Cedar Riverside's young people tell their story

Welcome to our Neighborhood
Some of the cast members of "Welcome to our Neighborhood" being presented at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Image courtesy Voices of Cedar Riverside (photo: Trang Do)

The East African community in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis has been in the news a recently.

This week a man pleaded guilty to aiding young men from the neighborhood to return to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab, a group the federal government has declared a terrorist organization.

However, some young people from the neighborhood say their reality is very different from the media images of their community. They'll explain just how different in a play opening this weekend.

At rehearsal in the Cedar Cultural Center Chaltu Berento launches into a monologue about life as a young Somali woman living in the United States.

"Let me tell you a little story. You see, I used to know this girl who wore black stiletto boots to her knees..." Berento begins.

Berento and Farah
Chaltu Berento and Shamarke Farah, two of the actors in "Welcome to our Neighborhood."
Image courtesy of Voices of Cedar Riverside Ensemble (photo Trang Do)

She's wearing a headscarf and long skirt now, but she makes clear in her piece it's her choice.

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"You see, that 'She' turned into an 'I,' and that 'I' into a 'Me' and that 'Me' into a 'We,' projecting all the energy from one to many for...

I was not dressing to impress they or any but myself, 'cause no one can touch my individuality, because I am proud to say I am an American Muslim Somali."

As she finished the other actors in the room cheer in agreement.

Berento is one of 16 actors in the cast of "Welcome to our Neighborhood." It's a collaboration between the Bedlam and Mixed Blood Theaters, both based in the community.

Bedlam's John Beuche is directing the play. He said it's an attempt to tell some of the stories of the thousands of Somalis and Oromo people living in Cedar Riverside. It's also to explain the younger generations worldview to older members of the community, he said.

"For the adults, it tells the story of what the young people are going through as being this generation growing up in America," Beuche said. "And also show the young people are still very interested in their parents stories and their background culture."

And for these youngsters it's a complex world where traditional values grind against 21st century life.

The play is based on tales gathered from neighborhood story circles, where local people were encouraged to come and share their experiences.

Outside the Cedar
"Welcome to Our Neighborhood" is a collaboration between the Mixed Blood and Bedlam Theaters. The play is being presented at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Image courtesy Voices of Cedar Riverside (photo: Trang Do)

Playwright David Grant wove those stories into the script. Some of it is wryly amusing, like the young woman horrified at her mother's addiction to bad daytime TV.

"Mother? Really? I don't think so," the young woman says in the play. "What important things can you lean from 'The Price is Right' or those evil housewives?"

"Many things! English! I learned my English from watching TV."

Yet, when friends snarkily suggest that's why her mother's English is so bad, the young woman rips into them for their lack of respect for elders.

"I can't believe my ears!" she says. "You both know better than that."

It turns out some of the actors in "Welcome to our Neighborhood" had to ask their parents for coaching in the Somali language for their parts because they had never learned to speak it properly.

"Welcome to our Neighborhood" looks at the community through the eyes of two young people who fall in love, much to the aggravation of their parents. Hamdi Mohammed plays the girl Nadifa, who also refuses to stay home to look after the house as tradition demands, and instead goes out to work as a youth organizer.

"I can relate to her because, like, I do want to make a difference. I do want to make positive change," she said. "And I am an only child, but my mother only notices I am outside the house. She doesn't notice what I am doing outside the house and how positive it is."

The play takes a twist when a young man called Zulfikar, played by Sharmarke Farah, gets into trouble.

"He's the 'known terrorist,' they are saying. And so he's trying to get himself out of the story basically, because he's getting accused for something he didn't do. He didn't go to Africa to go fight for Jihad."

Bedlam's Maren Ward has been coaching the actors. She says the inclusion of the terrorism subplot was a little controversial, because it's goes beyond most local residents experiences.

"When we did readings of the play we had a couple of young people who said why do you even have a character who is suspected of terrorist activity? It really doesn't have anything to do with our life."

However in the play the accusation of terrorism forces everyone to re-examine their values, and think about what's truly important.

The actors in "Welcome to our Neighborhood" hope to draw an audience from the neighborhood and beyond this weekend and next. They're also proposing to take a stripped-down version of the show on a statewide tour to spread the stories a little further.