Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Thrillist: How the East African Community Enriches Twin Cities Culture

This is a big one for me. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

As long-time readers know, I've been writing for Thrillist for a couple of years now. Most of what I've had the chance to write has been listicle style roundups, but I was recently afforded the chance to write a focus piece on the East African community's deep roots in the Twin Cities. I take this opportunity very seriously and am so grateful for the chance to detail a positive, beautiful community I've admired deeply ever since I first moved to Minneapolis. 

As usual, the editors clipped some of my writing without getting a chance to share the whole thing. If you want to read their published version, please click here (and please do click! I want them to see this story getting lots of eyeballs). I have included my full copy below so readers can see the portions they cropped at the end, which includes more detail from Ifrah Mansour and about the current state of the community. 

Please give this lots of reads on the Thrillist travel site and encourage them to provide more coverage like this! There are so many hidden communities in the middle of our country who are thriving and doing amazing things, and they deserve to be covered as such. I appreciate your support! 


Steam rises from a cup of cardamom and clove tea. Fragrant fish curry bubbles. Meat kebabs sizzle next to a half-dozen flaky, golden sambusas. This doesn’t sound like a typical meal you’d get in the Midwest. But, in fact, this kind of cuisine is common in East African restaurants in Minneapolis, the new vanguard of ethnic dining in the Twin Cities and the most visible element of a thriving immigrant community. 

With Ilhan Omar making waves in the national political arena as the highest profile member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives in Congress, it’s time to acknowledge that she is not an anomaly. For the last 30 years, a robust, diverse group of East African immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya has happily called the Twin Cities home -- and their roots run deep. 

“The next place to experience Somali culture outside of Somalia is definitely Minnesota,” said Jamal Hashi, owner of Safari Restaurant and several other business ventures. “This is our home. A lot of us don’t know anywhere else.”

Snowy Minnesota might seem an unlikely destination for people born in one of the hottest, driest climates on earth, but it’s turned out to be an excellent choice for several reasons. Most of the first wave settled here as refugees after the Somali civil war started in 1991, placed by the U.S. State Department as part of the VOLAG program in which voluntary organizations sponsor refugees for their first point of entry to the United States. Minnesota has an unusually active concentration of VOLAG groups, including Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota; these groups are also responsible for Minnesota’s high population of refugees from other regions too, such as the Hmong or Liberian communities. Once in the U.S. and on their feet, refugees have the option to move; thanks to the strength of programs in Minnesota that help refugees resettle and the growing numbers of friends and family moving to the state each year, most decided to stay and grow roots. 

Abdirahman Kahin, founder of the enormously popular fast-casual fusion restaurant AfroDeli, agrees. “I immigrated, but there are a lot of kids who are born in this country,” Abdirahman Kahin said. “Right now those who are under 15 outnumber the older ones. Minnesota is very lucky to have those kids for the future.”

By all signs, the community is thriving. From a scattered handful of menu-less restaurants in the mid ’90s there are now hundreds of modern eateries serving traditional food from East African cultures. Fusion dishes -- like African-spiced pastas, fast-casual gyros, Somali steaks, and spicy keke noodles -- are selling out in downtown skyway eateries. Retail outlets selling handmade clothes, halal meats, and bulk spices are in almost every urban and suburban area, and customers can even bargain for their prices just as they would in an open-air market back home. 

These businesses have found great success with their Minnesotan neighbors thanks to their appeal as a unique cuisine that has approachable crossovers with familiar favorites like Indian or Italian food. Somalia’s rich history in particular as an important hub for international trade over many centuries, and as a former Italian colony, makes its cuisine an approachable new fusion option with a twist; an apt parallel would be the way that French baguettes turned into banh mi in the hands of able Vietnamese cooks while Vietnam was still colonized. It also turns out that Minnesotans have a much higher appetite for spicy food and rich flavors than stereotypes would suggest. 

“The food I'm making is for everybody but the people I keep in mind most are people who have never had Somali food before,” said Hashi. “That's what motivates me to stay in the industry.”

Kahin has had the most high profile career of late through AfroDeli, a fast-casual restaurant that aspires to be the Chipotle of African cuisine. AfroDeli’s stunning success demonstrates the high demand for African food despite the stereotype that Minnesotans shy away from spice and flavor.

“A lot of people were saying, before I opened, that Minnesotans won’t try spicy food or African food, but we proved them wrong,” Kahin said. “Everyone is amazed how much business we have from the Minnesota community. I thought there was a way to serve this food to everyone, to the large public and package it in a way they can understand. African food is no different than Indian food or Chinese food or Mexican food.”

Part of that success lies in the attention to dining trends and palates that both Hashi and Kahin have expertly navigated. 

“There’s a big shift in the last 10 years from fast food to fresh ingredients, organic food, healthier food,” Kahin said. “The spices East African cuisine uses are the healthiest -- like cardamom, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, which all help fight disease. We use a lot of organic and buy from local farmers when we can. Our meat is halal, so is killed humanely. We have only one freezer at the store for French fries. You can’t find a single microwave in our restaurants.” 

In his nearly 20 years in business, Hashi has also seen big changes.

“People are more educated about what they eat and you don’t have to advertise thanks to Twitter or Yelp,” Hashi said. “It’s a great advantage. The key has been providing an amazing experience that will translate to a new loyal customer. The level of palates have changed, the generations have changed, and for the better. As a chef, nothing remains the same.”

It turned out the biggest hurdle was just getting started. The first restaurants operated the way they did back home; for example, written and printed menus were not available and customers had to ask what the kitchen had on hand to place an order. Many dishes utilized ingredients unfamiliar to diners born and bred in Minnesota. The experience could be intimidating, but with a little organization and innovation any concerns were quickly put to rest. 

“I've had a lot of naysayers,” Hashi said. “I wanted to make a fast casual to serve non-Somalis Somali food. Everyone was backing away. I believed in it anyway, and it was 98% non-Somalis who came to eat. Everyone said that Minnesotans don’t like spicy food. What a lie – it blew my mind.”

Especially exciting are younger members of the community, who are bringing new technology and awareness to the East African experience. This includes the restaurant review and payment app Tavolo that innovated in-touch screen ordering and cashless transactions; the Top Figure podcast, providing entrepreneurship advice to aspiring young innovators; and artists like Ifrah Mansour, whose heartbreakingly funny performances provide a respectful, open place for the community to share their experiences.

“My art is inspired by my lived experiences and that of Muslims and refugees, particularly the diaspora community,” Mansour said. “This means that my art speaks to the experience of what it means to be American and an immigrant refugee Muslim woman, and all of the complexity that comes with that.”

Mansour has partnered with some of the most vaunted arts and cultural institutions in the state, including the Guthrie Theater, Children’s Theater Company, Minnesota Historical Society, Walker Art Museum, and Minnesota Institute of Arts (MIA). Her work couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

“What I accidentally started, this conversation of learning the most painful part of your history and unearthing it, is something that we right now as a state, a country, a nation are also unearthing,” Mansour said. “We are also at a crossroad of do we continue the ways we were? Or do we go on this uncharted path to really see the histories we came from, including the histories our ancestors ripped off of the page?”

But life as an East African refugee, of course, has its challenges. Beginning life in a new country is always difficult, but especially so when the climate, language, and dominant religion is so visibly different from where you came from. Kahin has been especially active in fighting the message that the refugee community is a burden, testifying before Congress in defense of their economic contributions. 

“I try my best not to create political response pieces, but I happened to have these works that were ready,” Mansour said. “It’s interesting because our audience came with their rage and anger, but we were able to inspire people to say, ‘Here we get to calm down, we get to be human and listen a little bit.’”

There are the monthly profits that Kahin reinvests into his community, the vital conversations through artistic performances and talkbacks as Mansour has led, and the resources and research that Hashi has compiled to publish a book about Somali history and educate Americans about their past. No matter the avenue, this resilient, vibrant community is committed to embedding even deeper in the fabric of America. 

“Especially the last two years, there has been a lot of talk about immigrants and how we take jobs,” Kahin said. “I want to go against that narrative, telling the truth that we are creating jobs and adding value to the economy and to the market. We are expanding with the U.S. businesses. We are an asset, not a liability, to the economy. They all agreed, Republican and Democrat, that immigrants are a vital part of small business in America.”

Explore more about the East African community in Minnesota buy paying a visit to these restaurants, museums, and markets.

Phillips West, Minneapolis
The restaurant that introduced Somali food to the U.S.
One of the first Somali restaurants in the United States, Safari created several iconic dishes that have now become menu stalwarts around the globe. Top recommendations include the chicken fantastic, a revelatory interpretation of Somali pasta; the roasted goat cutlet, a traditional dish with flavorful goat meat; or the foule mudammes, an appetizer of steamed tilapia with spinach and savory olive oil. 

Midway, St. Paul
Setting the standard for Ethiopian and vegan cuisine
This legendary stop at the corner of Snelling and University is many people’s first exposure to East African cuisines. A pillar of the Ethopian dining scene, it’s also an excellent option for vegan and vegetarian diners who struggle finding good options in group settings. We haven’t had a bad dish here; go for any of the sampler platters to try a little bit of everything. 

Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul
The Chipotle of African food you won’t be able to stop ordering
Chipotle better watch out; this African fusion fast-casual restaurant is taking over skyways throughout the Twin Cities. You can’t go wrong with any dishes, but the gyros and sambusas are second to none. Go big or go home with the full veggie platter, which never disappoints. And make sure to stop by the new downtown Minneapolis location opening this October, the first time AfroDeli is making it to the heart of the west side of the Mississippi. 

Midtown Phillips, Minneapolis
Swing by for a 101 introduction to the history of Somalis in Minnesota
The home of Somali arts in Minnesota, the Somali Museum is a one-stop shop for learning about Somali arts and culture. It was universally recommended as a safe, approachable place to learn about this community.  

Downtown St. Paul
Hear firsthand accounts from East African people’s perspective
MHS is the largest local historical society in the United States. They’ve recently partnered with members of the Somali and Oromo ethnic communities to record their stories and compile an exhibit about their experiences. Come for the impressive work MHS has done; stay for the personal narratives that give firsthand accounts of profound stories. 

Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis
An innovative, one-stop service for African immigrants for finances, art and more 
The ADC’s visionary leadership has transformed the East African community, providing business loans, meeting space and organizational help for fledgling organizations, as well as important educational services for recent immigrants. ADC fills the gap left by dwindling governmental funding and provides vital services to immigrants from many parts of Africa. 

Cedar Riverside, Minneapolis
A friendly performance space with an awesome happy hour
A wicked happy hour, ongoing live music, and a large, friendly dance floor are not the only qualities that recommend the Red Sea. It also has a deep reservoir of affordable Ethiopian cuisines for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Make it a part of a tour of the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, where many of the Somali and Oromo community members are concentrated. 

Whittier, Minneapolis
A must-stop for an authentic Somali tea and shopping experience
No trip through the East African experience is complete without a stop at one of the malls hosting an authentic shopping experience. A host of specialty imported goods you can’t find anywhere else, including prayer rugs, spices, and handmade clothes, are packed together. Make sure to pick up some Somali tea (reportedly among the best in the Twin Cities) when you stop by. 

Becki Iverson is a Thrillist writer and an ardent lover of the Twin Cities. You can follow her wide-ranging passions on her blog, Compendium, or on social media on Instagram @beckiiverson or Facebook. When she's not exploring the local food and arts scene, Becki can be found at her day job in marketing for the AEC industry at Faithful+Gould in downtown Minneapolis.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Steel Magnolias Has a Heart of Gold

The air was thick with nostalgia as the audience settled into their seats. 

Photo by Dan Norman

After all, you'd have to live under a rock not to remember the infamous 1989 film featuring a veritable who's who of a pillar pre-#metoo feminine Hollywood. I mean how can you forget a cast starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, AND Julia Roberts?!

Photo by Dan Norman

But forget we did as the lights lowered and the stage turned to reveal the cozy home salon of Truvy in the Guthrie's lovely stage production of the same name. It's hard to compete with a movie as iconic as Steel Magnolias was, but the Guthrie succeeds in spades (perhaps partially because several of the production team leaders have never seen the film themselves). It's a softer, warmer play than we often see at the time of year that seems to usually call for heavy dramas as dark as the sky outside, and it was a welcome ray of sunshine on a Tuesday evening.

Photo by Dan Norman

Steel Magnolias is simply a story about life, centered in the salon of Truvy. A local hairdresser whose shop is the heart and soul of the social life in a small Louisiana town, Truvy is deliciously owned by Austene Van in one of my favorite roles I've ever seen her play. The story follows the conversation of Truvy's regular clients M'Lynn (Melissa Maxwell), Clairee (Amy Van Nostrand) and Ouiser (Sally Wingert) as their lives pass through deaths, new jobs, trips, romance and more. A central figure is Shelby (a radiant Nicole King), M'Lynn's daughter who is plagued by severe diabetes, as she gets married and starts her family. Shelby's delicate health is a marked contrast to the spunky and hearty Annelle (Adelin Phelps), Truvy's assistant and a newcomer to the town.

Photo by Dan Norman

I won't spoil the poignant ending for those unfamiliar with the show, but I am happy to praise the rich, nuanced chemistry this colorful cast brings to the stage. Wingert is hilarious as usual and a comedic star every time she appears. Nostrand has a very Shirley MacLaine delivery and I found her wry and delightful. I wanted Maxwell to have just a titch more gravitas as M'Lynn, but she brought a warmth as Shelby's mother that was beautiful to behold. Phelps is a total stitch as the bumbling, earnest Annelle, and I would have loved to see even more of her throughout the show. And as mentioned above, hats off to Austene Van for her beautiful performance as Truvy, the stylish and beating heart of Steel Magnolias. Van is our local Regina King and I adored seeing her in such a soft, plush role. It fits her like a comfy dress you never want her to take off.

Photo by Dan Norman

Speaking of style, the 1980s period-perfect costuming designed by Kara Harmon is delicious front to back. You'll get wigs, shoulder pads, ornate belts, and all the hairspray you can handle, and I couldn't get enough. Narelle Sissons' sturdy scenic design gives us a literal 360 degree view of Truvy's salon, which rotates on a turnstile from season to season and feels like a cozy alcove we all share in confidence. Cat Tate Starmer's lighting design perfectly enhances that feeling with a warm glow, and Jane Shaw's subtle sound design provides just the right mood. Hats off to director Lisa Rothe and this all female production team (called out in the program with photos! - a detail that I loved) for a beautiful, feminine production that is appealing to audiences of all gender identities and persuasions. I can attest that my husband (who has not seen the film either... maybe it's not as universal as I always thought?) was apprehensive about enjoying this show as we first sat down, but left with glowing words by the time it ended, so I know that this is one that can cross gender lines.

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the things I think that gives Steel Magnolias such staying power is its (regrettably, still,) unusual focus on the lives of ordinary, every day women. There are no kingmakers or harlots or business titans here, just a group of ladies living their mundane lives in camaraderie and gratitude. It's still so rare to see stories about everyday ordinary people that don't involve some overstated, manufactured point of interest (like a murder or winning the lottery), and especially so when the protagonists are all women. It was a real pleasure to hear a celebration of the little things in life, and a reminder of how far technology has removed most of us from the joys of physical connection and companionship - a habit that perhaps we should reclaim. After all, how many of us walk into a beauty shop these days and actually (gasp!) talk to each otherSteel Magnolias is a psalm for the soul, a beautiful meditation of the little ways we can all mean very much to each other, and I couldn't recommend it enough. This is a lovely option for a holiday gift, a trip with the gals in your friends or family circle, or even a date night the special guy in your life will connect more to than he'd admit. Click here for more information or to get tickets before Steel Magnolias closes on December 15.

Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, November 4, 2019

Pipeline is a Devastating Indictment of Our Educational System

Is it the "kids these days" ... or is it the grownups? 

Photo courtesy of Penumbra. 

What would you do to give your child the best chance in life?

Would you move to a new city? Pay for a private school education? Work extra shifts so you can afford to enroll them in extracurriculars? Leave an abusive or destructive relationship to model a safer, happier life?  Engage them in social activism?

There are a lot of things parents try to give their kids a leg up, but the truth is that a lot of a child's success has to do with kids themselves and variables outside of a parents' control. Some children thrive in a traditional academic environment and others need a more abstract, hands-on approach (helloooo Montessori). Some are self starters and others need firmer guidance. Some are social butterflies and some thrive when they're on their own.

So what do you do if your kid is "othered"? What do you do if your kid is underfunded? What do you do if your kid is unseen, or even worse, is seen as the "only" of their kind?

Those are some of the questions asked in the recently closed play Pipeline at Penumbra Theatre Company. I am not sure how I missed the opening in early October, but I sorely regret seeing it so late in the run (and therefore being unable to spread the word to others). A new script penned by up and coming theatrical darling Dominique Morisseau, Pipeline examines what happens to kids presented with a fraught educational dichotomy: attend an underfunded, underperforming, sometimes dangerous school where the student body looks like you; or move away from your community to attend a more elite institution where you will never quite be like the other students.

It's a much harder dilemma to solve than one might think, and it was powerfully and emotionally portrayed here by Kory Pullam as the title character Omari, a teen student at an elite school who runs away after a confrontation with a teacher. His mother Nya, a teacher herself (played movingly by Erika LaVonn), has been raising Omari on her own for several years and has no idea how to find or help him. It's not the first disciplinary action he's incurred at the school. Nya would like to have him attend the school she teaches at despite its flaws, but Omari's father Xavier (I saw understudy AJ Friday at my performance, and he played it quite cerebral), who is in a much better economic situation, patently disagrees. Orbiting this molten core are Omari's girlfriend Jasmine (a spot on Kiara Jackson); the security guard Dun who has a secret connection to Nya (a magnetic Darius Dotch); and a very complex white teacher Laurie (strongly portrayed by Melanie Wehrmacher).

Although technically an accessory to the story, Laurie was a very interesting character for me as something of a foil to Omari, despite the fact that they never had scenes together. I come from a long line of public school teachers who have taught in majority-white school populations, and although they love their jobs they universally agree that between shrinking budgets, ignorant administrations and the rapidly changing behavior of students, the profession just ain't what it used to be. I recognized a lot of conversations I've overheard those family members say come through Laurie's mouth (although their observations were much less crude). That said, it's impossible to view Laurie without the lens of her racial power, and you're left consistently uneasy with her actions despite understanding them. On paper is she right? Maybe. But does she really understand what her kids are going through day to day? Is she the best person to be guiding them through some very difficult problems? Does she really know what's best for them? Doubtful.

So what does a mother like Nya tell a son like Omari when he hits a teacher like Laurie? Teens can't be right all the time, after all, and violence isn't a solution to your problems. But was Omari wrong in feeling targeted by his teacher? How does an isolated student adequately protect themselves from a teacher who has the upper hand on race, class, and professional authority? The fact that we can ask such complicated questions is a testament to this dynamic cast, who hit a wide range of tough emotions across the spectrum of the show. This is clearly a story they wanted to tell, deeply and richly, and it showed throughout the performance.

School integration has become an exceedingly hot topic of late, but no one seems to have the answers. Are students of color safe in environments when the vast majority of their teachers and fellow students are mostly white? Do we return to an updated version of "separate but equal"? What if we start integrating white students into schools where they'd be the minority, other than placing the burden on students of color? Perhaps most importantly: what if we stopped tying the quality of a child's education to property values in the neighborhood they happen to live in, and instead paid the same amount to educate all kids regardless of where they live?

These are really hard questions, and their answers matter. The achievement gap between students of color and white students is yawning wider every year, especially in places like Minnesota. I'm not sure that Pipeline provided any answers to the problem, but it did provide a vital context (especially for audience members new to this subject) that moved the problem from the ivory tower directly into our laps. This isn't just a question of improving test scores; it's a failure that can have dire consequences on a child's chance at attending a good college, getting an economically supportive job, buying a home, or even going to jail. I'm grateful for playwrights like Morisseau who insist on focusing our gaze on the plight of students desperately trying to navigate impossible circumstances and the parents and teachers who don't have answers either. I hope we find a more equitable way to educate our children. The world will need all of them if we're going to make it through the next few decades.

Pipeline is sadly closed, but please head to the Penumbra's website anyway (click here) to learn more about their upcoming plays. Penumbra is a consistent local favorite of mine, and their work is vital for telling stories that might otherwise go unheard. And if the subject of school integration, the achievement gap, the school to prison pipeline, and educational justice interests you, please read this excellent Washington Post article about a school system in Ohio currently grappling with this very issue. It's beautifully written and provides further detail about how these problems have been approached and what might work in the future.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

"The Hollow" is Anything But

I know it didn't work out this time, but can we have a little Ichabod Crane again later?  

Photo courtesy of Trademark Theater

Sometimes I think my mind exists in a vortex and I'll never catch up.

Let me explain: in my busy day to day of late, I seem to be missing basic facts. Or themes. Or just really missing the point of what I'm supposed to be doing.

For example, I had the pleasure of attending the achingly lovely original piece The Hollow by Trademark Theater last weekend. It's a nifty, 75-minute long exploration of many things; the program lists themes including "nature, mysticism, death and rebirth, coupleship, abandonment, repair and perseverance." A symbiotic pairing of contemporary dance and a Sleater Kinney-meets-First Aid Kit rock album (don't ask how I got there, just trust that it's true), The Hollow would be fully at home in the Walker Art Center's Out There series (hey Walker, give Trademark a call!). There's not really more plot than that - just a pure aesthetic, auditory experience for the sake of itself.

Somewhere along the line I had caught that The Hollow was supposed to be a modernization of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; another glance at the program says I'm not insane and that was the initial point, but this The Hollow is so far removed from Washington Irving's 1820 novel that I can't believe the original concept was still rattling around my head somewhere. I still think it would be immensely cool to have Ichabod Crane hit the stage sometime soon and I hope someone else picks up the original project, but in the meantime - back to the scheduled programming.

The visual focus of The Hollow is on Reach (Emily Michaels King) and Resist (Tyler Michaels King). Based purely on appearances, one could be forgiven for assuming The Hollow details the story of a fraught romantic relationship. These two are superb dancers, and their lithe choreography is like a poem in bodily form. It's a good thing they're married because this performance is extremely intimate, and you can feel their kinetic energy radiating from the stage. Their contemporary, abstract costumes, designed by Sarah Bahr, add interesting shapes to their performances too; some are angular and stiff, others soft and flowing, and the cumulative effect weaves in and out of focus like a dream.

The Michaels Kings are backed up by an adroit band starring Jenna Wyse and Joey Ford who sing a roving troupe of original songs. It's a little hard to hear the lyrics live but thankfully all audience members are given a handy book of lyrics, which read like a ghoulish internal voice that won't leave you alone (song titles such as "Fearful Shapes," "Skele-bones + Burial Wrongs," "Scry" or "Scary Situation" give you an idea what I mean). The music itself is really beautiful and haunting, and I can see how it evolved out of the initial idea of adapting The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Several audience members appeared raptly focused throughout the show (the person next to me even got a few headbangs in), so don't just take my word for it.

I'm not really sure what else I can say about The Hollow other than that it's worth seeing, if only to expand your definition of what you think theater can or should be. It's bracingly modern yet feels familiar, lyrical and abrasive, loud and tender. It's not going to give you a story or a moral or a "point," but it won't not give you those things either - and really, does everything have to have a defined outcome? Sometimes it's good to set down your smart phone and your Ivy Lee method and your nonfiction business books to give your subconscious room to roam, your nose the chance to smell the tactile pages of a *gasp* real book, and your imagination a blank page to fly around in. The Hollow is a celebration of that ancient leap towards fantasy that still lies within us all - we just need to give ourselves room to access it. The Hollow has a very short run and closes on October 20, so click here to learn more or buy your tickets now.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Aubergine is a Quiet Pleasure

"We're always already dead - so why not live?"

Photo by Rich Ryan

The culinary world has been having a good run in pop culture for the last decade or so. Beginning with the explosion of food TV pioneered by Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain and the Food Network, culinary stories have finally trickled onto stages around the country. What's that all about? It might be because food is a universal human need and a communication device that can transcend cultural barriers and provide a new window into subjects that normally function as taboo.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The last few years have seen a host of food-themed shows in #tctheater. How To Use A Knife told the true story about life as a chef, which is much darker than most people suspect. Waitress is a musical about a server whose real talent is in baking pies, which helps her escape her abusive husband. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner explores the tensions over a meal when a "liberal" couple realizes their white daughter plans to marry a black man in the 1960s. The inimitable playwright Lynn Nottage focuses Floyd's on the life of inmates struggling to integrate in society after release from prison and sets the entire show in the kitchen of a sandwich restaurant.

Photo by Rich Ryan

And now we have Aubergine at Park Square Theatre, a story about illness and death and cultural memory as intimately related through food. Ray is a chef who is on an indefinite hiatus from work to take care of his father, who is very sick and near dying. Ray's mother died in an accident when he was young and Ray has no support system to help him through this difficult time. He turns to an ex-girlfriend, Cornelia, to help him contact his father's younger brother back home in Korea before his father dies (Ray does not speak much Korean himself). Cornelia reluctantly helps Ray and becomes an integral part of Ray's life in his father's last days, interpreting conversations between Ray and his uncle, and helping heal some longstanding wounds within Ray and his family memories. Lucien, the hospice nurse attending Ray's father, also becomes a calming presence in Ray's life as his father dies. It's a quiet exploration of what really matters in life and the relationships we need to maintain to stay connected to our humanity and happiness, a lovely message.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The main thing that attracted me to Aubergine was the cast, featuring some of my favorite local actors. Sun Mee Chomet, always a highlight, shines as Cornelia. She delivers a wide range of lines in Korean and English with equal aptitude, and provides many of Aubergine's comedic and poignant highlights. Kurt Kwan brings subtlety and heart to his role as Ray. You really feel for his plight and driftlessness, and he has great chemistry with Chomet. Song Kim is lovely as Ray's long-estranged uncle, and despite the fact that he almost exclusively has lines in Korean, we know exactly what he means to say. It adds a delightful depth to the show, and I loved the nuance the linguistic transitions provided. Darrick Moseley adds so much warmth to the stage through his portrayal of Lucien; he has a softness and heart that breaks open Ray's character.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The real focus of Aubergine is on Ray's emotional turmoil, and the production design facilitates that well. The set design by Deb O centers mostly on the hospice bed and a few sparse areas in Ray's home. It is relatively drab but that's okay, because it's supposed to be. The same can be said of the costume design by Amber Brown. Kathy Maxwell's video design is one of the few welcome pops of color, and well chosen props design by Kenji Shoemaker provides the attention to detail that makes the blander settings come to life. I'm not sure if Chomet's striking platinum bob was a production choice or her own decision, but either way it adds a subtle characterization to her portrayal of Cornelia that I thought was very fetch. 

Photo by Rich Ryan

I adore Theater Mu and I love seeing them partner with other theaters in town, but I have to say that it's really nice to see a main stage in the Twin Cities doing a story about Asian Americans on their own too. Aubergine is a lovely little play with some important things to say, and it deserves the kind of wider platform a place like Park Square Theatre can give it. Chomet and Kwan are charming co-stars, and the hard work Park Square Theatre has done to portray cultures accurately does not go unnoticed. Regardless of your family heritage, I think anyone can connect to Aubergine's messages of loss, loneliness, fear and love. I'd definitely recommend crossing the river to see this show before it closes on October 20. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Mean Girls is Deliciously Devious

"On Wednesdays we wear pink."

Photo by Joan Marcus

*Pretty sure* there's nothing better than posting a review of my first time seeing the Broadway version of Mean Girls on October 3 (aka #MeanGirls day itself). Just had to throw that out there for any other superfans.

The Goonies of my generation, Mean Girls is the iconic story penned by Tina Fey long before she left Saturday Night Live's hallowed halls. It tells the story of Cady Heron, a teenager who grew up in Africa and moves to the U.S. to enter her first ever public school in her junior year of high school. Cady has heretofore been socially isolated during her time growing up in Africa and does not understand the American teen psyche; she is completely unprepared for the mind games and harassment her peers inflict on one another as she struggles to navigate this new world.

After experiencing some backstabbing herself, Cady allies with Damian and Janis, two of the few at school who are not aligned with a clique, to take down the school's resident bully and queen bee: Regina, the ringleader of the uber cool (and incredibly snobby) "plastics" clique. The trouble is that although the trick works - Regina is briefly unseated from her throne - the process turns Cady more plastic than Regina was, completely disconnected from her authenticity and moral compass. Everything comes to a head when the full scope of the plastics' bullying is expose to the entire school, even capturing some teachers in its midst. Some hard truths are shared, building a path for a new era of treating others with kindness and dignity in the school.

The original film, now 15 years old (!!), has a veritable who's who of today's movie stars. The cast includes Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Amanda Seyfriend, and a host of other delicious cameos. One of the best parts about Mean Girls is its whiplash-inducing, hyper-trendy quips. I wasn't sure how that would play out in a world of smart phones and social media that has emerged since the movie aired, but I needn't have worried; there have been some smart updates to the book to reflect current teen trends, and the jokes hit their mark almost all of the time.

Photo by Joan Marcus

A surprisingly strong cast helps that humor land, and their enthusiasm and sharp vocals make the story soar. Mariah Rose Faith is delicious as the diabolical Regina; her low alto saunter into every room was delightful to watch. Adante Carter is adorable as Cady's crush Aaron, shining his treacly dimples all over the place. Kabir Bery was hilarious as Kevin Gnapoor, the head of the mathletes; his rap interludes delighted the audience. Megan Masako Haley brings real poignancy to her role of Gretchen, Regina's best friend; she is the first character to crack the facade of teen popularity, and I found a lot of depth in her performance. Jonalyn Saxer is hilarious as Regina's dumb bestie Karen, continuing to surprise. Danielle Wade does an admirable Cady, wresting the portrayal from Lindsay Lohan's memorable turn in 2004, and she makes the role seem fresh. The crowd loved Eric Huffman as Damian "too gay to function" Hubbard; he has a sweetness the movie missed. But my overall standout was Mary Kate Morrissey as Janis, the art student who conceives the whole plot to take Regina down. Morrissey has gravitas and a true Linda Ronstadt-level rock and roll voice. I loved her swag and I especially liked how her character has been expanded to provide a moral arc through the story.

Normally I feel like the excessive use of projection on Broadway shows is "cheating;" this is one of the first shows I've seen that might change my mind. The set is really a dynamic sculpture of LED screens that rapidly shift us between Africa, a Chicago public high school and a spoiled brat's bedroom. Used with some well-chosen props, it makes the scene transitions lightning fast so we can focus on the physical, dynamic dancing. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the choreography, the closest thing to "hiplet" (hip hop + ballet - click here to see more) I've seen on a Broadway stage. It all feels modern, fresh, timely and young.

I've heard many people say the reason they love Mamma Mia so much is that it's a true feel good, positive show and they love to leave the theater with a smile on their face. I think the same case could be made for Mean Girls; it's so much fun to see a diverse, vivacious, mostly female cast having the time of their lives. Mean Girls has a real moral compass and important message to share with today's teens (and their parents if we're being honest) in addition to being a damn good time. As a long time fan of the film I entered this with a healthy skepticism but I'm relieved to report that this show really works as a Broadway musical! It's a great excuse to get some bonding with the Gen Z-ers (or Millennials) in your life, so buy some tickets to take a youthful date before Mean Girls sashays away on October 13. Click here for more information or to get tickets.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Thrillist: Best Dive Bars in Minneapolis

What's better than a cheap ass dive with filling food and stiff drinks? 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

My answer: basically nothing.

I have always held an unholy love in my heart for dive bars, and I cannot stress how much fun it was to compile a list of the best ones in the Twin Cities for my friends over at Thrillist. We are blessed with a really great host of dives to check out in Minnesota and the hardest part was honestly narrowing this list down!

Click here to see the full piece on the site; I'm copying the text below too for a quick scan if you want to check it out in one stop. And let me know - what did I miss? Where do I need to check out next? I love a good dive, I'll take any and all suggestions!


One of life’s most amazing pleasures involves finding that one great dive bar that you can call your home away from home. While we love all of the Twin Cities' many great dives, and boy do we have a lot, we do also have our standouts. This isn’t about bars with fine prohibition-style cocktails or incredible craft beer selections, it’s about dark watering holes where you and other people like you congregate in order to escape the outside world. And we'll cheers to that.

Neumann’s Bar
Est. 1887 | North St. Paul
The owners of Neumann’s Bar claim it’s the oldest still operating bar in Minnesota, and they might be right. The speakeasy that helped the town survive Prohibition is still open upstairs, and curious history fans are welcome to snoop around to check it out. Perhaps most unique, though, is the tank of live frogs that has graced the windows since the 1930s and the live fishing bait still sold in the main bar. For a blast from the past that still feels comfortably modern, Neumann’s a is a don’t miss on your dive bar tour.

Matt’s Bar
Est. 1954 | Powderhorn
The best food at a dive has to go to Matt’s Bar, the home of the infamous Juicy Lucy. Not familiar? The geniuses behind Matt’s decided that melty cheese deserve to be inside the burger rather than on top - and the rest is history. In an age of hand-ground short rib burgers, there is nothing gourmet about this menu and we like it that way. A regular hamburger still costs less than four bucks, tap beer comes in pitchers, and you can’t find a cozier place in town to beat the impending snowy nights.

Half Time Rec / Paddy Shack
Est. ?? | Como
Not every dive that can boast a two-for-one, but Half Time Rec’s got it down pat. By folding Irish-style Paddy Shack into the bar four years ago, Half Time Rec ensured it is a dive bar that is here to stay. You’ll still find the ripped up seats, daily happy hour and karaoke nights of yore, but now you can pair them with some of the best excellent bar food. Our advice? Head straight for the signature dishes -- like a gluttonous ham and cheese toasty -- for a satisfying way to soak up your Bloody Mary or beer back.

Est. 1906 | West Bank
If a dive bar could be an icon, Palmer’s would be it. They’ve got an outdoor fire pit, a shockingly great musical lineup (including jug bands) indoors and outdoors, and a history longer than most of Minneapolis combined. Founded by the Minneapolis Brewing Company (predecessor to iconic beer brand Grain Belt), Palmer’s has outlasted Prohibition, waves of varying immigrant communities, and even the credit card trend (yes, this remains one of the last cash-only holdouts around). No tour of Twin Cities dives is complete without a stop at Palmer’s.

The Vegas Lounge
Est. 1973 | Northeast
Locals know that, if you’re down for karaoke, there is nowhere more legendary to take the stage than The Vegas Lounge. It’s become such a popular karaoke bar that you can expect to pack in elbow to elbow and fight for a seat. But it’s a dive, and where’s the fun if you don’t have to work for it a little bit, right? Karaoke happens every single night here, so if you want to go (and really, you should -- don’t let us scare you off), make sure to get there early to snag a seat and a drink or three before the pandemonium begins.

Est. 2000 | West 7th
Community is the name of the game at Skinner’s, the latest in a long line of dives at this iconic St. Paul location. You’ll find all the usual dive bar features here, along with an innovative and assertive approach to community engagement. Skinner’s is committed to serving the military community in Minnesota and around the globe -- so much so that it won the first-ever national award for civilian service to the National Guard. Don’t just take our word for it.

Schooner Tavern
Est. 1932 | Longfellow 
Live bands with no cover charge is a rarity these days, and Schooner Tavern knows a thing or two about dive bar hospitality. Twice-weekly bingo and meat raffles, a rotating cast of regulars, and two heated patios mean this dive can accommodate fun in any kind of weather. Free popcorn, free hot dogs on Fridays, $3 beers, and easy access to public transit make this a must-stop. You can’t afford not to go, really.

The Cardinal on 38th
Owners don’t even know | South Minneapolis 
Take a poll of Minneapolitans and The Cardinal is sure to top their list of favorite dives. With all the hallmarks of a great dive bar -- tasty food like fried Stevie wings and deep fried green beans with sweet cajun sauce, cheap beers, karaoke, pleather seating -- it also sneaks in surprises. Some of the latest additions, like homemade hard seltzers, make this place a crowd-pleaser, and mean you can get your 100-calorie drink on despite the national shortage of White Claw (you’re welcome). Oh, and everything on the menu is well under $20, making this an incredibly affordable date night.

Liquor Lyle’s
Est. 1963 | Uptown
A legendary keystone in Twin Cities drinking culture, Liquor Lyle’s has been serving up two-for-ones every day for decades. It’s a surefire bet when you want quantity over quality, but there’s good stuff to be found here, too. Order up some tot-chos (nachos, but made with tater tots) and squeaky cheese curds to have the most Minnesotan bar meal of your life. Come any night of the week and enjoy free parking, all-day breakfast, and food served until 1 a.m.

The Terminal Bar
Est. 1932 | Northeast
Another long-time holdout that is powering through gentrification in the Twin Cities is Terminal Bar. All you need to know is in a quick sweep of the reviews, where the top phrases used include “dive bar,” “whiskey,” and “doghouse swine.” Local music fans can come every week to see multi-band shows with no cover charge, leaving patrons with more cash for a brewsky or two. Come for a wild card musical adventure and stay for a night you’ll most likely forget.

Hexagon Bar
Est. 1934 | Seward 
Metalheads have long frequented Hexagon Bar (lovingly known as “the Hex”) for decades, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Pool tables, dusty rope lights, and a staffed bingo counter with plenty of pull tabs make this one of the last dives in the city that hasn’t cleaned up some part of its act. Don’t expect anything but the basics here -- but why would you ask anything more of your favorite dive anyway? Make sure to visit its Facebook page for an update on the rotating list of punk and metal bands playing every week.

CC Club
Est. 1934 | Lyndale
Good luck finding a seat at the CC Club, perhaps the best known dive still standing in the heart of Uptown. With a spacious back patio, morning cocktails, and industry nights, it’s regularly packed to the gills. While the rest of Uptown might be getting a makeover, the CC Club hasn’t lost its rock and roll vibe. Think of it as the First Avenue of dive bars and worthy of a stop at least once.

Grumpy’s NorthEast
Est. 1998 | Northeast Minneapolis
Northeast Minneapolis is a legendary haven for dive bars in the Twin Cities. With great power comes great responsibility and Grumpy’s doesn’t disappoint, serving up an excellent rotation of burgers, robust beers, and free specialty events like Firkin Fridays -- where guests can try rare editions of local beers and specialty foods like octopus on a stick. It’s a little less divey than its late, great sister Grumpy’s in Downtown Minneapolis (RIP), but still a solid bet for a Northeast night out.

Est. 1955 | Northeast Minneapolis
Daily drink specials aren’t the only draw for Mayslack’s. There’s also live music, game day specials and the real draw -- the food. Mayslack’s serves up better-than-average eats off of its wide-ranging menu, including the addictive waffle fries with seasoned sour cream. From its origins as a Polish-owned polka bar to its current life as a comfort food castle, Mayslack’s is one of the last remnants of this historic Minneapolis neighborhood.

Est. 1952 | Northeast Minneapolis
With an impressive list of locally made taps, a meat raffle, vintage beer signs, and light bar games, Dusty’s manages to bridge nostalgia into modern success. Not one to be outdone by its fellow innovative dive bar menus, Dusty’s is the origin of the Dago burger. Less famous than it’s sister the Juicy Lucy, the Dago is certainly not any less delicious. Composed of a homemade Italian sausage patty, any iteration of the Dago is a welcome flavor bomb to sop up your beers.

Merlins Rest Pub
Est. 2007 | Longfellow
Bagpipe performances? Whiskey and scotch tastings? Free Wi-Fi? A little more on the pub side of the spectrum, Merlins Rest still qualifies as a Longfellow dive with a slightly spiffier sheen. It doesn’t disappoint, though, with themed events like kilt and corset night or the drunken knitters club. It’s also one of the few kid-friendly locations on the list, meaning you can continue to enjoy dives even into early parenthood -- thank god for that!