BWW Review: A CRACK IN THE SKY at History Theatre
A CRACK IN THE SKY is a new autobiographical play about an immigrant from Somalia who arrived in the Twin Cities in 1997. As a civic project--something the arts can and should provide--this event is hard to beat. History Theatre is to be commended for connecting Ahmed Ismail Yusuf with professional playwright Harrison David Rivers, courtesy of the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis, to help shape this story.
That's far from the only cross-agency collaboration at work here, as was especially true on opening night, when the energetic teen dance troupe from the Somali Museum performed in native dress, while food was provided by the popular local eatery, Afro-Deli. The Minnesota Historical Society was on hand as well, promoting the exhibit on Somalis in Minnesota that will open here in June, based in part on Yusuf's 2013 book. Since the play takes its title from a Somali proverb ("If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky") such collaborations are cause for celebration.
Still, it is true that as a play, A CRACK IN THE SKY is not very compelling theater. Partly due to its reliance on folk tales for framing, to animal characters (camel and owl as imaginary friends), and to dream sequences that allow the protagonist to speak with Maya Angelou and Malcolm X--vital influences in his journey to becoming a writer--it falls into that broad category of well-intended educational plays that lack the complexity and depth I seek at the theater.
I welcome the gifts that newcomers and immigrants offer our country. Among those are glimpses into their original cultures. Another is a take on our own culture to which we may be blind because we are immersed in it. This play largely misses the chance to provide either of these kinds of learning, focusing instead primarily on the protagonist's college years at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he finds both allies and antagonists. Yet it's clear from program notes that Yusuf wrote about three important words in the Somali language that he has the tools to do sophisticated cultural analysis. Too bad that talent is not as apparent in the stage action here.
What remains is a tale of personal struggle and perseverance as a boy who began life as a nomadic shepherd comes into his identity as a writer, overcoming both internal and external conflicts. Fair enough, but if a portion of biography is the intent, story threads that are raised should not then be abandoned in a way that leaves the audience unable to connect the dots. At one point, our hero is lured to New Orleans with the offer of a job, but when his car breaks down in Mississippi and his potential employer refuses to help, we are not told how he survived. Nor is it explained how he got to Trinity. Perhaps these moments are linked, but we are not permitted to know.
Scenic designer Joel Sass and video designer Kathy Maxwell have created a set that is flexible and evocative. We see occasional photographic landscapes from Somalia, some family pictures, and colorful abstractions that suggest vibrancy and chaos. The show begins in the Somali language, which ejects the audience from complacency in a potentially useful way, but nothing is then spun out of this choice. The performances by six actors who carry 13 roles are credible and director Faye M. Price moves the action around the space briskly. Despite how worthy the story is, and how important building empathy around immigrant issues is nowadays, A CRACK IN THE SKY has less impact than I imagine its creators would wish.
Over its 40 year lifespan, History Theatre has dramatized many immigrant stories that get at who we are as a people and a nation. I applaud this effort to add another play to that collection, this time from a culture we know less about than I wish we did. This world premiere plays in downtown Saint Paul through March 4.
Photo credit: Scott Pakudaitis