverside home. “Come to the show,” he says, “to know who we are.”
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.