It would be hard to think of a theatrical venue more integrated into its local community than Powderhorn’s In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (located at 1500 E Lake St, Mpls). The collective is best known for its annual MayDay Parade, a massive event involving enormous, colorful puppets, performers of all ages, and a unique storyline for each year’s pageant -- performed in Powderhorn Park after a march along Bloomington Avenue past spectators of all ages.
So it’s little surprise that when Lake Street was scheduled for reconstruction (a massive six-year project that has cut off traffic to the west from the thoroughfare), the company decided to stage their own unique investigation of Lake Street and all it has to offer. The result is “Lake Street Excavations,” a site-specific series of performances that take place at various stops along a walking tour of three blocks in the Bloomington-Lake neighborhood, where the theater is located.
From 6:30 until almost dusk, audiences stroll along from one stop to the next on the tour, which is really as much of a showcase of local businesses and community members as it is a series of puppet performances, each in a new venue. Separated into color-coded groups, ticketholders visit the same eight locations, arriving at each in a different order, led by an individual tour guide responsible for each group.
The tour begins for everyone, of course, at the historic Avalon Theater, better known to most as the home of In the Heart of the Beast. There, the audience is treated to “a time lapse view of Lake Street from an ancient animal path to a modern thoroughfare with thousands of people, cars, and bicycles traveling upon it every day.” As always with HOTB, minimalism wins the day. Somehow, the down-to-earth, bare-bones approach of live drums, spoken word, and miniature keyboard accompanying two-dimensional cutouts of different generations of people gliding back and forth across a puppet-size stage quietly makes its impact.
Stepping out of the Avalon onto the Lake Street of today, the experience of standing where so many have stood and walked before is brought home. Still the path between the river and the lake, the road today is paved and noisy, filled with the sound of trucks and buses, car horns and the hum one always associates with a city. Our guide pauses, asking us to listen to the Lake Street of today, and invites us to imagine the quiet of this place hundreds of years ago.
If nothing else, the next seven stops underscore the diversity of South Minneapolis today. The businesses and landmarks themselves tell a tale of immigration, from the Swedes who formed the Gustavus Adolphus Society and Norwegians like Charles Ingebretsen, who arrived in Minneapolis and opened a butcher shop in 1921, to the Somalis, Mexicans, and natives of many Latin American countries who have settled here and are serving food and selling traditional wares on Lake Street.
The theme of arrival and adaptation is taken up by a short puppet play performed entirely in Spanish at Me Gusta Place, across the street from the Avalon. The story follows the life of the elderly Don Pedrito, who is seen riding a Metro Transit bus and telling of all the adventures that brought him to the United States, and kept him here through a myriad of occupations. The play was created and performed by Patricia Mendoza with the help of Jose Maquin; English subtitles are offered for those who don‚t understand Spanish.
At the Taleh Grocery, spoken-word artist and musician Roy McBride offers some words about Lake Street in a performance accompanied by audience members playing an eclectic mix of percussive instruments. Part poetry, part narrative of his own memories of cruising Lake Street as a younger man, McBride’s contribution reinforces the feeling that this excavation of Lake Street is uncovering more than old cobblestones and architecture; the history of the place still exists in the memory of those who have spent years here.
The performance at La Poblanita is a celebration of water, and the pipes and faucets that bring it from the Mississippi River to the citizens of Minneapolis. Performed by Malia Burkhart and Cesar Morales, it culminates in an offering of cups of water to those needing to quench their thirst on a hot summer day.
Ramon Cordes and Qamar Sadik-Saud perform “Solidarity Forever, For Our Union Makes Us Strong” at the Northland Poster Collective, a tribute to the many labor and social justice movements that have been instrumental in effecting change. With posters designed by collective artists as visual cues, the piece is a crash course in the history that is often left out of high school textbooks.
The tour is surprisingly packed with information and new sights and experiences, for being located in such a small geographic area. Who knew, for example, that hidden within the Wells Fargo Bank building is the fully functioning Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center, which seeks to make health care accessible to people of all cultures, languages, and backgrounds? Or that Ingebretsen‚s has been on Lake Street for over 80 years? How many knew of the loss of the Gustavus Adolphus building to fire in 2004, a tragedy reflected on in a sidewalk memorial created by Soozin Hirschmugl and Meg Novak of the Babylon Art Collective?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the discovery of the brand new ballroom in Celebration Hall at Plaza Verde, just down the block from the Avalon. It‚s a space jointly purchased and renovated by In the Heart of the Beast, the Neighborhood Development Center, and the Latino Economic Development Center. “Lake Street Excavations” ends there with food, drink, and a joyous burst of energy -- beware to those with tired feet! The tour guides are unrelenting in their recruitment of all those entering the room to join them on the dance floor.
If you think you know Minneapolis but have never really walked on Lake Street, this is a chance to really glimpse the inner heart of the city. Lake Street Excavations” will show you what you’ve been missing, and they’ll do it with style.