Story: From 1992 to 1995, as Yugoslavia was dissolving into the constituent states that had comprised the eastern European nation in the 20th century, a reign of terror by various ultra-national militants resulted in the genocide of tens of thousands of people, most of them Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.
More than one million Bosnians were displaced from their homes during the “ethnic cleansing” by murderous extremists. Many of them immigrated to St. Louis, resulting in the Gateway City now being home to more people born in Bosnia than any other city outside of the native country.
While Bosnian immigrants have brought their culture and memories to the United States, their children born and/or raised in St. Louis reflect both their parents’ backgrounds and their own assimilation into 21st century America.
Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre artistic director and playwright Deanna Jent has spent the past year interviewing people in the vibrant Bosnian community in south St. Louis to gather material for this one-hour, one-act presentation that had its world premiere last weekend in the beautiful Grbic Banquet Hall.
It’s a pleasant and also important story that depicts the resilience of the Bosnian people not only to survive but also to revitalize their adopted new neighborhood in St. Louis.
Other Info: With the involvement of Dr. Ben Moore, co-founder and director of the Bosnia Memory Project, language consultant Daniela Sales, translator Elma Salesevic and others in the area Bosnian community, Jent’s story weaves together the culture and opinions of a new generation of Bosnian/Americans raised in St. Louis with flashbacks to the terrors in eastern Europe more than 20 years ago.
There’s also an ongoing sub-story of a folk fable about a young sheep who dares to break away from the flock to pursue her aspirations to become a dancer, while fending off the attacks of a wily wolf who wants to kill her.
Director Adam Flores draws upon the skills of several local Bosnian/American residents who merge their talents with other performers in this ensemble effort. Those who attended the opening weekend shows were able to enjoy delicious dining, such as goulash, the house salad and an imported beer called Nektar, at the refurbished Grbic Banquet Hall before or after the performance.
Subsequent showings will take place at Fontbonne University’s Fine Arts Theatre, which will house Kyra Bishop’s set design that was successfully integrated into Grbic’s handsome interior of brightly colored walls with myriad emblems and designs and a raised platform on which much of the action occurred.
Michael Sullivan’s lighting design works effectively, especially when the tale of the young sheep and the wolf is told, and Jane Sullivan’s costumes lovingly convey the Old World charms in the fable as well as the contemporary clothing, religious or otherwise, in Bosnia and St. Louis.
Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is highlighted by the plaintive sounds of Amir Salesevic’s accordion as he roams the stage and room to accompany the performance. Meg Brinkley’s prop design adds to the air of authenticity.
Flores keeps his players moving fluidly from one part of the stage to another as Jent’s script veers between the fable, the terror in Bosnia and the new generation gathering at a coffee house to talk about their recollections of seeing the Gateway Arch or other local landmarks for the first time. Their observations are more curiosities than the profound impact felt by their parents beginning their lives anew.
Melissa Gerth brings wonder and guile to the role of the aspiring dancer sheep, while also depicting a Bosnian woman frantically trying to save her children from the military seeking to ‘cleanse’ her village. Agnes Wilcox captures the wisdom and Old Country guidance of an elder named Nena.
Arnela Bogdanic is effective as a Bosnian/American Muslim now contributing to the revitalization of her adopted community, and Elvedin Arnautovic does a good job portraying a father anxious to protect his family from encroaching marauders in his native Bosnia.
The beguiling wolf is one of two roles nicely etched by Andrew Kuhlman, who also proves convincing as a menacing soldier storming through a Bosnian village. Katie Donnelly and Bob Thibaut portray the new generation of Bosnian/Americans, and Carly Uding joins them while also depicting a young Bosnian caught up in her country’s civil war. Mary Schnitzler completes the cast, portraying a teacher as well as a student in south St. Louis.
Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life succeeds as a tribute to the valiant spirit of a people and culture driven from their homeland to start life anew in a land a continent away, rather than as a drama driven by plot and character development. That’s OK, though, because its message of hope and love is universal.
Play: Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: April 21, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30, May 1
Tickets: $25-$30 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com or 719-8060
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.