After 42 years in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Mixed Blood Theatre took a small but significant detour into the movies.
On a beautiful night this summer, the theater invited neighbors to an outdoor screening of “A Stray,” a 2016 movie shot entirely in Minneapolis that chronicles a young Somali refugee and the stray dog he encounters. Nearly 200 people flocked to the theater’s adjoining parking lot. Approximately two-thirds were Somali-Americans from the surrounding neighborhood. They brought blankets, carpet squares and upturned plastic buckets for seating.
In a memo to staffers the following week, Mixed Blood founder and Artistic Director Jack Reuler said that “The feeling in the air echoed the mission of the organization” that night.
Beginning in the 1990s, the neighborhood known as the West Bank has been the locus for a huge influx of East African immigrants. It is said to contain the world’s densest concentration of ethnic Somalis outside of Mogadishu.
Cedar-Riverside is also home to several organizations committed to diversity and multicultural engagement. That includes Mixed Blood as well as the Cedar Cultural Center, Augsburg University and KFAI Radio. More than two decades into the neighborhood’s massive demographic shift, these organizations are learning to adapt and engage the community in exciting ways.
By its very name, Mixed Blood stands for the integration of cultures and people. But as Reuler tells it, acting on that credo in its own backyard has been a long learning curve.
“If we were going to keep from being an island in a community where we’d been an anchor, we needed to change,” he said. “Every year we’ve been a little less dumb about it.”
The biggest leap occurred a couple of years ago. “We finally realized we needed to use what we had — art in general and theater more specifically — as a tool rather than a product,” Reuler said.
So Mixed Blood rolled out a detailed plan to engage its Somali-American neighbors. Some strategies are delineated by age: “Baby raves” hosted by DJs with shiny objects; a regular story time for preschoolers; talent shows and discussion groups for teens.
Many activities are handled by 21-year-old hip-hop artist Sisco Omar, hired this year as Mixed Blood’s community organizer. He stages pop-up concerts around the neighborhood and runs a quarterly Cedar’s Got Talent event. “We want the community to think of the theater as their room,” Omar said.
In recent months, that’s exactly what has happened. Be it an election night celebration for a victorious Somali-American politician, a carwash fundraiser in the parking lot for a basketball team, a concert where families can grab free back-to-school supplies or story circles to promote better health care, the community has engaged with the Mixed Blood space.
There’s also a fledgling program — still without funding — that brings the origins of Mixed Blood full circle. “In the belief that theater is an instrument of change and a voice for the unheard,” Reuler said, he has met with Augsburg University administrators to develop scholarships for neighborhood residents who want to study theater.
Founded in 1989, the Cedar Cultural Center spent much of its early existence fighting off creditors and operating hand-to-mouth in terms of budgeting. That was frustrating for then-director of development Adrienne Dorn, hired in 2006.
“Our mission as an organization is intercultural appreciation, and here it is located in the middle of the largest Somali diaspora community in North America since the mid-’90s and what are we doing?” Dorn remembered thinking. “It was always a glaring gap, and huge inconsistency.”
Beginning in 2010, however, the Cedar began receiving grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a direct result of Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment. “That was a game changer,” said then-executive director Rob Simonds.
Still there were growing pains. Like Mixed Blood, the Cedar initially pursued “outreach” rather than genuine engagement with Somali-American neighbors. “Outreach is sort of a colonial mind-set: ‘We have to help them figure us out,’ ” Simonds said. “Where genuine engagement is more, ‘We have to figure out how we can do things that are of value to them.’ ”
One problem was that the Cedar’s métier — music — was derided by some of the more conservative imams and elders, especially coupled with the serving of alcohol. And for those with affection for Somalia’s vocalist-oriented legacy, the country’s civil war had scattered the accompanying musicians who knew the songs and styles.
Enter Bob Stacke, an Augsburg music professor (now retired) who started searching for Somali-Americans to teach him their music. “Bob Stacke was the first person who gave me the opportunity to show my talent to the Minnesota people,” said percussionist Abdirizak Kahiye, better known as Harbi.
Harbi and others worked with the professor to write charts for Somali songs. When the Cedar heard about Stacke pairing Harbi with Augsburg music students, the venue offered to share its network of professional musicians. Suddenly, the neighborhood’s Somali-American vocalists weren’t singing over simplified track beats at weddings and hotel parties.
These relationships were the genesis of Midnimo, a program named after the Somali word for “unity.” In 2014, it was underwritten by a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, awarded to the Cedar and Augsburg to build cross-cultural understanding of Somali culture through music.
Beginning in September 2014, the program brought three Somali groups or artists to Minneapolis each year for weeklong residencies. The program enjoyed a big break early on, with Midnimo’s November 2014 reunion of the Dur-Dur Band, wildly popular in Somalia before the civil war.
“Children were watching their mothers cry with joy and realizing music could be important to them, too,” said Augsburg music Prof. Jill Dawe, who also serves on the Cedar’s board of directors.
In 2016, Doris Duke provided another two-year commitment, this time for $300,000, expanding Midnimo to Mankato and St. Cloud.
A year later, the Cedar had to overcome internal turbulence when Dorn — who was promoted to executive director in 2015 — and program manager Fadumo Ibrahim left the organization while questioning the depth of its commitment to sharing power and responsibility with the Minnesota Somali community.
Jessica Rau, the Cedar’s producer of artistic projects, counters that, among other initiatives, the organization has created a five-person artists curatorial group made up entirely of Somali-Americans, including Harbi and Midnimo tour manager/promoter Abdul Ibrahim. After a couple of interim executive directors, David Hamilton was hired for the position in August. (Hamilton is the former director of operations for Augsburg’s Center for Global Education and Experience.) “At this point Midnimo is owned by the Somali community, with full direction from the artists,” he said.
The day after he started, there was a celebration to mark the opening of a bike trail linking Cedar-Riverside to downtown Minneapolis. The trail is named after Hussein Samatar, the first Somali immigrant elected to public office in Minnesota, and perhaps in the U.S., who won a seat on the Minneapolis school board in 2010. (He died in 2013 of complications from leukemia.) There was a concert on the edge of Currie Park. Omar from Mixed Blood served as DJ and backup musician. Harbi played percussion in a trio with an oud player.
As usual, neighborhood stalwart Abdirizak Bihi was in the middle of everything. The unofficial mayor of Cedar-Riverside was on the ground floor of forming Midnimo as a Cedar board member and, like many Somali-Americans on the West Bank, has his own KFAI show. Later that week, he would conduct his 700th tour of Cedar-Riverside — the mosques, the grocery stores, the parks — for Minnesota History Center members.
Reached by phone, Bihi said that the arts — especially poetry, theater and music — are part of a Somali heritage going back centuries. The country’s civil war threatened to short-circuit that history, he said.
“The people at the Cedar, KFAI, Augsburg, Mixed Blood, they have helped us show our young people their positive roots. I completely believe without art we could never move forward from the war.”
Britt Robson writes frequently about music and basketball for local and national publications.