The promise of America remains a beacon of light to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... homeless, tempest-tossed,” as it states on our Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor.
In St. Louis, we lifted our lamp to thousands of Bosnian immigrants fleeing ethnic cleansing in their former Yugoslavian homeland after the Bosnian War 1992-1995.
Today, more than 70,000 Bosnians live in St. Louis as productive citizens — hard-working business owners, laborers, students, cooks, nurses and tutors. It is the largest population of Bosnians outside of Europe.
Their journeys are reflected in “Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life,” an original short play written by Deanna Jent based on personal interviews.
The play grew out of Fontbonne’s Bosnian Memory Project, which recorded dialogue and preserved customs of many refugees.
Part allegory, part memory play, “The Dance for Life” combines pathos and humor, heartbreak and hope, and politics and oppression into a universal story.
With passion and grace, the cast takes on multiple roles in a series of vignettes, underneath a stunning brick wall replication of a Bosnian family restaurant, not unlike Grbic’s in south city, with Kyra Bishop’s set featuring a stunning stained glass as its centerpiece.
In this ultimate tale of life and love, we join young Bosnians who have acclimated to American society while they talk old and new lives at a local coffee shop. Adults flashback to the scary hatred of ultra-nationalist militants waging a genocidal war 20 years ago. A loving grandmother relates a folk tale to their plight.
With warmth and humor, they share their first impressions of St. Louis, note learning English to the Three Stooges and adapting to American behavior they watched on “Friends.”
They are proud Bosnian-Americans, retaining the old culture but embracing the new. Director Adam Flores has integrated the parts into a strong presentation, engaging us with the authenticity of the people and their genuine stories.
Bosnian performers Elvedin Arnautovic, Arnela Bogdanic, and Amir Salesevic work seamlessly with veteran actors Katie Donnelly, Melissa Gerth (impressive as a dancing lamb, too), Andrew Kuhlman, Bob Thibaut, Carly Uding, Mary Schnitzler and Agnes Wilcox fervently committed to telling these stories.
The play is only 45 minutes. I would have enjoyed even more stories, and I hope this celebration of diversity will continue in new and different ways. “Bosnian-American: The Dance for Life” is a good way to begin, and build bridges between people.
It is a modern tale, not unlike those who came to America in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, believing in our country as an ideal, the land of the free and home of the brave.
"Bosnian/American: The Dance of Life"
- When: Through May 1
- Where: Mustard Seed Theatre, Fontbonne University, 6800 Wydown, St. Louis
- Information: www.mustardseedtheatre.org or 314-719-8060