Shakespeare in the Streets: Bevo Mill
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival shares stories from the city's vital immigrant portal
By Tori Rezek | Aug. 19, 2022
You probably know the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival for its free summertime performances in Forest Park. But their work continues well past the summer months. The theater’s year-long story-gathering project “Shakespeare in the Streets” celebrates the places and people that make St. Louis so special.
Each year the Festival explores the history and impact of a distinct community. Festival artists collect personal narratives from people who call that community “home”, and a playwright molds those stories into a new play inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays. Community members join professional actors on stage for three free performances presented right in the city streets.
September’s upcoming show focuses on South St. Louis’s Bevo Mill neighborhood. Settled by German immigrants in the 1850s, the neighborhood was galvanized by the creation of Das Bevo Biergarten, built by Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch Sr. in 1917 and adding a 60′-tall windmill to the South City skyline. Today the Biergarten hosts makers markets, a rousing beer choir, the annual Oktoberfest celebration, and more. The windmill remains an iconic South City landmark.
In the late 1990s, thousands fleeing the Bosnian War settled in the neighborhood, making St. Louis home to the second largest concentration of Bosnians in the world. Bevo Mill’s population increased by 5% from 1990 to 2000, and a thriving “Little Bosnia” emerged. In 2013, residents dedicated a replica of the Sarajevo Sebilj – an ornate fountain traditionally built at important crossroads – opposite the windmill at the intersection of Gravois Ave. and Morgan Ford Rd.
Today Bevo Mill is one of St. Louis’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. The neighborhood remains a vital immigrant portal, welcoming people from all over the world. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival artists collected stories from past and current residents, business owners, and newcomers. Ermina Grbic, Owner of Grbic Restaurant and Private Events, shared, “I came to St. Louis from Bosnia 40 years ago, after marrying my husband Suli. In the 80s, we were some of the first Bosnians in the city. When more and more Bosnian refugees came over in the 90s, we helped them get settled here. We guided them at the first step. Like a baby taking their first steps – you have to hold their hands. And I held everybody’s hand when they came here.”
The Festival also partnered with Oasis International, a service organization that provides refugees with housing and furniture, teaches English language classes, and hosts community-wide events. Refugees from Afghanistan, Liberia, Eritrea, Bhurma, and the Congo shared their stories in listening circles and in one-on-one interviews with Festival artists. Oasis International’s Founder Mark Akers said, “Community is one of the most important – and most missed – aspects of life for many refugee families.” This story-gathering project offered a unique opportunity for longtime community members and newcomers to gather, share their stories, and connect with their neighbors.
Drama Desk-nominated St. Louis playwright Deanna Jent has incorporated the history of Bevo and the stories of its people into the new play “Winds of Change”, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. In Shakespeare’s comedy, long-lost twins – both named Antipholus – arrive in the same city without either knowing of the other’s existence. The two Antipholuses also have twin servants, both named Dromio, adding to the confusion.
Jent’s St. Louis take on the play is set in modern day Bevo Mill during the neighborhood’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. The two sets of twins were separated by war in their childhood. One set remained in their home country working for the Red Cross: now they travel to St. Louis in search of their missing family. The other set of twins, unbeknownst to the first, has been in St. Louis all along. Amidst hijinks and mistaken identities, separated family members reconnect and newcomers find a place to call home.
The cast includes professional actors alongside community members. Mark Akers of Oasis International, Fr. Mitch Doyen of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, and Bosnian singer Edo Sadikovic all make appearances.
Free performances of “Winds of Change” take place September 22, 23, and 24 at 8 p.m. near the landmark intersection of Gravois Ave. and Morgan Ford Rd. Visit stlshakes.org for additional information.