Popular culture

Fatuma Adar picks up the narrative on Dixon Road

The rising star of the scene’s new musical changes the perspective of a historic district

Samuel Engelking

DIXON ROAD book, music and lyrics by Fatuma Adar, directed by Ray Hogg. Presented by Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theater Company, in association with Canadian Stage at the High Park Amphitheater (1873 Bloor West). Previews from June 3, opens June 9 and closes June 19. $5 – $49. canadianscene.com

For decades, the small neighborhood of Dixon, located in the west of the city, has endured unfair stories. Once known as a hub for wealthy white families, in the early 1990s it became a place of refuge for Somalis fleeing war – and this instantly created tension for the community. In 2013, after Toronto’s incumbent mayor Rob Ford was caught smoking crack, the neighborhood was dragged into political turmoil.

But one writer wants us to see the community for what it is. Fatuma Adar developed Dixon Road at the Musical Stage Company and the Obsidian Theater Company. The multifaceted musical tells the story of a family that settles on Dixon Road after experiencing a civil war in Somalia.

“It was hard for me to do the research that I had to do and see all of this,” Adar tells NOW in a video call. She has just finished a day’s work at the Istar restaurant. We reflect on the anti-Somali sentiments that have prevailed in the city, particularly after Ford’s crack-gate criminalized the neighborhood. She holds back tears as she speaks. “I know that story…I’ve seen how we’ve been portrayed in the media, and it’s tough.”

Adar — who is a writer, playwright, and Dixon native — forces the town to reimagine the narratives and tropes of his former home neighborhood through his musical. Combining music, lyrics and literature, Dixon Road forces us to approach the misunderstood and historic neighborhood from another angle.

“Dixon is a historic landmark for the Somali community,” Adar said. “This is the first place we settled. If it was another community, there would probably already have been a plaque. »

Imagining herself in the theater world was once impossible for Adar, who rarely had access to popular culture outside of what was on some television channels. “That’s where my family would settle outside of the crop. I really [couldn’t afford] go to the cinema, apart from once or twice a year, not to mention being able to afford cinemas.

Adar took a career leap in 2017 when she moved to New York and joined the third cohort of The Bars Workshop at The Public Theatre. The program was directed by Daveed Diggs (Hamilton of Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Rafael Casal (HBO Def Jam Poet). She was also on the long list of CBC’s Creative Nonfiction Prize. Earlier this year, it was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award (Best Web Show or Series, Fiction).

But it wasn’t until she saw Miranda’s In The Heights, based on a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, that she saw musicals set in a marginalized neighborhood and community as a possibility. Soon after, she began writing Dixon Road.

Fatuma Adar represents Dixon Road
Samuel Engelking

“I haven’t seen a lot of theater growing up. I wasn’t sure what this world had in store for me. But I’ve always loved musicals because it’s a theatrical medium that kind of crossed over into film and television.

Adar’s way of subverting a tradition once considered “high culture” is to challenge stereotypes of communities rendered invisible, as she did in her recent musical, She’s Not Special, which deals with the commodification of black trauma in the theatrical space.

When creating Dixon Road, the playwright wondered how her community would access history, let alone feel received in a historically white milieu.

“Theatre isn’t really something our community has embraced – and why should they?” Adar asks. “They haven’t seen their stories on stage. It’s not accessible.”

But the institutional barriers that Adar identified in the world of theater showed up in the process of making Dixon Road, particularly with regards to casting. Despite all attempts, she was unable to locate Somali actors for the musical.

“I wrote it imagining Somalis in a Somali house. And, as you continue to work, you begin to realize that some systems weren’t in place to make that happen.

“How are Somalis going to know that musical theater is something they can do without a show about them existing at all?”

Despite this hurdle, Adar selected a cast that actively engaged his direction on how to portray Somali culture and way of life.

Growing up in a black diaspora city was enough to sustain Adar through a difficult and isolating trajectory. “Toronto’s arts community is filled with really lovely people. Charming and supportive. »

This support was also offered by other artists who once lived in Dixon, such as K’naan.

“I felt really grateful that he was the first person I could come into contact with who was from my community and also a storyteller that I looked up to. [It meant a lot to me] for him to say “what you’re doing is awesome – keep it up”.

Over the years, the two have stayed in touch, and the artist has maintained his support for the emerging playwright. “If these people didn’t tell me I was good, I probably wouldn’t continue.”

But Adar did, and through the comedy and music of Dixon Road, she forces us to sit down with difficult conversations.

“I think it’s very Somali to find humor in the dark,” she says. “Even the toughest problems are met with levity as a form of survival.”