Connect with us

Arts & Culture

Seeking diverse cast for new play about Somali immigration



History Theatre is seeking a diverse group of non-union or union actors for the following new play:

By Harrison David Rivers and Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
Directed by Faye Price

A young shepherd boy stands in front of his mother to tell her of the decision he has made in the night. He has had enough of the nomadic life, of herding goats and sheep, and is leaving to seek out a better life. With that, he sets off on an adventure that takes him on the road less traveled from Somalia to Minnesota. It’s the epic tale of Ahmed Ismail Yusuf who, inspired by Maya Angelou, discovers the power of the written word.

Roles to be cast: [2W, 5M]
Man 1
AHMED ISMAIL YUSUF – Somali man, mid-20’s-early 30’s, looks younger than his years; Warm and chatty with a keen intelligence; Resilient and ambitious. A born storyteller.

Man 2
ROOMMATE – Ethiopian man, mid 20’s; Unintentionally cold; Has been in the United States longer than AHMED and holds tightly to the spaces and possessions that he has acquired. Will also play other characters.

Man 3
HASSAN – Somali man, 20’s; AHMED’S younger brother, the family caretaker after AHMED left the desert, the well-being of his mother is his primary concern; It sometimes blinds him to the plights – and also the triumphs – of those around him. Will also play other characters.

THE GENERAL – Somali man, late 40’s-early 50’s; Solidly built and exceptionally tall – everyone has to look up to speak with him; Well-connected in the government, uses his connections to help AHMED. Will also play other characters.

FRED PFEIL – non-white man, 40’s; A professor of Literature (though he does not have a PhD); Odd, marches to the tune of his own drummer; Takes an active interest in AHMED; They become more like colleagues than teacher and student. Will also play other characters.

Woman 1
MOTHER – Somali woman, mid-late 40’s; Strong and independent, she leads her family with wit, grace and dignity; MOTHER is a storyteller who inspires her son to greatness; She wrestles with mental illness. Will also play other characters.

Woman 2
DIANE ZANNONI – white woman, 40’s; AHMED’S undergraduate advisor; Tough and no-nonsense; A crusader; She expects excellence from her students and her peers. She refuses to let AHMED give up.

Rehearsals begin: January 16, 2018 (evenings and weekends)
Performance dates: Feb. 10-March 4, 2018

Audition dates: Mon. July 10 & Tue. July 11th, 5:00-8:00pm
At History Theatre, 30 E. 10th Street, St. Paul

Please sign up for a 5-minute time slot here:
You will be asked to mark which role(s) you are auditioning for, so please note the descriptions above.  You may choose multiple roles.

Auditions will involve reading sides from the script – you can download the sides below to prepare, or arrive early to the audtion to preview printed copies.

History Theatre
Anya Kremenetsky
Web site


Crate-digging millennials are seeking out classic East African music



Tucked between butchers and hair braiders in Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market is the Real Vinyl Guru, a shabby stall that has become a mecca for vinyl lovers.

James ‘Jimmy’ Rugami has sold second-hand records from stall 570 since 1989. In the cramped space, hundreds of seven and 12-inch vinyls are tightly packed. Among hit Motown albums is a veritable trove of East African music.

Among them is the Kenyan-based Tanzanian duo Simba Wanyika and the recently re-discovered “Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa.” They’re all mementos of a bygone era, when Nairobi’s record presses created a hub for the regions musicians in the 70s and 80s. Many flocked to Nairobi to lay down their tracks and stayed to become part of a vibrant local scene.

Rugami entered that scene in 1986 when he left his life selling clothes in the town of Meru at the foot of Mount Kenya, and became a DJ in Nairobi. When the fast life became too much, he opted to sell music instead of spinning it, obsessively collecting records and tapes, wherever he could find them.

“I used to drive all the way to Dar es Salaam, then take a boat to Zanzibar and buy tapes there,” he recalls. “That’s where people were supplying the best stuff, especially jazz, which in Nairobi was either unavailable or very expensive.”

When the stall became almost exclusively vinyl, people thought he was mad for holding on to an outdated technology, he told the Associated Press. Still, they nicknamed him Mr. Records.

“It is not once or twice I have been labelled insane, very many times,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t stop.”

Rugami’s devotion to vinyl outlasted the cassette, CDs and streaming to welcome crate-digging millennials craving the rich tone of a record. In the few years, his stall has attracted tourists from around the world, and young Nairobians rediscovering their country’s pop roots.

Now the Real Vinyl Guru makes enough money to employ five people and Rugami’s loyalty to the distinctive crackle of a record is paying off.

Continue Reading

Arts & Culture

First-ever Somali exhibit at Minnesota History Center opens in June



STAR TRIBUNE — The Minnesota History Center will throw open the doors to “Somalis + Minnesota” in June, the first long-term exhibit about the east African nation’s culture, heritage and diaspora at the state’s premier history museum.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, and their stories need to be told, said Steve Elliott, CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the History Center. The U.S. Census reports the Somali population in Minnesota at 57,000, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.

“With Somali people in almost every sector of Minnesota’s workforce, now is the time to celebrate the strength and resilience of the Somali people and to help build bridges in understanding what it means to be an immigrant,” Elliott said.

The exhibit is being created in partnership with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which opened on Lake Street in Minneapolis in 2013.

“We see this as a big honor,” said Osman Mohamed Ali, founder of the Somali Museum. “The Somali community is proud that they will have their stories told at the Minnesota History Center.”

Ali said Minnesotans are curious about their neighbors’ history and that there’s a need in the Somali community to teach the younger generation about their heritage. Many Somalis arrived in Minnesota as refugees fleeing civil war, and families have been more focused on rebuilding their lives than exploring family histories.

“There are a lot of Somalis who don’t know their history,” Ali said. “It will be educational for all Minnesotans — whether they are Somali-Americans or non-Somali-Americans.”

Continue Reading

Arts & Culture

Invisibilia: Inspired By ‘American Idol,’ Somali TV Show Aimed To Change The World



Welcome to Invisibilia Season 4! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior, and we here at Goats and Soda are joining in for the podcast’s look at how a reality show in Somalia tried to do far more than crown a winning singer. The ultimate goal: to change human behavior.

Once upon a time there was music in Somalia, but then the music started fading out. First one music radio station, then another, then another, until there was almost no music to hear and people started MacGyvering workarounds.

One of the people who came up with a workaround was Xawa Abdi Hassan, a young woman who lived in a village outside Mogadishu.

“We used to use a memory card, fill the memory card with music and listen to it from our phones,” Xawa says. In her house, as she cooked and cleaned, Hassan would sing along with the great Somali singers. But even in this private space she says she was careful. “I used to turn the volume down low, so no one could hear it.”

The problem was al-Shabab, the Islamic extremist group that dominated large parts of the country. Al-Shabab didn’t like music. In 2009 it banned music at weddings, banished musical ringtones and starting punishing people who listened to music on their mobile phones by making them swallow their memory cards.

Eventually the musicians themselves were targeted. The famous soloist Aden Hasan Salad was shot and killed in a tea shop, and others were murdered in the street.

Through all of that, Xawa Abdi Hassan kept listening and practicing. Because she had a dream: “I just wanted to sing and become an entertainer.”

For most of her life though — because of al-Shabab — this was a pretty far-fetched dream. Then in 2013 an unexpected and interesting opportunity emerged: There was going to be a new reality television show in Somalia, an American Idol-style show with singers competing.

“As soon as I heard about it I knew I wanted to join,” Hassan says.

What she didn’t know — what she couldn’t possibly know — was that this reality show was part of a much larger political plan.

Using reality TV to change the world

The plan was to create a musical reality show that could undermine the power of al-Shabab, or, in the language of the memo distributed to the people involved in the show’s creation, “undercut the messaging and brand appeal of armed extremist groups.”

The United Nations, which was providing the money and support for the show, had concluded that a vivid display of Somali musical culture could serve “as a kind of inoculation against the austerity of Shabab,” Ben Parker told me. Parker was the head of communications for the U.N. in Mogadishu. He says that at this point — 2013 — al-Shabab had finally been pushed out of the capital, Mogadishu. But the situation in Somalia was far from stable. There were still regular attacks, so the new government (which had U.N. backing) needed to prove to Somalis that the power of the extremist group really was fading. This is why, Parker says, a musical reality show that challenged the power of the music-hating group was so appealing.

“The beauty of a reality show is that the form itself achieves some of your goals,” he explains.

After all, not only is there music in a musical reality show, there’s democratic voting and individual expression. So even in its form it communicates to its audience a very different way of being.

This kind of indirect political messaging, Parker told me, is increasingly popular in strategic communications: “Those working in conflict … are less and less convinced of the value of weapons and more and more convinced that other approaches can deliver the dividends.”

You get further with songs than with bombs.

So is he right?

Can a reality show actually change reality?

It turns out this question has been systematically studied.

The tricky science of changing what’s normal

How do people come to see the world around them as normal, an unremarkable fact, the way things are and should be? This is the question that interests Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychologist at Princeton University who studies media and how societies change.

Paluck told me that for a long time people assumed the path to political or cultural change depended on crafting the right argument.

“It was all rhetoric and no poetics,” she says.

But starting in the 1990s, according to Paluck, poetics started gaining ground because psychologists realized that people consumed stories in this qualitatively different way.

“Their defensiveness is disabled. Their counterarguing is at rest.”

What Paluck wanted to understand was whether this difference in how we consumed stories translated into any changes in what we thought and how we behaved. So around 2004 she hooked up with an organization in Rwanda that was creating a new radio soap opera that was trying encourage tolerance between different ethnicities.

And what Paluck found after a year of studying communities in Rwanda randomly assigned to listen to the soap opera was that their exposure had a surprising impact.

“What it boiled down to was that despite the fact that people loved this program, it didn’t change their beliefs,” she says. “But it did change their perceptions of norms, and at the same time it changed their behaviors. Which is why I thought this is something significant.”

Let me repeat that: It didn’t change their beliefs; it changed their behaviors by changing what they considered to be the social norm.

That’s a sobering idea.

“It’s a very uncomfortable thought,” Paluck says. “We like to think that all of our behaviors flow from our convictions, and what we do is a reflection of who we are and what we think. But we’re constantly tuning ourselves to fit in with the social world around us.”

So what this work suggests is that if you change someone’s perception of what constitutes the social norm — as you convince people that the world is safe enough to sing in public even though in actual fact singing in public is incredibly dangerous — then you just might be able to move the needle on the ground.

She took on extremists with her song

Which brings us back to Xawa Abdi Hassan, the young woman who quietly listened to music off a memory card and dreamed of being a singer.

It took her some time to convince her family that it would be OK to compete in the show, called Inspire Somalia. Her mother was afraid that participating would turn her into a target, but ultimately she got permission.

Hassan says when she first took the stage to compete, her hands were shaking, and not just because this could be a big break. There was another reason: Because of al-Shabab, she had never sung in public before.

It was too dangerous.

“That was my first time,” she says. “Before that, I did not sing in public places.”

After Hassan two other contestants had their turns, both men. One had a famous musician father; the second, a man named Mustafa, had composed his own song.

Mustafa Haji Ismail competes in the TV show Inspire Somalia.

Credit: Clips from Inspire Somalia, courtesy of the U.N.
Once they finished came the part of the show supposed to serve as a democracy demonstration: the voting. Ballots were distributed to the audience and judges, and for a minute the room was quiet. In this small conference room in the middle of Mogadishu people bent over their ballots and considered the options before them.

The son of the famous musician.

The girl who practiced at home with the volume turned low.

The boy who wrote his own song.

In that room they consulted their hearts, weighed strengths and weaknesses, then marked the paper in their laps.

It was Mustafa who ended up winning, but Hassan says she was honestly not upset. For her just the act of singing in public for the first time was enough. “I was happy as … like I was born that day.” she told me.

In fact, Hassan is now a bit famous. People occasionally recognize her on the street, and even more important, she’s part of a professional singing group. As al-Shabab remains a force in Somalia, this means she is still at risk. She says she tries not to worry too much but is often spooked when she sees a car slow down when she’s walking. Still, she is committed to keep making music.

“Yes, it is dangerous,” Hassan says. “But if the young person doesn’t stand up for his country and do what’s right, how is he helping his country?”

Which brings us to this question: Did this reality show actually change reality in any way?

It would be impossible to make the case that Somalia is a completely different country now. It isn’t.

But there is at least one undeniable change since 2013. Music is back in the streets. Brought back, slowly and painfully, through a complicated combination of political strategy and personal courage.

Continue Reading