It would be tempting to focus mostly on the stagecraft of "A Crack in the Sky," the often absorbing and humorous play about a young man's journey from rural Somalia to urban America that premiered Saturday at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
But to dwell on its fetching acting ensemble or the inventive elements of director Faye Price's production would miss something more significant. A rare, well-crafted work about a Somali-American immigrant, "Sky" offers authentic insight into a member of a community we know mainly from news stories about war, famine and terrorism — themes that are mostly muted here.
Using a mix of storytelling and dramatic re-creation, Price and her capable cast invest us in the tenacity, travails and dreams of Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, who coscripted this rangy autobiographical work with playwright Harrison David Rivers.
"Sky" tells us about a financially poor but culturally rich new American who gets an education and, improbably, becomes a writer. Ahmed (played by M. Hajji Ahmed, making his professional debut) gets help along the way from two university professors who feed his imagination as well as his literal hunger.
As Ahmed tells us in Somali and English, his village is not on any map. He leaves home at age 9 to live with relatives elsewhere in Somalia, working as a tailor and a photographer. Later, he travels to the Arabian Peninsula for work.
Finally, a cousin with military authority helps him land a visa to America, a place where he has no family or means to make a living.
Ahmed finds refuge in books by Maya Angelou (warm and wise Ashawnti Sakina Ford) and Malcolm X (stately JuCoby Johnson). These two figures are present to him as conversationalists in the play, as are the voices of Owl (Mikell Sapp) and Camel (Tracey Maloney), figures of wisdom and long-distance endurance from back home.
This is an impressive debut for actor Ahmed, himself a Somali-American. On opening night, he grew in the role in front of our eyes, becoming more confident and interacting more naturally with the cast of experienced professionals around him as he handled his copious lines.
He is well supported by the ensemble. As the two professors, Maloney projects kindness and empathy while Rich Remedios is big-hearted. Maloney also brings wit to the folktale-hatched Camel. Sapp finds humor in Owl, too, offsetting his other character, a stern, unkind Ethiopian roommate. Actor Rex Isom Jr. also is admirable in three small roles.
The design team, including Joel Sass (set), Dee Skogen (artwork) and Michael Wangen (lights), uses abstract African landscapes and art to reinforce themes in the work without resorting to stereotype.
Besides its success as a stage vehicle, "A Crack in the Sky" provides a refutation of claims being made about African immigrants. By dint of hard work and intellectual ambition — with the encouragement of some ordinary angels — one man is making his mark in the world while also affirming American ideals. That's something to write home about.