Baking granola in 1972 at North Country Co-op in Minneapolis. (Star Tribune photo by Pete Hohn)

As you help yourself to some cranberry sage rice from your local co-op’s hot bar on your way to pick up a bottle of rosewater spray and some organic cleaning products, you are having a very different experience than someone shopping at a co-op 44 years ago.

Back then, there were no takeout boxes, but there was a lot of controversy. Gemma Irish’s new play, “The Co-op Wars,” points toward a 1975 conflict in the Twin Cities over how co-op grocery stores should operate. 

On one side were folks who thought co-ops should serve as an alternative to the commercialized industrial food system. On the other side were folks from an organization called C.O.

“That was the group of people that were saying, ‘Hey, can we sell canned beans and pre-sliced bread, and be accessible to people who don’t bring their own jars?' ” Irish said. She characterizes the philosophical divide as Hippies vs. Marxists, though the groups shared a commonality as opponents of the Vietnam War.

The friction between the two sides resulted in the armed takeover of a bulk food distributor on Minneapolis’ West Bank, and the fire-bombing of a co-op delivery truck two days later.

The play will be perforned Sept. 10 as a staged reading at the Phoenix Theater, in a partnership between the Playwright Cabal, where Irish is a member, and Arts Nest. It’s the first in a series of five new plays that will be shown as part of the project.

Irish (pictured at right) grew up in a communal house in south Minneapolis herself. Her parents were part of the co-op movement, and she remembers going to protests as a young person, and composting long before it became mainstream.

When she learned about the violent confrontations that happened around food co-ops in the 1970s, it didn’t make sense to her.

“All my parents’ friends had been anti-Vietnam War activists, and were actively involved in Buddhism and nonviolence,” Irish said. “I started to hear about what happened, and I thought: This doesn’t align with my idea. How does someone that came out of the antiwar movement bring a crow bar to a warehouse? What’s the journey there?”

Driving her inquiry is the question, “How did people with these shared values come to a place of such animosity toward each other?”

Irish admires how passionate both sides were about finding a new way out of existing food systems. “Both sides have a lot of merit,” she says. “It’s interesting. Co-ops as they are today are so different. It’s not all bins of dried beans anymore. There’s a lot of compostable clamshell plastic containers.”

Irish’s script takes place both in 1975 and 2019, as she makes connections between what happened back then and how artists today grapple with trying to create systemic change.

“I think the co-ops and the arts are about systems,” she said. “A lot of actors and writers in 2019 think, ‘I can’t leave the system, I need to earn a living.’ Is it elitist to frown on ‘Cats’? Or is ‘Cats’ maybe an accessible entry point?”

When: 7 p.m. Tue., Sept. 10
Where: Phoenix Theater, 2605 Hennepin Av., Mpls.
Admission: Free
Info: 612-377-2285 or phoenixtheatermpls.org

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