Over the nearly four decades that Jack Reuler and Mixed Blood Theatre have occupied the old firehouse in Cedar Riverside, he's watched the neighborhood change from a utopian dream where the well-to-do would live side-by-side with Section 8 housing to a new African immigrant homeland.
For the fiercely inclusive company, that's meant reaching out to new neighbors. It hasn't always worked.
In 2009, Mixed Blood gave residents passes to attend any performing arts venue in the neighborhood. "Some of the material was so antithetical to their tastes that we created never-users out of non-users," Reuler says.
So the focus changed to make Mixed Blood a place for the neighborhood to see itself. The theater's 55454 series examines the African and Muslim experience in America. It opens this week with Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, Yussef El Guindi's award-winning play about an immigrant finding love outside his arranged marriage.
Musa is an Egyptian cab driver in New York City. Sheri is an American fare. Their unlikely romance sees them fighting through barriers of language, culture, and religion — problems that only deepen when Musa's arranged bride arrives. This rich stew of characters earned the Steinberg award for best new American play.
The cast includes neighborhood activist Abdirizak Bihi. "Five years ago," he says, "we wouldn't walk by [Mixed Blood] and give it a second thought."
Bihi emigrated from Somalia in 1989. He now serves as a translator and guide for other Africans.
"My character gets to talk about the power of knowing English," he says. "It is so powerful getting jobs. The importance of opportunities. And how important it is for immigrants to stick together."
Actor Antu Yacob was born in Ethiopia. "My mother and my biological father were both Muslims. I went to Islamic schools. My mother's second husband was a Jehovah's Witness, and I lived as a Jehovah's Witness for 10 years."
These experiences inform her character, the bride-to-be whom Musa (played by Algerian Mohamad Yabdri) leaves for an American woman (Greta Grosch, so typically "Minnesotan" that she co-wrote several Church Basement Ladies shows).
"When I was watching my mother, I didn't always realize she had that struggle," says Yacob. "I think the play is cross-generational and touches on things about love and finding love, and to seek the thing that you enjoy."
The 55454 series presents four plays, each over a single weekend between now and May. There are free, first-come, first-served tickets available for every performance.
"The culture here doesn't seem strange," says Bihi. "Politically there is more democracy and freedom of speech here. The American culture is everywhere. We had arts, but they were disappearing when we came here. They have to find a venue to bring out these arts that are hundreds of years old."