Mixed Blood Theatre is a staple of Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood. Behind its red firehouse doors is a stage known for taking on social issues with creative theatrics: in 2016, “DJ Latinidad’s Latino Dance Party” wove an anthology of shorts about family illness, love, immigration, and police harassment into an immersive nightclub scene. The chairs were cleared; the audience danced.
But perhaps lesser-known is Mixed Blood’s decades-long work in public health, in which they use live theater as a bridge between health care providers and community members. In the 90’s, they staged Do No Harm for Regions Hospital, a play about immigrants and refugees using that hospital’s emergency room as a primary care clinic. Baby Baby, a Motown musical about racial and economic barriers to prenatal care, became a tool for obstetrics in the West metro. And the show has gone on: Mixed Blood has done more than 17 public health theater initiatives over the last three decades.
This year, a new project is taking center stage. City of Nations Storytelling Studio, led by public health specialist Abdurrahman Mahmud, will bring together intergenerational circles of East African community members to open up conversations about health care. With the help of faith leaders, educators, and Mahmud himself, City of Nations will tackle three closely connected but taboo topics: mental health, substance abuse, and reproductive education.
Mahmud was trained as a clinical nurse in Ethiopia, and worked in public health for the UN, where he specialized in reproductive health issues like HIV, fistula and abortion. He transitioned to human rights advocacy, which he continued when he came to Minnesota. When Mahmud joined the team at Mixed Blood, he learned to blend his health care skills with artistic techniques, and began Project 154 in 2017.
Project 154 brought together 17 storytelling circles with 325 Somali and Oromo Minneapolitans: in small groups, participants shared stories of their experiences with Minnesota’s health care system. Mahmud says one of the project’s goals was to educate health care providers about culturally sensitive care, and to address persistent health disparities.
“Cedar is home to the largest East African Community, the Somali and the Ethiopian ethnic groups of Oromo and Amharic,” says Mahmud. “There’s this health care disparity that these minority immigrant refugee communities experience every day, when they access the health care services around the neighborhood or in the city.”
From the story circles, Mahmud created 17 video profiles, which became part of a live exhibition and accredited Continuing Medical Education course for health care providers. But Project 154 had made one thing clear: three health topics—mental health, substance abuse, and reproductive education—remained taboos. He created City of Nations Storytelling Studio to address them.
“When I’m saying it’s a taboo, it means that people feel shame, and are not likely to say these things in public … or like a parent to discuss with their child,” says Mahmud. “Our goal with City of Nations is to keep providing a safe space that can bring people together, so that they can discuss these uncomfortable topics and ignite some conversations.”
Mahmud emphasizes that these three health issues are interconnected: he gives the example of how a lack of mental health resources and stigma can drive substance abuse, or how shame about reproductive health issues can cause depression. While Project 154 was freeform, he says, City of Nations Storytelling Studio has an agenda: to change behavior by bringing these issues “out of the shadows.” Mahmud plans to assemble groups that are a mix of families, health care providers, faith leaders and educators, and—with the help of translators—facilitate the storytelling circles with that goal in mind. He also wants to encourage participants to better advocate for the health care services they receive. While the pandemic has slowed City of Nations’ start, they’re exploring virtual options, and plan to begin in 2021.
Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s Artistic Director, says that for a long time, the theatre worked to develop an audience-performance relationship with the East African community in Riverside, before they realized that was the wrong approach.
“Then we said, how do we use the crafts of theater, rather than the product and theater, to create a healthy community and Cedar-Riverside, with health being defined by employment and education and health care and safety?” says Reuler. “Instead of saying, ‘Here’s the story we’re telling, how does this affect you?’ We’re saying ‘We want to be part of your story.’”
Mahmud says he has already seen the positive impacts of Project 154, and expects City of Nations Storytelling Studio to bring about even more. The story circles built trust, he says, and brought participants together through both their shared experiences and a need to find common solutions. They’ve also helped health care providers learn how to better serve patients from East African communities.
Reuler affectionately says he’s watched Mahmud transform from “a man of science to a person of the arts,” and Mahmud agrees. In fact, Mahmud says, the artistic and cultural elements of the story circles have been the crux of their success.
“Storytelling is an ancient art loved by the East Africans, which attracted a lot of community members to participate in the sessions and helped them remember their culture and history,” says Mahmud.”Back in Somalia, families used to come together and have ‘Shaah iyo Sheeko’—which means storytelling while sipping a sweet tea.”