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The Real Life Younger Family of Minneapolis

I recently came across a piece from MPR News entitled, “Event Remembers Black Family Terrorized in South Minneapolis.” Tenderly, I read on.

The article told a short but powerful story about a couple named Arthur and Edith Lee who were among the first African Americans to move into south Minneapolis in 1931, along with their young daughter. What happened next was what you could imagine, even more so if you’re familiar with A Raisin in the Sun. The backlash from white residents was immediate and harsh – The Minneapolis Journal reported that a mob of 1,000  people surrounded the house and pelted it with rocks.

Of course this isn’t a play, but real life history from our Twin Cities. There’s no way to know if Lorraine Hansberry knew of this particular incident but she was undoubtedly aware of similar stories from Northern communities – her own in Chicago for instance. In a sad irony, freedom-searching blacks from the South ran into a buzzsaw of prejudice in the Northern cities in which they sought refuge.

mary-and-arthur-lee

Edith and Arthur Lee

“Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country. I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home.” – Arthur Lee July 16, 1931

This is known as the Great Migration and it lasted from 1910-1970, irrevocably shaking up the country’s demographics. Over that period, six million African Americans fled the South and moved into cities such as Chicago, New York (especially Harlem), Milwaukee and Minneapolis. If you think the homogeneity in Minnesota is extreme now, imagine what it was like at the start of the 20th century when nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South. The Lees, like their fictional counterparts in the Youngers, were victims of this social upheaval.

Bringing it back to the original MPR article, however, we are given hope in our modern world that a kind of solace can be attained even if we can’t change the past.

The Lee family stood their ground in south Minneapolis for a year-and-a-half before deciding to move. Eighty years later, in 2011, the current owner of the home allowed a small statue to be erected in the yard to commemorate the family and then in 2014, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s located at 4600 Columbus Ave., and I for one am going to seek out this extremely important piece of history. I’d also highly recommend checking out the articles below for further reading.

NOTE: we have opened up tickets for purchase for our weekday morning student matinees through Dec 22. Tickets are just $25. Call 651.291.7005 or order at parksquaretheatre.org

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Randolph, Toni. “Event Remembers Black Family Terrorized in South Minneapolis.” The Cities: Notes on the News from the Twin Cities, MPR News, 15 July 2011, http://blogs.mprnews.org/cities/2011/07/event-remembers-black-family-terrorized-in-south-minneapolis/

Elliot, Paige. “House in South Minneapolis Added to National Register of Historic Places.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, 25 July 2014, http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arthur-lee-monument-goes-national/

“Great Migration.” History.com, 2010
http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration

The Best According to Whom?

There are without a doubt, subjects that can be defined as “best” and . . . “not best.”  For many things, however, the line is distinctly less obvious, and the difference between what’s good and bad often comes down to one person’s opinion.  “Everyone’s a critic” rings painfully true for artists, who often feel as if their entire life’s work can be made or broken depending on whether or not the critic was able to find adequate parking or hasn’t fallen ill from an undercooked fish.

“He abandoned me… and now I have no eyebrows.” – Mona

Artists will devote countless hours on a project, plumbing the depths of the human condition, often at the expense of their own pleasures.  Da Vinci once said that “art is never finished, only abandoned” and, as an actor, I get that.  Weeks go by and you’re still tinkering with the artwork, knowing that at some point you’re going to have to let it fly on opening night.  It’s hard to do that, especially when you know there are people actually getting paid to sit in the dark to critique you on all of that devotion. Exposing yourself like that is, in short, a leap of faith.

Yes, the critic is there to do a job but as for power?  I believe we give critics only as much power as we let them.  The simple question is “Who do we do it for?”  To serve ourselves in the hope that a “good” review will grant us the keys to a sort of acting El Dorado or to show audiences a glimpse of their own forgotten humanity? In my short career, I’ve come to learn that by focusing on the former you lose sight of the latter, leading to a weak foundation that will eventually crumble in on itself.

I ask then:  Who determines what’s “the best” theatre?  The reviewers, the audiences, the artists themselves?  All of them are intrinsic to the welfare of the art and have a voice.  Inevitably those voices clash and no more so than during big “oo-lah-lah” events such as the Tony Awards, where suddenly anyone who has seen a play–any play–speaks out about the nominees and not always in the most positive light.

These are the same people who annually disparage the Oscars for not amounting to a hill of beans.  Why should we care about an awards show that rewards bloated and stale Broadway?  Because I believe, for better or worse, this is the face of the industry–practically the only thing Joe the Plumber may think of when someone says “theatre”; and dang it, if Joe the Plumber thinks anything about theatre at all then we’re off to a good start.  Of course, we artists sticking it out here in the hinterlands know that the American theatre is so much richer than what the Tony’s represent, but it pays to be informed about what’s happening in New York, no matter your position.  So I would recommend not forgetting to take your grain of salt and just appreciate the fact that Theatre gets its day in the mainstream sun for at least one night a year.

“The Best.”  Can we define it?  Can we spot it in a line up?  Sometimes absolutely; but more often than not, we’re just comparing apples to oranges, whether it’s the critics or the Tony Awards.  I say we, the artists, raise our voices a bit more in solidarity and less in sniping at each other.  Then we can enjoy the big oo-lah-lah events as the giant self-celebratory parties that they ought to be.

Totally the Ivey Awards, right? I mean, that’s Craig Johnson in the back, right? They waaaay back?

 

Alexandra is a Park Square Ambassador; we think you should get to know her! Check out her recent presentation.

By Alexandra Harder

Some of you may recognize me because I spoke at last year’s fundraising gala. Last year, I spoke about being a Park Square Theatre Ambassador. This year, I can not only speak about being an ambassador, but also about being an intern, an employee, and a member of the Park Square family. But first, for those of you who don’t recognize me, I started here at Park Square as a Theatre Ambassador. What this means is that one Saturday a month, I come here and spend an entire day and night with 19 other young theatre lovers. We learn from master classes, speak with a diverse variety of theatre professionals, see a Park Square show and discuss it afterwards with our peers. My favorite part of the program has always been speaking to Twin Cities artists about what they do. In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to pick the brains of Regina Williams, Ricardo Vazquez, Joel Sass, James Williams, Ann Michels, and more.

IMG_23711So that’s how I started here at Park Square. Shortly after the gala last year, I started In the Ambassador2 program as a second year ambassador. Our summer training involved meeting with Richard Cook, Mary Finnerty, Michael-jon Pease and other staff members, and learning about how Park Square works day-to-day and what their mission and goals are. During these meetings, not only did we get valuable information on how and why Park Square exists, we were also asked for our opinions and thoughts. Think about that. Several successful adults genuinely wanted to know what we, a group of teenagers, thought about their company and how it could be more accessible for people like us. If that doesn’t show how inclusive Park Square is as a company, I don’t know what does.

In the fall, I started as an intern in the Education Department. During  six hours each week, I learned to do things like book matinee tickets for schools, send out emails and invoices and even make phone calls to teachers. This may sound very mundane to a lot of you, but I’m a Virgo, so these things are very exciting to me. My long term goal has always been to own my own theatre company, so interning has given me invaluable skills I couldn’t have gained anywhere else, especially at such a young age. Megan Losure and Mary Finnerty (the two women the education program could not run without) go out of their way to make sure I’m learning not only how to do the things they ask me to do, but also why they are done, and how I would go about doing them if I had my own company in the future. This opportunity has given me the confidence to go out and actually take a big first step towards my dream.

This winter, I decided to start my own independent theatre. A friend and I, both seniors in high school started GIRL Theatre, a company dedicated to the empowerment and liberation of young women in our community. We produced a short devised piece titled Into the Red at Bryant Lake Bowl this February, entirely on our own. Thanks to Park Square, I had both the artistic skills to create a bold and imaginative piece and the practical skills to build an audience, sell out our shows, and actually make a bit of a profit.

Now, as if Park Square hadn’t already given me enough, I was recently offered a job as an Education Assistant. I will work part time through May, June and July, and I will be paid. As a young person who plans on going to college in the fall to get a degree in Theatre who is constantly being lectured on how wanting to be an artist will lead to a life of poverty, unemployment and tragedy, nothing gives me more hope for my future than being given a paid job at a theatre company at the age of 18.

AlexandraFor two years Park Square has tirelessly pushed me to grow as an artist and as a person, given me unparalleled opportunities and invested enormously in my future. If they had done all of this for me, just one young person, they would have done enough. But I am not unique. Park Square treats young people the way they have treated me. Thousands of kids have been touched by Park Square this year alone, and I guarantee you, I’m not the only one with glowing reviews!

Alexandra Harder is a senior at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, director, and founder of GIRL Theatre. Her upcoming project will be co-directing American Idiot with TASU Theatre Co. opening this month. 

Artist Spotlight: Ben Cook-Feltz, Musician

Last week I showed off the musical prowess of my Park Square cohort, CJ Pitts, and this week I want to bring another masterful musician to the forefront: Ben Cook-Feltz! By day BCF can be found working in Park Square’s ticket office, so if you’ve ever called in to order tickets you’ve probably already heard his soulful croon and didn’t even know it. I also do want to let everybody know that Cook-Feltz will be playing Vieux Carre this Wednesday, April 6 from 6-7:30. If you’ve never been, it’s  downstairs next to Park Square’s Andy Boss stage and features great music, drinks and food in an intimate setting.

It all began in Iowa where he was born and raised, learning to play and appreciate music from both his parents. Don’t get any false impressions about him being from Iowa, though. As Cook-Feltz will tell you: “I spent the first 23 years of my life in Cedar Falls, doing all your typical Iowan things, which actually aren’t that different from what everyone else was doing in the 80’s and 90’s (for instance, I have no idea how to tip a cow, much less milk one).”

At twenty-four, Cook-Feltz made his way up north to the Twin Cities to study record production at McNally Smith College of Music. From there he discovered just how vibrant the music and arts scene is in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

Adding an indelible voice to this community through various capacities, he plays music as a “Side Guy”, is a member of two bands, Mother Banjo Band and Art Vandalay, as well as fronting his own band called what else? Ben Cook-Feltz. His eponymous group dropped an album last year called, She Doesn’t Believe Me, and it’s pretty rad. Combining observational and quirky lyrics, his melodies are often reminiscent of the 60s and 70s.

When asked why he does what he does, he states, “What it all comes down to is, I love making music. It makes me feel alive, and it gives me so much joy. I am thrilled by any chance I get to share that joy with other people.”

From one artist to another, I know the feeling.

So now that you know the man-behind-the-box office window you should check out his website and schedule, but don’t forget this Wednesday at Vieux Carre!

Artist Spotlight: CJ Pitts, Musician

As someone who works at Park Square in various capacities, one of the best things about the job is who I get to work with. That includes the plethora of theatre artisans onstage and off, of course, but it also includes the day-to-day staff of the front of house.

Whether it’s in the ticket office, behind the bar, or tearing your ticket as you head in, we dutiful workers are not just faces in the crowd. Many of us are artists ourselves who practice our own passions when not sharing our time with Park Square.

One such artist you might meet is CJ Pitts, a singer and songwriter from Bear, Delaware who decided to make music in the Twin Cities after coming to Saint Paul five years ago. It was only in college, though, when he was first drawn to music as a way of life. Prior to that, Pitts dreamed of being a professional athlete, running track at the Olympics. Those goals may have shifted, but the drive and desire to succeed are certainly common to both and Pitts is determined to rise to the occasion.

At 24,  he’s just getting warmed up, writing songs for himself and others, including the three bands he’s currently a vocalist for. Playing a myriad of sounds and styles, Pitts puts it best by saying:

DSC_1180“My original music is a combo of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and electric sounds. I enjoy all of these styles and I incorporate them into my own art. When I’m not performing my originals, I’m singing anything from funk, jazz, pop, etc.”

If you want to see or hear CJ Pitts outside of the ticket office, check out his music here (“Shark” is probably my favorite!). Also, be on the look out for his recently released, Lost Identity, and the accompanying gigs in support of it.

Whatever we do, the front of house team at Park Square is made up of individuals with talents we’d love to share. So next time you’re milling about in the lobby, go ahead and strike up a conversation with one of us. You’re not only going to be surprised but also intrigued by what we have to say and what we (also) do.

 

 

 

Mann, What a Life

This month will mark not only the opening of Park Square’s much anticipated, Nina Simone: Four Women, but also the looooong anticipated birthday celebration of Richard Mann, a 102 year old St. Paul resident. What do the two have in common, you ask? Maybe more than you think. We’ll get to that soon but first we’ll just start by saying that Park Square is honored to be having Mr. Mann and his family attend Nina on March 12th to celebrate his big 1-0-2.

Born in St. Paul in 1914, Mr. Mann has lived his entire life in either St. Paul or Minneapolis, with his family moving back and forth between the two cities throughout his adolescence. He was only 11 when his father died. He went to work, instilling in himself a strong sense of self-determination and activity. In the late 1940s he went into the nightclub business, opening the Treasure Inn in Roseville that became a popular spot for the black community and college students. Prince Rogers, father of… well, Prince, was one famous artist to play there. Needing to support a family of his own, however, led him to change course and in 1953, he started working at the Post Office where he stayed for 30 years.

Mr. Mann’s greatest contribution to the Twin Cities, though, would have to be his community activism. He was a Boy Scout as a kid and then grew up to be president of the Sterling Club, a charitable organization that works with other groups to provide beneficial activities and programs to the African American community. To honor his 90th birthday, the Richard Morris Mann scholarship was established to benefit graduating African American high school seniors attending college.

Even after all that, Mr. Mann continues to make a name for himself and proving his vitality by becoming a recent internet hit when a video of him shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk went viral this winter. Bound and determined to live an active lifestyle, he continues to shovel walks and loves playing golf.  Surely this must be a “key” to living such a long life. Although, I would add that having such a large family helps. When the Mann family sees Nina on the 12th, there will be no less than 16 representatives in the seats! That’s like, a whole section of the Boss Stage house! So if you can’t get a ticket you know who to thank.
Nah, I’m sure you’ll be fine, and what a performance to see if you really want one of those “special times in the theatre.” Not only will you be basking in the inspiration of Nina Simone’s music but you can look over at Richard Mann, sure to be tapping his foot and smiling, and soak up his own unbridled inspiration.

Also, go ahead and watch him shovel snow. It’s the best.

 

 

Hellooo, St. Paul!

As I walked away from Park Square and the Hamm Building tonight after a box office shift, I couldn’t help but look up at the clear, crisp sky lit by both stars and city lights, and wonder about where I am in the world. Before you get all heady and introspective yourself, I just literally mean where I am. Like, my geographical presence on the planet.

Like, how did I end up in Saint Paul when I was born and bred and central Florida? I know it’s the same country, but it really is two different ways of living and I’m not complaining; in fact, I’m celebrating! Minnesota’s been very welcoming, especially all the artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with (looking at you, Park Square) and while I may have first moved to Minneapolis, I have definitely settled into the charm of the Twin.

One huge reason for that is the monthly Saint Paul Hello that’s held at the Minnesota History Center. Now for those of you who might not know, the event is a large social gathering that’s just one big welcome party with dozens of local vendors such as Park Square, Summit Brewing, the St. Paul Saints, The Current, a plethora of restaurants, artisans and so much more. In addition to all the friendly faces that greet you is all the FREE swag those faces give out!

Stickers! Pins! Candy! Tickets!  SNAPBACKS! Even custom designed eyeglass lens cleaners! What??? It’s the best, but if you’re not sold on any of that, the climax of the event is the beloved Hat Ceremony. It is at this moment where everyone who signed up for the event receives their very own faux fur-lined winter hat with the ear flaps. Saint Paul Hello oozes with kindness and generosity all because the founder just wants newcomers to love Minnesota as much as she does. 

Well, not only did I move here but I have stickers and pins to prove that I enjoy it as well. Even if you’ve lived here for years/ were born and raised eating hotdish, I would highly recommend checking out Saint Paul Hello. You’ll definitely get a spiffy new hat and probably make some new friends too; especially now that we’re right in the middle of winter, there’s nothing warmer. The next one is Tuesday, March 8. Stop by the Park Square table and say “hello.”

 

General Observations from the PST Generals!

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer at Park Square for the General Auditions. Remember, I said I’d see you there?

Well, I don’t know you. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see you! In fact, were you to introduce yourself to me now I would probably go, “Oh! It’s you! You were so nice and punctual!”

In fact, I would probably say a lot of things and to make it easier to read, I will list them in handy dandy bullet points. Therefore, allow me to ruminate on all the things that I happened to notice in my weekend at Park Square.

  • Brush up your Shakespeare! Maybe there was something in the air, or perhaps some specific auditioning, but 99.9% of the monologues I saw this weekend were from the Bard. Which is totally awesome! As an actor myself, I relished the chance to see five different Claudio’s and a handful of Ferdinand’s. Just as every actor is a unique individual, so then do they bring their own uniqueness the the same familiar words.
  • Every one who auditioned was so polite! After the weekend we got plenty of emails from the talent commending the volunteers, but truly, the credit goes to you fellow performers for making the job easy.
  • The people watching the auditions were so polite as well! And definitely patient. My favorite assignment was sitting in the room as the timer and getting to watch the directors as much as the actors. No matter if the computers were slow or the performer a little less than prepared – everyone was gracious and willing to wait.
  • There was no better time to go to the bathroom or scamper off down a hallway than the minutes before it’s your turn to audition. Without fail, I was always hunting down a stray actor.
  • Going back to my intro, I commented once that getting to see my friends audition was like a “greatest hits” of the Twin Cities theatre. Of course when you’re in a show with someone you often only get to know that one side – so how delightful it is to watch them do some Shakespeare or something off the wall.

So there ya have it! After reading all that how could you not be jazzed to attend yourself? You’ve got a whole year after all, so dust off some of your favorite pieces and mark you calendars!

 

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