“They painted the house,” Stanley Kipper declared when he pulled up to his old childhood home the other day in south Minneapolis.
“It looks good,” older brother Obie Jr. proclaimed with a proud smile.
The once pink stucco house in the 4500 block of Oakland Av. S. is the inspiration for a play premiering this week. “From Behind the Sun,” which Stanley co-wrote, is about a not-so-pleasant chapter in Minneapolis history, when sections of the city were racially segregated through a practice known as “redlining.”
The brothers knew they were the first black family in the neighborhood. What they didn’t know was the bold and devious tactics that their parents employed to land there.
It was a bait-and-switch situation that Stanley, a veteran Twin Cities musician, learned about one afternoon while setting up his drum kit at the old Nye’s in northeast Minneapolis. He overheard some boisterous older men complaining about their days working at the post office.
He interrupted them: “Did you know Obie Kipper?”
His deceased father was a postal employee who worked his way up from the loading docks to a top management position.
Not only did they know him, but one fellow had a secret to divulge: He’d helped Obie Kipper, a black man, get a mortgage for a house in an area — south of 42nd Street — where blacks weren’t welcomed in 1957.
“This [white] guy was my father’s dear friend at the post office who posed as him, with his wife as my mom, when they met the real estate guys,” Kipper explained.
“Those guys never met my father until the day they turned over the keys on the front step of the house. [At first] the real estate people thought my old man was a cleaning dude that came to help.”
That conversation was nine years ago. Kipper shared the startling story with a friend, Seattle arts teacher Laura Drake. She suggested it would make a good play. Neither had ever written a full-length play, but they decided to give it a try.
She encouraged him to spin his tale into a recorder and send her the cassettes. They started writing by long distance.
“Stan’s a great storyteller,” said Drake, a veteran actress. “It was obvious to me that he could write dialogue. He heard how real people speak, especially in the African-American community. He knew the rhythms.”
The excited neophytes sent an early version of the play to Lou Bellamy at Penumbra Theatre. He urged them to go to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where they found mentors and Kipper took classes.
The co-writers even got together to improvise scenes, taking on the roles of Kipper’s parents. And they also researched redlining, which took place from San Francisco to New York. (A documentary on the subject by Twin Cities Public Television, “Jim Crow of the North,” will premiere at 9 p.m. Feb. 25 on TPT, Ch. 2)
Mother knows best
Over coffee last week in Kipper’s old neighborhood, the Minnesota-reared collaborators conversed like a long-married couple, interrupting each other and refreshing forgotten memories, as they discussed the yearslong, off-and-on work that went into this play.
Friends since Drake dated a roadie in Kipper’s band in 1969, they have teamed up over the years to present workshops and classes. As fledgling playwrights, they ended up working with four dramaturges to edit and guide them through the process.
The project started as a one-man show, expanded to feature 18 characters and now has been whittled to eight roles for its premiere Thursday at Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s Whitney Fine Arts Theater under the direction of Brian Grandison. Instead of two Kipper brothers, ages 7 and 9, the family has only one 14-year-old son.
The title of the play has been changed three times. They settled on “From Behind the Sun,” an expression that Kipper’s mom loved.
“My mom would say, ‘You look worried. Whatever happened, you don’t have to worry about anything. Your love comes from behind the sun. Make sure you share it.’ ”
The play addresses the kind of harassment the Kipper family endured.
“The dog [poop] coming through the mailbox, the brick coming through the window is true,” Kipper said.
“And the cutting of the phone line,” Drake interjected.
“And the soaped-up windows,” Kipper continued.
He said that shortly after his family moved into the neighborhood from nearby Nicollet Park, Mary Kipper, a third-grade teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools, was invited to a meeting with the principal of Washburn High School.
“This guy says, ‘I know you know a lot of black parents. I wonder if you can get all the black parents together and convince them to let their kids enroll at Central [High],’ ” which was located in a lower-income neighborhood and had more black students.
“My mom said, ‘You must be crazy’ and walked out of his office.”
Kipper has been a lifelong integrator — from schools to bands to his current neighborhood in Edina.
That’s the way he was raised.
“If me or my brother said stupid [stuff] about white people, my old man or my mom would crush us,” he recalled. “You’re supposed to rise above all that hatred. They instilled that in us.”
While his older brother was a track star at Washburn, Kipper got hooked on music, thanks to his mother turning him onto various records and books. After taking up the drums in fifth grade, he toured regionally with bands while in high school.
With the Marauders, he moved to Los Angeles in 1970. He later drummed with the Minneapolis-launched band Gypsy and worked with the Bee Gees, Bill Withers, Melanie and others. He played “Saturday Night Live” with Andrew Gold and “The Tonight Show,” Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden with Minnie Riperton.
In 1990, Kipper returned to Minneapolis and gigged with various local groups, eventually co-founding the New Primitives, a world music/soul/rock/reggae band that plays every Tuesday at Shaw’s in northeast Minneapolis.
He’s writing two other plays — “Addie Mae Baker,” about a woman in the music business, and “The Bus,” about a band on the road. There’s no question that, at age 68, he’s found a new passion.
“I haven’t been this stoked” — his face lit up before he could finish the sentence. “It’s like rock ’n’ roll when I first started.”
Writing the play hasn’t changed the way he views his childhood. “It ended up being a really cool neighborhood. It made me who I am.”
The house’s current owners recently remodeled the place — and made a curious discovery. In a wall, they found a 1930 newspaper that had been used as insulation.
The front page highlighted another not so pleasant chapter in Minneapolis history.
A column in the Nov. 2 Minneapolis Journal titled “Minnesota’s Best Stories” looked back at “the only real trouble they had in Minnesota over the slavery question.”
The article recounted the story of Eliza Winston, who came to Minneapolis from Memphis in 1860 as a maid with a white family. Abolitionists in Minnesota fought for her freedom, which a court awarded her.
Kipper’s childhood home, it turns out, contained more history than he realized.