Monday, April 7, 2008


ST.LOUIS, USA (April 7, 2008) - Mirza Halilovic had never been on stage, not even for his high school musical.Saso Cemerski loved performing during his student days in Belgrade. But when he moved to St. Louis,USA, he figured his curtain had rung down. His job as an immunological researcher at Washington University keeps him busy, and his accent makes him hard to cast.

Anela Islamovic, fashion model and part-time college student, has graced local stages for years; she enjoys the vivacious world of musical theater.

But they all feel a magnetic attraction to the show they're about to open: Avalon Theatre Company's world première of "Little Bosnia" by Cristina Pippa. They felt compelled to audition for the show as soon as they heard about it.

In fact, director Larry Mabrey estimates that a third of the 50 or 60 actors who showed up at auditions were Bosnian. That doesn't surprise Dijana Groth, another Bosnian who lives here now.

"People are excited because this play tells the story of a new immigrant's struggle with identity," said Groth, who coached American actress Susie Wall on her accent.

As Mabrey hoped, the cast is mixed; about half are Americans, and half are immigrants from the former Yugoslavia.

"People love the idea of an American theater producing a play like this," he said.

Actor-puppeteers Elma Mujanovic (from left), Anela Islamovic and Mirza Halilovic rehearse for Avalon Theatre Company’s “Little Bosnia.”

Mabrey is thrilled with the reaction that just the announcement of the play provoked. Avalon's ticket-reservations list is crowded with new names. The house for Thursday night's preview has been bought out by a Bidwell, Ohio, class for gifted middle students who are studying Bosnia this term. But Mabrey expects most of the audience to come from St. Louis, which has the largest Bosnian community in the United States.

The Bosnian immigrants began to arrive in St.Louis in the early 1990s, fleeing a long war at home. Today the flourishing community extends from south St. Louis into south St. Louis County. With its commercial heart in the Bevo Mill area, the enclave of about 50,000 people boasts restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores, hairdressers and banking services, and a community center that features one of south St. Louis' most colorful sights: a 33 metres tall minaret.

A minaret rises in Saint Louis,USA.The minaret itself is designed to reflect Bosnian architecture to make a former branch bank turned Islamic community center look more like the mosque.The minaret stretches 107 feet into the sky (33 metres).At a groundbreaking ceremony last July, Mayor Francis Slay said the structure was likely the first minaret in the city’s history.

Mabrey and his wife, Erin Kelley, got the idea for a play about St. Louis' "Little Bosnia" a few years ago. They used to live in south St. Louis, then moved to Chicago and, later, New York. After their son was born, they decided to return to St. Louis and start a theater company. They also decided to move back to their old neighborhood.

When they did, however, they found they had lots of new neighbors, people who impressed them with their warm, hospitable nature, their strong work ethic and, inevitably, their terrible memories.

They got Avalon off the ground, and it caught Pippa's eye. The playwright, who grew up in St. Louis, has been produced a number of times. But as a young writer on the lookout for stages, she sent Mabrey and Kelley samples of her work. Just based on the theater's website, she liked their style. After they read her plays, the couple decided the feeling was mutual.

In the end, they commissioned her to write a play about Bosnians here. Although she hadn't lived in St. Louis in years, the idea intrigued her.

At the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she studied after she graduated from Columbia University, "there's a lot of focus on collaboration (with the community)," she said. "I wrote a play about teenage girls for which I interviewed 40 16-year-olds, and one about a cancer researcher that involved a lot of study and a lot of time in a lab. You hear such wonderful stories. And I like delving into other people's minds."

Adisa Kalkan, a businesswoman who was interested in the project, introduced Pippa to lots of people in Little Bosnia.

"They fed me and took me into their homes and took me dancing," said the writer, who lives with her husband in Kansas City but soon will move to Buffalo, N.Y. "I tried not to ask too many questions. I just listened."

One thing Pippa heard again and again: Keep the story entertaining.

"They don't want to see themselves as tragic figures, and Bosnian culture is all about humor," she said. "It had to be funny to be real."

Pippa, surprised to hear a number of people say that they didn't want to go back to Bosnia even for a visit because it would be too hard to leave again, felt she had to discover its charms for herself. So she went to Bosnia.

One night, she and her traveling companion, another American woman, got lost. A group that gradually expanded to dozens of people made sure they safely arrived at their destination.

Gradually, her experiences in St. Louis and abroad took shape as a coming-of-age story.

Pippa's hero, Faris, was born in Bosnia but came with his grandmother to St. Louis when he was about 4 years old. Now he's a young man who considers himself American. His grandmother, however, wants him to go back to Bosnia and reclaim the family home.

When he makes the trip, Faris begins to reconcile the different cultures that make him who he is.

Pippa turned to puppets, an ancient theatrical device, to portray war in an intimate theatrical setting. The lead puppeteer is Halilovic, the immigrant who was never before onstage. He describes "Little Bosnia" as "touching and accurate."

Islamovic, who was about Faris' age when she left her Bosnian hometown, agrees.

"People assume I am American. But it was kind of tense after 9/11" because most Bosnians are Muslim, she explained.

Of course, many people struggle with questions of identity, among them immigrants of all nationalities and just about any young adult. That's why Jason Contini, who plays Faris, thinks the play will reach audiences in addition to Bosnians.

"It's always good to see a new play, and everybody has roots," he said.

Cemerski, the immunologist, said: "As soon as this came out, it was impossible to resist. Now I hope Cristina is working on 'Little Bosnia, Part Two.'"

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