Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
There is a lot about Yusuf's life journey that one supposes would be fascinating, but his play glides over so much, that we get just a slight sense of the hardships he endured leaving his family at a young age, and of the later turmoil caused by war and displacement in Somalia. Nor do we learn about the challenges of his adjustment to life in the United States. He had been here for seven years before the narrative catches up with him as an upperclassman at Trinity. He has grief from his roommatewho is Ethiopian. Yusuf assures us that is not the cause of the grief, though it is well known that there is a high degree of enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia. Okay, so Yusuf is enlightened enough not to let ethnic difference undermine his personal relationships, but then the issue is reduced to being garden variety roommate trouble, i.e., not very interesting. The same holds for Yusuf's issues with financial aid, choosing his major, and getting through school while holding a job.
The only signs that Yusuf carries his culture with him come in the form of two animal totems that accompany him most of the time (except when the two actors are playing one of the other roles in which they are cast). One is a camel, the other an owl, though I have to say that it took a while before I knew what they were supposed to be. Once I did, I appreciated Aaron Chvatal's costumes, but their subtlety, while a good quality, did not aid in understanding what they were. If they dispensed wisdom of Yusuf's home culture, or rebuked him for losing touch with traditional ways, their presence would make sense. As it stands, they are the equivalent of the comic relief animal sidekicks in an animated Disney movie. Yusuf also has imaginary conversations with two of his literary heroes, Maya Angelou and Malcom X, which add some flavor to the play, but not so much in the way of substance.
A Crack in the Skywe learn that the title refers to an old Ethiopian adagepaints Yusuf as a sweet college kid whose ambitions are undermined by a lack of confidence. It wants us to see that just because he is an immigrant doesn't mean his struggles are different from anyone else's, or that he lacks the same ambitions as other students attending competitive liberal arts colleges. What it leaves out is the reason that Yusuf's "ordinariness" is so remarkable, that is, the pains of separation, and adjustment to a wholly new way of life. We come to view Yusuf as agreeable and deserving of success, but it is hard to get very involved beyond that. The moments that had me drawn in were two scenes between Yusuf and his brother Hassan, back in Somalia, making the distancenot only in miles, but in the very essence of their livesfeel palpable, and a source of sadness for both.
Nonetheless, History Theatre has given A Crack in the Sky a high-gloss production, under the helm of Artistic Director Ron Peluso. M. Hajji Ahmed gives a winning portrayal of Yusuf, imbedding the lead character with self-effacing charm, intelligence, ambition, and a curious nature. Tracey Maloney plays the Camel as a sarcastic observer of Ahmed's life, and his supportive psychology professor, while Mikell Sapp gives Owl a steady-tempered personality, balancing Camel's cynicism, as well as Yusuf's ornery roommate. Rich Remedios gives a pleasing turn as Fred Pfeil, the writing professor who becomes a mentor to Yusuf. JuCoby Johnson's charisma shines through as Malcom X, and he draws on a well of resentment as Yusuf's brother Hassan. Ashawnti Sakina Ford portrays Yusuf's mother with a stoic spine, and her Maya Angelou is awash with down-home wisdom.
Joel Sass has designed a functional set, graced with what appears to be a greatly oversized Somali basket hung vertically over the center. This sometimes is lit to become a large moon in the sky above, a love image. It also becomes a screen for projections (by Kathy Maxwell) that are used to depict scenes in Somalia. The lighting (Michel Wangen) and sound (Nick Walberg) designs are effective, though the greatly amplified sound of Yusuf's stomach growling is a bit heavy-handed.
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the United States, most of whom have immigrated to the Unites States within the last twenty years. Yusuf is among the many who relocated to Minnesota from their initial American community. A Crack in the Sky should be of great interest to long-time Minnesotans as a vehicle to understanding their new neighbors, who bring with them a religion, dietary restrictions, and restrictive dress codes for women, as well as, for many, the trauma of living through civil war and refugee camps. However, few of those issues are touched upon in A Crack in the Sky. It seems that is not Yusuf's story, or at least not the play he and his collaborator Harrison David Rivers had in mind. They are certainly in their right to offer the story now on stage at History Theatre. But one wishes they had found a more compelling, more challenging heart to that story.
A Crack in the Sky, through March 4, 2018, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults: $30.00 - $40.00; Seniors (age 60 and up): $27.00 - $35.00; Students 5 - 18: $15.00; Adults under Age 30 discount available at the box office. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwrights: Harrison David Rivers and Ahmed Ismail Yusuf; Director: Faye M. Price Scenic Design: Joel Price; Costume Design: Aaron Chvatal; Lighting Design: Michel Wangen; Sound Designer: Nick Walberg; Properties Designer: Kellie Larson; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Dramaturg: Wendy Weckwerth; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Stage/Production Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh.
Cast: M. Hajji Ahmed (Ahmed Ismail Yusuf), Ashawnti Sakina Ford (Mother, Maya Angelou), Rex Isom Jr. (The General/Bob Schulz/Cigaal Shiidaad), JuCoby Johnson (Hassan/Malcom X), Tracey Maloney (Diane Zannoni/Camel), Rick Remedios (Fred Pfeil), Mikell Sapp (Zee/Owl).