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"Little Bosnia" tells a St. Louis story

Union Methodist Church, 3543 Watson Road.
Donna Korando | Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Among the many Bosnian immigrant communities scattered throughout the country, St. Louis is affectionately referred to as Little Bosnia. The St. Louis south side neighborhoods are lined with coffee shops, bakeries and other businesses reminiscent of the native land where the estimated 50,000 Bosnian immigrants, now in St. Louis, once lived. Inspired by this community, the Avalon Theater Company presents the world premiere of a play fittingly titled "Little Bosnia" on April 10-20.

Written by Christina Pippa, with original music by local composer, Dan Rubright, "Little Bosnia" explores the relationship between Zlata, a Bosnian refugee living in St. Louis, and her grandson Faris, as she attempts to reconnect him with his homeland. She urges him to go back to Bosnia-Herzegovina and reclaim an apartment in Sarajevo that belonged to his parents who were killed in the war. Faris, who spent much of his life here and is about to graduate from college, wants to pursue bigger dreams of a career in New York and has little interest in returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Faris’ character explores a common struggle for identity found among young immigrants who come here as children as they step into adulthood; they focus on pursuing their dreams and careers as Americans. Their elders want to keep them connected to their culture and homelands, often creating frustration and, sometimes, a sense of resentment.

In Faris’ case, his grandmother insists on serving the traditional Bosnian coffee; Faris prefers Starbucks. She wants him to eat a good home-cooked meal with lots of meat; Faris prefers to “grab something” while out. Faris speaks English, and when asked by his best friend Adnan if he told his future employer in New York that he is “Bosnian,” Faris briskly replies, “I am American.” It is not until he actually sees Bosnia as an adult, after the war, and he returns to the United States that he has a much deeper understanding of his grandmother’s intentions and forms his own connection to his ethnicity.

The theater’s founders, Erin Kelly and Larry Mabry, commissioned Pippa to write the play.

“Erin and I had the idea to produce a piece on the Bosnian community even before we started Avalon Theatre Company,” said Mabry. “Having lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey, in a variety of diverse communities, we thought it would be good to share some of the Bosnian experience in a theatrical forum.”

Pippa, a St. Louis native who lived in New York at the time, researched her subject through interviews with Bosnian immigrants in St. Louis and in New York. Later, she traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which further helped her create the characters.

“I decided that if I were to write this play, I would need to see Bosnia for myself, to see the place where all these wonderful people I was meeting had come from,” she said. “Each character is based on one or more people that I met here in St. Louis or in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In some cases, qualities of a person I met or their various stories got distributed between a couple of characters.”

Pippa hopes that "Little Bosnia" will remind the audience that nearly all of us, or our families, were immigrants to this country at some point and have experienced similar struggles. “My father is from Sardinia, Italy, and it wasn't until I went there as an 18-year-old that I felt so connected to the place, my family living there, and the culture,” she said. “The character, Faris, certainly portrays this dynamic. I hope that non-Bosnians will be inspired to get to know this amazing community. I find inspiration and perspective in the stories of all the people who survived a war and were brave enough to start anew.”

"Little Bosnia" features a blended cast of St. Louis theater professionals and actors: Saso Cemerski, Jason Contini, Mirza Halilovic, Theresa Hermann, Anela Islamovic, Elma Mujanovic, and Susie Wall. Some are from the St. Louis Bosnian and Former Yugoslav communities.

"Little Bosnia," directed by Larry Mabrey, will be performed at Union Methodist Church, 3543 Watson Road (Between Oleatha & Pernod) between April 11- 20, 2008 (April 10 preview sold out).

Shows start at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Adult tickets are $25, $20 for students/seniors and are available online at www.avalontheatre.org or by phone  at 314-351-6482.

Dijana Groth immigrated from what was then Yugolavia several years before the major influx of refugees. She is the owner of Novella Books and Flowers on South Kingshighway.

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