Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Silent Sky
In the recent Children's Theatre Company production, How to Have Fun in a Civil War was presented on a stage that was bare, save for a larger than life sculpture in the shape of a Somali woman's traditional dress, fully covering the body and hooded to conceal most of the face. It was made of vibrantly beautiful cloth, striped in a deep burgundy, sand and metallic gold. The shoulders were pushed forward, the head facing downward, a striking image that suggests a woman's attention to her place on the earth, her labor in the field, and her relentless drive to endure through forward motion. Mansour joined the sculpture (which she created) on stage, dressed in ready-for-playtime garb you would likely see worn by any seven-year-old girl spilling from a school bus, a girly jumper over a T-shirt and pants. Her physical bearing perfectly captured a child's awkward, un-self-conscious movement. Her demeanor was inquisitive and playful, spunky but not sassy.
The play is a continuous narrative composed of young Ifrah's descriptions of events and her string of unanswered questions, interspersed with excerpts from the community interviews and poetry by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, a writer based in Minneapolis. At first, Ifrah is concerned only with the minutia of her life, those small things of childhood that feel urgent to a young soul. She fusses when her mother insists on braiding her hair. When her father arrives home with a bundle of sugar, to be used as tender to barter for meat, spices, and other needed foodstuffs, she finds it worth noting, but not strange. At the market, Ifrah displays an air of self-importance, in the manner of a child who props herself up in order to feel at home in the "grown up" world. In sudden bursts, larger events take hold, causing her confusion and distress. As bombs fall and her parents hurriedly prepare to evacuate, she struggles to make sense of things. She is told they are going to visit "Fancy Auntie," a white lie meant to divert Ifrah from her fears. Their journey is marked by one loss after anotherthe death of a loved one, shedding the possessions and provisions they had carried with them, separation from father and brothers, until finally facing the reality of Fancy Auntie's estate, a place for refugees, which is what they have become.
Throughout the journey on stage, Ifrah led the Mother sculpture along, attached to the strong yet silent presence of strength, love, and tradition that mothers embody. This pairing of the highly verbal, animated seven year old with her silent but steadfast mother was stunning, bringing a power to the piece that would be hard to imagine if the actor were alone on stage. That said, Mansour's performance was exquisite, capturing both the free-form animation and the undiluted wisdom of a child. That Mansour is enacting her own memories made the piece both challenging (she has said) for her to perform, gave it unassailable authenticity, and provoked a heart-rent response from the audience. During a talk-back session following the performance I attended, Mansour stated that she is an artist, not really an actor, to which a member of the audience called out "You are an actor now!" I could not agree more.
Along with Mansour's natural gifts, credit must go to director Lindsey Cacich, who guided the performance with a clear focus on the experience of the child, never trying to explain it through adult eyes or allow the child to be falsely precocious. Peter Morrow's sound design was a vital element of the play, providing background noises of the bustling market, congested traffic on the city streets, the whiz and splatter of bombs, the whisper-silence of remaining quiet to avoid capture. Projections at the rear of the stage provided additional atmosphere as the narrative progressed through various places.
Children's Theater Company had presented the play on one weekend last October, and due to popular demand, brought it back for a second weekend. It was mounted on the Cohen Stage, an out-of-the-way space in the education wing of Children's Theatre. Promotional materials stated the play is recommended for children ages six and up. True enough, the grim subject matter is not suitable for the youngest children, but for those old enough, How to Have Fun in a Civil War offers a powerful learning opportunity. For children of Somali descent, or other communities that have fled upheaval in a distant land, it makes real stories they may have heard from parents and grandparentsor have not heard, as retelling those stories is often too painful for those who lived through them. For children with no direct connection to such hardships, it might help them to grasp the complex events that have made neighbors and classmates of boys and girls from afar, whose parents may speak different a different language, and who may dress, eat and worship differently. Of course, these same windows to understanding are applicable for adult audience members as well. And all through the eyes of a child.
Efforts are underway to raise funds to support a tour of How to Have Fun in a Civil War, to bring the play to schools, community centers, and other locations where it can be seen by diverse audiences. This seems a very worthwhile effort. The play also deserves a longer life as part of the Twin Cities theater scene, to give longer life to the beauty, heart and power Ms. Mansour has created.
How to Have Fun in a Civil War was presented January 6 - 8, 2017, on the Cohen Stage at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. For more information on the company, visit www.childrenstheatre.org. For more information on writer and performer Ifrah Mansour, contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ifrah Mansour; Director: Cacich; Sound Designer: Peter Morrow; Sculpture: Ifrah Mansour; Poems: Ahmed Ismail Yusuf; Presented with support from Children's Theatre Company.
Cast: Ifrah Mansour (herself, age 7).