New Children’s Theater play depicts Somali-black tension

Local actress Marvettte Knight says, more importantly, 'Snapshot Silhouette' focuses on ways to heal the rift

When Lynnhurst actress Marvette Knight moved here from San Diego, she was shocked by the cultural and class divisions. This went a long way in informing the character she plays in Whittier's Children's Theater Company's "Snapshot Silhouette," which opens Friday, March 19.

"Snapshot Silhouette" depicts the tension between the local Somali and black communities. While some may see the two ethnic groups as similar -- both are dark-skinned and are from or their descendants came from Africa -- the two cultures vastly differ in experience, religion and point of view.

These differences, and all the conflicts that can come with them, manifest in the relationship of two young girls -- one Somali, "Najma," and one African-American, "Tay C."

Knight plays "Damac," Najma's older cousin and guardian. With no room for another family member in Damac's overcrowded apartment, she sends Najma to live with her extended family -- Tay C's family. Much to Tay C's disliking, the two girls share a bedroom.

Culture shock

Knight's first visit to Minneapolis was in 1980 for a role in Mixed Blood Theater's "Tuesday." After a short stint back in San Diego, Knight accepted an invitation from artistic director Jack Reuler to join Mixed Blood for an entire season in 1981.

The Twin Cities artistic community appealed to the actress, and she's lived here every since. Nevertheless, like Damac, Knight experienced a good deal of culture shock between sunny Southern California and this dominantly Scandinavian winterland.

"My experience was not as dramatic as Damac's, but it does remind me of a time when I questioned myself about who I really was and how I fit in," said Knight.

Knight said she was shocked when white people told her she was the first black person they'd ever talked to. The economic division between young black professionals brought here by corporations and black minimum wage workers took her aback as well.

Over time, Knight found her place within the mix. "As an artist, you get to straddle the two classes," Knight said, "because I had the consciousness of a professional but the budget of a laborer."

Currently, she is the only black full-time member of the Children's Theater Company (CTC), located at 2400 3rd Ave. S. Knight said she appreciates CTC's artistic director Peter Brosius's true commitment to multiculturalism.

"[Brosius] wants to make sure CTC doesn't become just an isolated Anglo picture. They strive for representation of the realities of the rest of the worlds in their productions," Knight said. "I think [playwright Kia Corthron] has touched a lot of issues with real sensitivity through these two girls. 'Snapshot Silhouette' is beautifully written."

Coming together

In addition to playing Damac, Knight acts as fight captain for the play, overseeing the scene in which Najma and Tay C physically lash out at each other. "There is an art to stage fighting, and it has to be choreographed very carefully both for safety and an authentic look," said Knight, who is also a professional choreographer.

After violent incidents between Somalis and blacks at Minneapolis high schools, local media paid a fair amount of attention to the conflict between Somali and black communities. However, New York playwright Kia Corthron's CTC-commissioned script seeks to not only explore the differences, but to heal this rift.

"Everybody is struggling with this issue between the two groups, so it takes some profound conversations and some profound coming together to resolve it. This play is an effort in that direction," Knight said.

CTC brought in Somali advisers to run workshops to ensure an accurate representation of their culture on stage. Cast members learned some Somali words, phrases and customs. Knight noted that some American gestures offend Somali people and vice versa. For example, in Somalia, it is impolite to point the sole of one's foot or shoe at another person, and a "thumbs up" is considered obscene.

Cast members learned that some Somalis see American blacks as the cause of society's problems and crime. In turn, blacks often misinterpret Somali dress, gestures and language, seeing Somali people as arrogant and antagonistic. Add to this the fact that Somalis and blacks are often competing for the same jobs and that despite their cultural differences and competition many white people lump them into the same group, and it's easy to see how a powder keg could develop.

However, "Snapshot Silhouette" moves beyond the broader analysis, zooming in on the lives of Najma and Tay C. Eventually, the two work through their differences and find much more in common than they thought they had and forge a deep friendship.

"That is the beauty of theater, you can tell a story on a very human level and present it to an audience with beauty and humor and tenderness," Knight said.

"Snapshot Silhoutte" runs March 19-April 17 at various dates and times. Tickets are $10-$28. For more information or to make reservations, call 874-0400 or log on to www.childrenstheater.org.