Sunday February 11, 2018
By Renee Valois
In America, Yusuf gets regular calls from his brother back home begging him to send the family more cash, because he thinks there are “money trees” in the United States, and Yusuf should have a million dollars for each year he resides in the magical country. Meanwhile, Yusuf is practically starving and struggles to concentrate on schoolwork at college because he has no income or family to support him.
Hajji Ahmed, left, and JuCoby Johnson in “A Crack in the Sky.” (Photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
Although the new play at History Theatre is about a Somali immigrant, it doesn’t focus on the violence we’ve all heard about in the young man’s home country or illuminate a larger theme about immigration in the U.S. under President Donald Trump. Instead, “A Crack in the Sky” is a small, personal story about Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s experience, putting a human face on the challenges many immigrants face when they land on American soil.
Co-written by the real-life protagonist of the story, along with Harrison David Rivers, this is a quiet tale of hardship and heroes. M. Hajji Ahmed, who portrays Yusuf, is himself a recent immigrant — so he doesn’t need Method Acting to convey the anxieties and fears of coming to an alien country where success is not certain.
Because Yusuf left his homeland before the infamous violence took hold, his tale of escape may be less dramatic than that of more recent Somali immigrants. However, his drive to become a writer helps him to tell his story in a way that connects with non-immigrants.
He gets advice and comfort from his imaginary sidekicks, Camel and Owl, played with captivating charm by Tracey Maloney and Mikell Sapp. Maloney also steps into the story as a kindly teacher at Trinity College who fights to get Yusuf another chance when he seems to be failing, and Rich Remedios gives amiable warmth to a professor who inspires Yusuf to pursue and perfect his writing.
Yusuf has imaginary conversations with Maya Angelou (Ashawnti Sakina Ford), the poet who spoke to his heart when he read his first books in America, and Malcolm X (JuCoby Johnson). They help Yusuf to keep going when the odds seem stacked against him.
Director Faye M. Price brings out the humor and hope in the story without undercutting the struggles Yusuf faced. We begin to understand how difficult it can be to make such a transition — yet the play isn’t as moving as it could be, possibly because the peaks and valleys of the plot are not extreme or because the lead portrayal is less nuanced than some.
However, it’s an interesting production — very timely given the current immigration debates — and especially worthwhile for Minnesotans who have been welcoming Somali neighbors for decades without really knowing what they’ve had to endure to build a life here.
If you go
- What: “A Crack in the Sky”
- Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
- When: Through March 4
- Tickets: $40-$25, senior discounts, $15 students; 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com
- Capsule: A personal tale of the challenges of immigration