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Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company Celebrates 20 Years

Michael Hugh Torsch and Rachel Weber (front) and James Ramlet and George Muellner are part of New Jerusalem, the latest show in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre's 20th anniversary season.

Michael Hugh Torsch and Rachel Weber (front) and James Ramlet and George Muellner are part of New Jerusalem, the latest show in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre's 20th anniversary season.

Twenty years ago, Barbara Brooks just wanted to put on a show exploring Jewish issues for a Twin Cities audience. Today, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre is still going strong and about to open the second show of its anniversary season.

"I grew up in New York City in Queens and came out here in grad school," she says. "When I came out here, there was a real undercurrent of racism. It didn't seem like the people mixed very well."

See also: Rose: Five Hours in the Holy Land

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Brooks came face-to-face with misunderstandings in her everyday life as well. "I was working part-time at a law firm, and someone mentioned they hadn't met a Jew before. Why would that be an issue?" she asks.

Even within the area Jewish community, Brooks found that many of them weren't "connected with anything Jewish. There was a fear that they would lose the Jewish community," she says.

Brooks went through several steps, from learning how to write grants to forming a nonprofit to setting up a board.

Barbara Brooks.

Barbara Brooks.

For their first production, A Shayna Maidel, Brooks picked the decidedly Roman Catholic Cretin-Derham Hall to stage the play. She also acted in the show, playing Rose, one of two sisters reunited in the United States following World War II.

"It was not just about Jewish history and culture. There are universal themes, like immigration and assimilation," Brooks says of the play.

The show was a success. "We had money. Everyone got paid," Brooks says.

Soon after, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre started performing at Hillcrest, which has become its longtime home. Brooks guided the company to steady growth through the years, producing hits like Old Wicked Songs and beginning to commission new work, starting with The Magic Dreidels in 2000.

"Everything has been in a natural progression. We had new play development because there was a need for it. Extending the season was done very strategically," Brooks says.

In recent years, the company has done five shows a season. The 2014-15 program began this summer with Rose, a one-woman piece starring Sally Wingert and presented at homes around the Twin Cities area. The production was well reviewed and attended, an earned an Ivey in September -- the fourth time work at MJTC has been honored.

"I started to notice that the more Jewish-ness that was imbedded in the play the more it attracted a non-Jewish audience," Brooks says.

Up next is New Jerusalem, a work by David Ives that explores the life and thinking of 17th-century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.

"He is very important to the history of philosophy, and had new ideas about liberty and freedom of speech. How he was viewed in his community has a lot of relevance for today. It's a really well-written script and has a lot of meat in it," Brooks says.

The anniversary season continues with three more shows through 2015. Brooks will begin to think about the 2015-16 sometime in the new year. "I get frantic about around May and then announce the season in June," she says.

The whole 20-year journey, "has been rewarding. I remember sitting in my living room and thinking, 'Should I try to start a theater?' To see the response from people is amazing, from unsolicited emails to phone messages to letters. Things like that keep me going. It makes the hard work worth it," Brooks says.

IF YOU GO:

New Jerusalem Saturday-Nov. 9 Hillcrest Center Theater 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul $19-$28 For tickets and more information, call 651.647.4315 or visit online.