Bohemian Flats: Living on the mud of the Mississippi

Brian Hesser, Ariel Leaf, Seth Conover, Katie Starks. 
Brian Hesser, Ariel Leaf, Seth Conover, Katie Starks. 
Photo by Mathieu Lindquist
From the later part of the 19th century through the first part of the 20th, a small, hardscrabble community lived along the banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis. Existing somewhere between squatters and residents of an unofficial neighborhood, folks -- often brand-new immigrants to the Midwest -- carved out a life, dealing with spring floods, primitive conditions, and an alien culture and language.

Playwright and director Liz Neerland, whose local roots extend to the immigrants who filled Minneapolis in the late 19th century, explores the decades of life by the banks of the Mississippi in Bohemian Flats, now running at Nimbus Theatre.

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It's an intriguing, often touching portrait of a lost community. Neerland doesn't view it through rose-colored glasses. These are tough people living in a tough situation, but the sense of community permeates every aspect of the play. They survive because they are always willing to help and aid neighbors they don't know -- or newcomers right off the train.

The story circles around the end of the Bohemian Flats community, when pressure from the landowner (who wanted to store coal on the land) caused the residents to be evicted from the homes they had built from spare wood and the gardens they had constructed with mud dragged, bucket by bucket, from the riverbed.

Neerland uses letters from the residents to add texture to the piece, but the best moments come when the drama is clearly presented onstage. These come in short bits throughout the show, from the terrifying explosion at the Washburn A. Mill (where many of the immigrants worked) to working out what to do with a family fresh from the train, unable to speak a word of English and knowing no one in the area. 

In fact, I would like to have seen more of this side of the drama in place of some of the letters and other historical documents (newspaper articles, for example) that are used in the show. This would also give the actors, who are often left to appear to be either writing or reading, more to do onstage and help to bring the lives of these characters into sharper focus.


Bohemian Flats
Through April 7
Nimbus Theatre
1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis
For information and tickets, call 612.548.1380 or visit online.

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The Nimbus Theater

1517 Central Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413


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