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Feature

John Bueche and Maren Ward

Playwright John Bueche and Director Maren Ward do a number from West Bank Story.

Students help create West Bank Story musical

By Andi McDaniel

June 20, 2006

Students in Kevin Murphy's Public History class at the University of Minnesota last semester didn't just learn about the history of the West Bank neighborhood, which borders the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis and is known for its rich social, cultural, and political past. They got to make history too--by joining Bedlam Theater in telling the West Bank Story, a musical now showing at the Mixed Blood Theatre.

West Bank Story traces the history of the neighborhood (also known as Cedar-Riverside) through myriad waves of immigration, times of political upheaval, and community accomplishments--such as the formation of North Country Cooperative Grocery, the first in the Twin Cities' rich network of co-ops.

Maren Ward, director of the play, and playwright John Bueche knew they couldn't capture such a vast--and ever-changing--history on their own. They needed people to help with community outreach, ferreting out stories and perspectives from diverse West Bank residents. Lucky for Ward and Bueche, what they'd dreamed up was the perfect assignment for a certain handful of Public History students.

"The class is really a transformative experience for most students," Murphy says. "And that's a result not so much of my teaching as the way the class is designed. It really allows them to take ownership of their projects.... At some point in the semester, they stop acting like students and start acting like public historians."

Choosing from a list of possible community projects that Murphy and his graduate instructors had prepared in advance, a group of five Public History students jumped at the opportunity to work with Bedlam. But their work would go far beyond the requirements of the class project.

Recognizing a need for outreach to a wide range of community members, the group decided to plan "The Great Cedar/Riverside Gathering," an all-day event full of dialogues, panels, and creative activities--such as draw-your-own picture postcards for kids--that would invite the community into the development of the production.

"By doing an event they could advertise and use to bring people together," explains Murphy, "they could be more effective than if they were trying to interview discreet groups." The gathering was held at the Brian Coyle Center, which was crucial in reaching out to the East African community, for which the center is a popular gathering place.

The students organized separate discussions of anti-war activism, economic development, and immigrant history. By paying attention to the themes that came up at the gathering throughout the day, Bedlam members got a sense of what the community considered really important about the West Bank's history.

Kevin Murphy in front of the Cedar Cultural Center on the West Bank
Kevin Murphy

But it wasn't just the theater production that benefited from the students' involvement; the students themselves felt more deeply engaged in their education.

"It's more tangible than the academic history I've studied before," explains Amanda Sunram, who organized the anti-war activism panel discussion. "It's not a textbook from California--you can really see parallels within your own community here."

The essence of Murphy's class is this sort of connectedness. "The class is really a transformative experience for most students," he says. "And that's not a result not so much of my teaching as the way the class is designed. It really allows them to take ownership of their projects.... At some point in the semester, they stop acting like students and start acting like public historians."

Adds Murphy, "They come out feeling more connected to the city--the class becomes a way for them to see themselves as a publicly-engaged people."

Adam Nodler, a student who did a research internship with Bedlam (separate from the Public History class) with the help of a grant from the College of Liberal Arts' Career and Community Learning Center, says the experience opened his eyes to the incredible diversity in the area (it's the most ethnically diverse zip code between L.A. and Chicago) and the high level of political activism.

"[Before working with Bedlam] I had never even thought about the neighborhood as having a 'history'--I only thought of it in the capacity that it was connected to the U of M," Nodler says. He was particularly compelled by his research about the rent strikes of the 1960s, when neighborhood members "banded together to take on corrupt property owners." Learning about this aspect of West Bank history was pivotal in Nodler's decision to attend law school next year.

Whether audience members have never stepped foot at the intersection of Cedar and Riverside or whether they met their first loves on the Bohemian flats, they leave the theater tapping their feet to "Bread, Baby" or other spunky numbers from the play's energetic--and often wisecracking--soundtrack. In fact, West Bank Story makes it hard not to fall in love with this part of Minneapolis.

While Murphy is on leave next year, the graduate instructors from his Public History course will lead yet another excursion into Minneapolis' rich past, but this time the East Bank will be in the spotlight.


West Bank Story will be playing at the Mixed Blood Theatre (1501 S. 4th St., Minneapolis) through Sunday, June 25. For tickets, call the box office at 612-338-6131 or purchase online at http://www.mixedblood.com.