Community Creativity Conversations is an audio series that features cultural leaders who are making art central to problem solving on more issues in more communities. Learn from Midwesterners who are making intersectional change, addressing racism and inequity, and bringing people together through creativity and art.
First up, hear from Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarjan, cofounders of Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Writer and radio producer Leah Lemm spoke with these innovative creators about a project they’re working on to fight gentrification and displacement in South Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd.
Listen to the audio interview:
This conversation was recorded as part of a Community Creativity Cohort convening in March 2021. The Cohort is a group of 40 organizations who are making art central to their community building efforts, funded by the Bush Foundation and operated by Arts Midwest.
Pangea World Theater’s 2019 production of Mother Courage and her Children. Photo by Bruce Silcox.
Setting the Stage
Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarjan
Located near the intersection of West Lake Street and Lyndale in Minneapolis, MN, Pangea World Theater has been an active community presence since the mid-1990s. Pangea World Theater creates intercultural, sacred theater that stands for intersectionality and justice. It holds performances and conversations, and it hosts many ways to be involved and to learn. Pangea also partners with other organizations, helping to build community among organizations with related goals.
Executive and Artistic Director, Meena Natarjan describes the naming of the theater as a reflection on the world before the separation of lands. “Pangea is the landmass that existed before drift happened, when the whole world was one landmass. And we took our name to really bring people from across the world together, multiple languages, multiple colors, multiple ways of being, multiple ways of seeing the world.”
Pangea seeks to bridge divides.
A Tough Year
The theater was founded in 1995 and set to celebrate its 25th year throughout 2020. The year’s celebration plans turned into, as Meena describes, the “COVID cocoon.” Theaters were among the first to feel the effects of the pandemic barreling down on the planet, as Broadway shuttered its doors, and many, if not all, performing artists faced cancelled commitments and work.
And if one virus were not enough, Minneapolis faced another; but this time, distance and hand-washing wouldn’t help.
The murder of Mr. George Floyd in broad daylight on May 25th, 2020, by a former Minneapolis police officer, undeniably revealed the epidemic of white supremacy culture in systems that are supposed to protect the lives of all.
The reverberations of this killing were felt around the world. Mourning, unrest, peaceful protest, righteous anger, rioting, and destruction swept through Minneapolis and dozens of other cities. Images flooded of fires and fighting flooded the news. People stood against tear gas and tyranny. Others took advantage and destroyed neighborhood businesses and more.
When Mr. George Floyd was murdered, so brutally, in Minneapolis, it had a very, very profound effect on our community.
- Dipankar Mukherjee
“We Saw Our Own Neighborhoods Burning”
Pangea World Theater rents a space on West Lake Street in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, which is just over a two-mile walk northwest of George Floyd Square. Meena says they live along Lake Street as well, in a spot very close to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct building that was destroyed in the uprising. The Third Precinct is in the Northwest corner of what is considered Downtown Longfellow.
The neighborhood area of Downtown Longfellow is a triangular region that runs along Snelling Avenue, stretching to East Lake Street on the Northern edge. This area was home to many restaurants and cultural learning centers, including Midori’s Floating World Cafe, Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, Migizi, and more.
Meena and Dipankar became involved in the flurry that followed the murder of Mr. George Floyd; they stood guard overnight, protecting the buildings in their area from the destruction. They witnessed white supremacists coming into their neighborhood in vehicles without license plates. Restaurants and the other places of business owners they’d worked with, where they had hosted joyful benefits and events, were burned down.
During this time, however, they also saw the support of the community. Dipankar tells a simple story that highlights the deep-rooted connections among people.
One of the many community gathering spaces to burn down was the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, located near the intersection of East Lake Street and 27th Avenue South. Pangea World Theater and Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, and its owner Ruhel Islam, have a relationship that dates back a decade. In fact, they’ve been supportive of one another’s work, and have been in talks about sharing a building. When the building stood in ruin, cleanup efforts began. As they worked to salvage items from Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, they realized that they had very limited garage space, not enough to allow them to store all the chairs and plates and so on that were able to be saved.
Dipankar says they reached out to neighbors on their community list to ask for help in storing the chairs and other items for the time being. The response was overwhelmingly supportive; people responded that they would clean up their garage immediately to make space, BIPOC and non-BIPOC alike.
Through the destruction, the sense of community remained intact and strong; helping one another, looking out for one another. Much was destroyed, though not the sense of community, and that is what they hope to build on going forward.
A Lake Street residence during 2020 protests. Photo credit: Chad Davis / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
No Longer “Business As Usual”
I just know that this is my house, and my house just burned.
- Dipankar Mukherjee.
Longfellow Rising is a collection of business owners and local leaders, which was formed to help business owners in Downtown Longfellow rebuild their community. Pangea World Theater is a partner organization, and Meena is on the board of directors.
Meena says, “So much has been destroyed. We are in a position actually to dream a little bit and say, okay, let’s create those spaces. Let’s create a space of belonging for everyone in that neighborhood.”
Since July of 2020, the committed group of church leaders, business leaders, activists, and others in Longfellow Rising, has met regularly and is answering the question: How do we rebuild this area in an equitable and just way?
What comes up as a significant theme in the listening sessions held by Longfellow Rising is that people want to prioritize BIPOC ownership in the area, in terms of both owning real estate and belonging in the space. Instead of real estate investors from far and wide buying up all the properties, Longfellow Rising wants to see residents have ownership. They want to create a place of belonging for everyone in the neighborhood. They want to attract a diverse community to the area with social gatherings and common space. They dream of sustainable development and green spaces, places for families, and so much more. The list goes on, and empowers those whose livelihoods, families, commitments, and community ties anchor them to the area. It’ll take action, healing, and community
What can bring an idea into reality? What has the power to heal? What has the power to bring people together? Art.
True and lasting art. Not art that cements in the status quo of injustice, erasure, and silencing. Not placeholder art that provides a transition point between real estate exchanges, but art that is both medicine and transformational.
First and foremost, there is the recognition that the land Downtown Longfellow is built on is Indigenous land. One of the very first art commissions for Downtown Longfellow is by an Indigenous artist, Angela Two Stars (Dakota, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate). The piece focuses on metamorphosis and transformation. It’ll be an interactive public art project at the Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits site, owned by Steve and Jason Krause. The location is also directly across from where the MPD’s Third Precinct stood.
The art piece is participatory, with people and groups invited to be a part of the making of the sculpture. Those who want to be a part of the project are asked to write their feelings, hopes, and dreams on tiles that will then be built into the design. The input process is ongoing throughout the Summer of 2021.
This transformative process through art is really the beginning of ensuring representation is built into the foundation of Downtown Longfellow.
Community members breaking ground on Angela Two Stars’ Transition State. Photo by Meena Natarjan.
Commitment to Reimagining Forward
Longfellow Rising and partner organizations like Pangea World Theater are committed to honoring the stories of the original people of the land, the neighborhood, the community, and those who’ve sacrificed on its behalf.
Meena recalls running into an older white man, whose name is unknown, whom she met outside of Midori’s Floating World Cafe during the uprising. This was during the time when she and Dipankar were helping with cleanup in the area, moving chairs and salvaged items to where they could be stored.
As she talked to the man, who she guessed was in his seventies, she found out he had been in prison and was currently carrying all his worldly belongings in his rucksack. She noticed that one of his hands was entirely burned. She asked him how it got burned, and he told her his story. He told her of how he had seen a white supremacist throwing a Molotov cocktail into the building where Midori’s was located. He then ran inside the burning building to help the chef at Midori’s escape, and was burned in the process.
Stories like these are the ones that will endure in Downtown Longfellow with the committed efforts of those who have the community-based vision for the neighborhood. These stories will be written into the history and the foundation of the community going forward. For those who have created, built, lived, pained, and dreamed for these city blocks, they will be at home.
Pangea’s performance of The Missouri River Water Walk in May 2021. Photo by Bruce Silcox.
There are challenges on the way, but we have made a commitment that whatever happens, we will not leave with residue in our soul. We will work through it. We are stitching it with threads of steel.
- Dipankar Mukherjee
Pangea World Theater
Community Creativity Cohort
The Community Creativity Cohort is a group of 40 organizations who are making art central to their community building efforts. The Cohort is funded by the Bush Foundation and operated by Arts Midwest. This conversation was recorded as part of the Community Creativity Cohort convening in March 2021.