The Minnesota State Capitol has been home to a lot of political drama over the years — but nothing quite like this.
Starting Friday night, Wonderlust Productions is staging a new play in the recently refurbished Capitol building. It's called "Our House" and was created from conversations with the people who work behind the scenes to keep the state democracy running smoothly.
This show is the result of more than three years' work.
In 2014 the Knight Foundation launched the Knight Arts Challenge, offering to fund innovative artistic ideas that engaged residents of St. Paul in a meaningful way. Wonderlust Productions co-founder Leah Cooper said it was an opportunity her company couldn't pass up.
"Everything we do is site-specific, and everything we do is community-driven," she said. "I'd been reading articles about the renovation at the Captitol, and thinking about the restoration of the Capitol made us think about all the people who work here regardless of who's in power and regardless of what the legislators are saying, regardless of what the media is saying. These people just keep making the state happen, and we thought that's a community people need to know more about."
Over the course of many months, Wonderlust Productions met with different groups that work at the Capitol — not just politicians and lobbyists, but also activists and career civil servants.
They listened as employees past and present shared their stories. What they heard from those employees was a deep sense of pride in their jobs, alongside a recognition that most Minnesotans don't really understand how the political process works.
Wonderlust Co-founder Alan Berks said those conversations formed the basis of the play.
"The majority of words that are spoken in the play actually come directly from story circles and interviews that we did," he said. "There's actual verbatim dialogue, and then some of it is paraphrased to fit in with the plot."
The story follows the arrival of a new Capitol employee and what she learns in the process. There's a case of mistaken identities. A document goes missing. There's even a play within the play.
The first half of the show takes place in the "vault," the hub of the Capitol's tunnel system. For the second half, the audience splits into groups and travels to different parts of the building for different scenes.
The cast is a mix of professional actors and people who have actually worked in the Capitol.
Ginger Commodore, both a professional actor and an employee of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, said one of the issues "Our House" deals with is access. "You don't see a lot of people of color walking around the Capitol," she said. "And I think that some of it is because they feel a little displaced and don't know they actually have a place there."
Before joining the cast, the closest Delinda Pushetonequa had ever been to the Capitol was in the Women's March, a year ago. "I play a Native American ghost, a Dakota woman, honoring the voices of the Dakota people that have lived in this state and making sure that our voices are heard," she said.
For many Native Americans, the State Capitol is a symbol of oppression and displacement; art still hangs on its walls that portray the Dakota as simple savages. Pushetonequa said she appreciates the opportunity to speak about it through her character. She hopes the show will inspire people to become more active in local government.
Co-director Cooper said that is the great tension at the heart of the play: how to make the state's governance truly accessible to all, without getting bogged down in the bureaucracy of the political process.
"There's a long history of systemic exclusion and everybody wants to figure out how to overcome it," she said. "Minnesotans have a great history of progressive, good intentions toward inclusion, but there's a feeling now that there's a lot of work to be done to make that a reality."
"Our House: The Capitol Play Project" runs this weekend and next.