Monday, February 26, 2018

MUST SEE: How to Have Fun in a Civil War


Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater 

Just, listen.

That is all I can say after seeing Ifrah Mansour's magnificent one-woman show How to Have Fun in a Civil War. In a taut, gripping 60-minute performance, Mansour tells the story of fleeing Somalia during the 1990s civil war from the perspective of a child.

It starts with a story of a story; a shot of a steaming mug of Somali tea, fluttering hands, a conversational tone that tells us a delicate narrative is about to follow. Beginning with a hearty dose of humor, Mansour recalls in minute detail her observations as a young girl unaware of the larger context of governments, tribes, terrorism, parties and petty conflicts swirling around her. Easing us into the story, she shows how as a girl her focus was on a sense of adventure, of pleasure even, at the thought of leaving her ancestral home.

What Mansour could not and did not know at the time was how horrific the circumstances her parents were fleeing actually were. How could she? She was a small girl in the throes of childhood; her world was her brothers, her younger sister, and her parents. She did not know the meaning of death until she saw her brother Salem killed. She did not know the meaning of grief until she saw her mother weep over Salem's body. She did not know the unexpected joy in bad circumstances until she saw the birth of a child from the back of a hastily driven dirt picker. She did not know the meaning of hunger until eating some concealed sugar from the head of her favorite doll while there was nothing else to eat.

The beauty of this show lies in Mansour's magnetic performance, which is filled with nuance and grace. She manages to seem perfectly childlike and as if she is coming to this story anew, even though it is one she has performed hundreds of times. Mansour makes this show seem small and big at the same time; small enough to encapsulate her world as a little girl with cinematic care, while more globally incorporating the literal voices of many other Somali refugees (in English and in Somali) she interviewed to contribute to this story. There is no real set or costumes to speak of, other than a gorgeous sculptural piece Mansour created to represent her mother, who she carries with her throughout their journey from Somalia around the stage. The effect is incredibly emotional despite the figure being a stoic statue, and it adds a layer of breathless emotion to the narrative. The remaining element, a series of projections and lit silhouettes and shadows, helps this one-woman performance feel much bigger than it is and contributes the necessary sense of chaos to the plot. 

I've reflected continuously on this performance since I saw it, and at the forefront of my mind is this:

So often the narrative surrounding refugees in America and the rest of the rich Western world is focused on what they will take. How much will it cost? How could we possibly be responsible for them? If they haven't paid taxes, how could we justify the cost of feeding, housing, transporting, medically sustaining, and employing them?

But shouldn't the real question instead be: what have refugees lost? Who were they? What have they given up, fled, in order to keep their families safe? What grief are they unable to express? What is a high enough price to decide they have earned the right to live free of suffering?

The answer in my mind at least, is much less than we seem to require as a society. I cannot possibly imagine what it is like to flee a war zone with your babies in tow, with no food or transport in sight, no identification or birth certificates, with no idea if you will survive at all, let alone be able to be safe and recover. I do know that if someone is so thoroughly compelled to leave - perhaps forever - an environment they have called home for their entire lives, a land where there ancestors and families are buried, that there must be a very good reason for it. So shouldn't we help them find solid ground?

I am so thoroughly grateful to Ifrah Mansour for her heartfelt performance in How to Have Fun in a Civil War. These stories are the reason the arts exist. Theater is here to help us understand and empathize, to portray a narrative in a way that a distantly removed movie or a visual-free book cannot. To see someone so bravely share their story and do it with such poetic grace is a magnificent privilege. I learned a lot about Somali culture and the beginnings of the civil war in this show, a vital part of being a better neighbor in a beautifully diverse city that holds so many refugee communities.

How to Have Fun in a Civil War is thoroughly entertaining and worth a visit for that fact alone, but combined with the deeper meaning of this story it becomes an absolute must-see for all Minnesotans. Tickets are only $9 to see this series and it's the best money you'll spend all month. If you want to know more about the Somali community in Minnesota, or the plight of refugees in general, I urge you to see this show. There are only a few more performances as a part of the Guthrie's Solo Emerging Artist Celebration and I hope they are packed to the gills.

If you would like to help other refugee communities, here are some that are vitally in need right now:

And I do want to give a shout out to the other performers in the Solo Emerging Artist Series. Their shows look terrific and I really wish my schedule allowed me to see them. Here's a little more about each performer:
Antonio Duke: click here to learn more.
A.P. Looze: click here to learn more.

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