'West Bank Story' tells tale of neighborhood

Bedlam Theatre production runs through June 25

CEDAR-RIVERSIDE—Everybody’s got one . . . a West Bank story! The Bedlam Theatre is presenting its new history musical about the West Bank on the West Bank, in the historic Mixed Blood Theatre, which has its own stories to tell.

It all began a couple years ago with a 10-minute play about a West Bank bike club feud with university students—a parody of “West Side Story”—“West Bank Story” conceived by director Maren Ward. “West Bank Story,” grew into an amalgamation of stories and characters of three pivotal West Bank time periods: 1898, 1972 and 2006.

The play is inspired by the diversity of individuals and movements of the past 100 or more years. From Bohemian Flats below the hill, to the towers overshadowing the Cedar-Riverside area, the West Bank is renowned as a neighborhood of immigrants—Swedes and Slovaks at the turn of the century, Vietnamese and Koreans, and the large Somali influx in the 1990s. The West Bank is a hotbed of movements social and political, from co-ops to anti-war. And it’s home to musicians who kicked folk and blues back to life, and influenced and changed music throughout the nation. Thus a musical, to pay homage to those times, and the stories of all those who have passed through.

Ward, who’s been director of Bedlam Theatre throughout its 10 years, said of her inspiration, “We’ve had a lot of discussions about our identities within the West Bank. A year and a half ago, we decided to expand [a musical about the neighborhood] to include as many different aspects as we could. We were somewhat versed in the co-op movement, and the grassroots movement to stop the expansion of the “New Town-in-Town” Cedar-Riverside towers. Also there were Snoose Boulevard Days which looked back at a neighborhood from its earliest settlement, and the picture emerged as a continual crossroads.” She said characters move through space and time. There’s a scene of a convergence of Vietnam War protest rallies and people protesting the towers.

During 1898, the first “crossroads” time featured in “West Bank Story,” Slovakian immigrants meet at the “boom-town-in-town” Cedar-Riverside; flour mill expansions and labor union actions dominate the scene. The second crossroad in 1972 finds the immigrants haunting a desecrated neighborhood of hippies, co-ops and their attendant wars, rising towers, and riots in the streets. The third period, 2006, finds two girls—Harshwind, a spike-haired tall-biker and Ayan, who’s Somali—meeting and imagining ways for different cultures to share their world.

For two years the collaborative Bedlam Theatre worked with the West Bank community, gathered people’s stories, and researched historic songs, documents and images. They partnered with U of M public history students and history research interns to organize the neighborhood-wide storytelling conference, “The Great Cedar/Riverside Gathering,” at which anti-war and co-op movement activists and others told stories.

Ward said Bedlam learned of another community play project, the Seward Theater Project (see sidebar), from their community story-gathering and research. They consulted with Ben Kreilkamp a couple times about his work during the “West Bank Story.”

How do you top a “West Bank Story?” Ward said, “It’s been a monumental project. It could be an annual thing. The West Bank neighborhood is a never-ending source of inspiration.” In the spring, Bedlam Theatre began teaching Somali teens acting, directing, and playwrighting at the Volunteers of America High School. They are contributing to the 2006 section of “West Bank Story”—a couple are acting in it.

John Buecke, co-organizer and writer of the play’s book and song lyrics, developed characters that are an amalgamation of West Bankers real and imagined to tell the history of the West Bank. Why amalgamated characters rather than the many real characters that are and were? “I thought the truest way you could represent all the stories is to fictionalize this [musical]—it’s all based on real history, but having fictional characters that people are free to see themselves reflected in. … People can ask, ‘Is that me? Is that someone I know?’ … You can see a glimpse of everybody in the play.” Buecke said, “All the characters are aspects of the neighborhood psyche.”

On the experience writing this, Bueke added, “You’re walking down the West Bank, experiencing so much. For 15 years I’ve experienced the West Bank—others so much longer. It’s a live neighborhood, just so exciting, with so many layers to it. It’s incredibly expansive and we’ve gone through so much. It’s eclectic and energetic—the play moves like a night on the West Bank, but it’s only two hours long. It’s glorious to see it come together in its finished form.”

Composer Marya Hart said she wrote the musical’s songs in her style of “post-modern roots music.”

“It comes out of roots, jazz, blues, folk, and also opera,” she explains. There are a couple sappy songs, she adds, one with the title “A Place in Time.”

“It’s been absolutely fabulous working with Marya Hart, putting my lyrics to her show tunes,” Buecke said. “The rich fabric of music on the West Bank … you could have many themed evenings. … The songs are influenced by all those musical styles but in a new form.”

Find your own place in time at the 119-year-old home of the 30-year-old Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St., June 2–25, Thursdays–Sundays. Tickets $12–$15. (June 2–4: “Pay What You Think It’s Worth”). Sundays, 2 p.m.; other shows 8 p.m. Discussions after Sunday matinees. Audio-described performance: June 18, ASL interpreted performance: June 24. For more information, call 612-338-6131

last revised: August 9, 2006