BY TAMAR NEUMANN: “I like Colgate [the toothpaste]” may not be the most romantic line you’ve ever heard, but it sums up the quirky type of romance typical in Mixed Blood Theatre’s Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World. This play is the first of four plays in the 55454 Series put on by Mixed Blood Theatre. To borrow their words this series of new plays is “by, about, for, and with Africans and Muslims in America.” As the first play of the series it manages to create the perfect tone for the productions to come. It’s not pretentious or preachy. Instead it’s a story you’ve heard a thousand times—only this time the characters are African immigrants, Americans, and Muslims.
This play tells the story of Sheri and Musa and how they fall in love. Musa (played by Mohamed Yabdri) is a taxi driver who falls for Sheri (played by Greta Grosch) who is a waitress. He fails to tell her about his fiancé, Gamila (played by Antu Yacob), which creates bumps along the way. Ultimately everyone ends up alright, and in many respects, better for their trails.
What’s great about this play is its ability to take a perfectly normal story, add in elements of religion and immigration (certainly hot button topics if there ever were any), and somehow still end up with an approachable story that everyone can relate too. It’s not a story about religion. It’s a story about love. But religion informs each character and his/her identity. If you went to this play expecting a harangue about intolerance or a deeper understanding and exploration of the Muslim faith, then you were sorely disappointed. Instead you got to see a comedy about some quite hilarious people just living their lives. What makes this so different in America is that we have a tendency to treat religions we are unfamiliar with (Muslim being one) as something odd and strange and the people who practice those religions as odd and strange. We rarely stop to think of them living the stories that Catholics or Protestants live. I applaud this play (and perhaps the whole series) which has given a voice to diversity and allowed us to laugh with the characters in this play as they fumbled through the questions we all wrestle with—Who am I? What do I want from life and how do I get it?
As a production, it wasn’t the most polished piece of theatre. There were a few interesting choices made by the director, Mark Valdez, such as having the cast members sit on stage when they were supposed to be off stage. That choice, while bold, was also distracting. Abdullah, played by Abdirizak Bihi, stood against the wall for much of the play just watching the characters. Perhaps this was to remind us of his presence as the lost roommate, but his character and his presence failed to add much to the story. Indeed, if both were eliminated the play would lose little.
But most of that fades away as you melt into the story. Yabdri was endearing as Musa. He was funny, sweet, and truly searching for what made him happy. You may want to hate him for lying to both women, but all you can truly feel is sympathy and love. Yabdri plays Musa with love and heart and that is manifested in all his interactions with each character. It was a truly great performance. His performance was well supported by the great performances of Yacob and Grosch who manage to play scorned women who can still forgive (rather readily) and be sincere in their forgiveness.
If you get a chance in the next two days, go see this play. Support the 55454 series. They are bringing plays to the cities that give a voice to diversity in a good, fun, and interesting way.
Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, by Yussef El Guindi. January 17-19, 2015 at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S 4th St, Minneapolis. Tickets $20 or first come first served free tickets with Radical Hospitality; purchase advanced tickets at at http://www.mixedblood.com/boxoffice or 612.338.6131.