"West Bank Story": Minneapolis' global village then and now

D-wayne at Richters
In a scene from "West Bank Story," Heidi Bakke (as Dealio), Darien Johnson (as Dwayne) and Garrett Ferderber (as Blitzo) hang out at a West Bank "drugstore" circa 1972.
Photo by Sean Smuda

Where else but in a musical about the West Bank would you find a song about the co-op movement and the political act of baking organic bread?

The West Bank's ethnic and racial make-up rivals the United Nations. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists brush shoulders with hippies, punks and professors on the street every day. For an outsider it can be overwelming. But for Maren Ward, co-artistic Director of Bedlam Theater and someone who calls the West Bank home, it screams "musical."

The brain trust
The brain trust behind "West Bank Story": Maren Ward, John Bueke & Marya Hart of Bedlam Theater. Bueke, who wrote the script and the lyrics for the musical, says Bedlam is celebrating its tenth anniversary on the West Bank.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"It's an epic neighborhood, epic people, and it warrants singing and dancing and revolving sets," Ward says.

Bedlam Theater is celebrating its tenth year on the West Bank. Co-Artistic Director John Bueke says the experimental company was drawn to the neighborhood because it's always been a place where people re-imagine what's possible in life. Bueke says Bedlam decided to mark its anniversary by looking back on what made the West Bank a hotbed of radicalism and counterculture.

"We wanted to embrace and explore the reasons that we are here, and the legacy of the things that have come before us, and to recognize that there's a point to the inventiveness of the neighborhood that's fueled the inventiveness of our theater," says Bueke.

Part of Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis. In the early 1970s, neighborhood activists successfully blocked an expanded version of the plaza.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"West Bank Story" leaps among three different periods that define the character of the neighborhood. At the turn of the century, it was a Slovak and Scandinavian immigrant community buoyed by the flour mill industry but receptive to the growing labor movement. In the early 1970s it was a place where hippie co-ops thrived and riots erupted when the city started building the modernist, mixed-income high-rise, Riverside Plaza.

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Today, the West Bank epitomizes a global village characterized by immigrant-owned businesses and serving as the center of America's largest Somali population.

In the production we're introduced to a street punk who befriends a Somali teenager, a co-op baker who falls in love with a square college student and two Slovak immigrant women who are trying to find their place in a new country.

Global Village
Global Village. It's a store on the West Bank and an appropriate way to describe the character of the neighborhood.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Its creators say there are no messages in "West Bank Story"; the show aims to capture the multi-cultural spirit of the neighborhood. Maren Ward says she worries about its future, given that the West Bank is one of the last areas close to downtown Minneapolis that hasn't been overtaken by developers.

"I don't want the fact that it's a changing neighborhood to change," she says. "I don't want it to get commodified; I don't want it to look like a suburb."

The play also alludes to the current hot-button issue of immigration by comparing the experiences of Slovak immigrants on the West Bank in the 1890s to those of Somali refugees in 2006. Composer Marya Hart, who wrote the music for the songs in the show, says the West Bank is like Minnesota--forever transforming itself.

"A hundred years ago, the biggest language that was spoken in the state of Minnesota was German," she says. "Everything always changes here, and anybody who's looking for that one idyllic time when everybody agreed with each other, everything was safe and everything was pretty and everything was stable, they can search through history forever and they're never going to find it."

One hundred years of West Bank History is a lot of territory to cover in one musical, perhaps too much according to Star Tribune Theater Critic Rohan Preston. Preston says the show lays the right foundation but it needs a narrative, a story to pull the audience in.

Two actors
Saudi Arten (as Ayan) and Savannah Reich (as Harshwind) in "West Bank Story." Arten plays a Somali teenager who's befriended by a street punk portrayed by Reich.
Photo by Sean Smuda

"I actually found the characters to be very interesting," Preston says, wondering to himself, "'Why don't you focus on their lives so that we know them better and, frankly, so that we care about them more?'"

Bedlam Theater's Maren Ward counters by pointing out the slogan for the play: "'West Bank Story': Everybody's Got One." She says there are too many stories to pick one that reflects the history of the area. She says the company decided early on to tell the story of the neighborhood by making the West Bank itself the main character. Ward believes on that level, it succeeds.