Pioneer Press

She founded Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company to share her culture

By Sam Jasenosky

The first meal Barbara Brooks ate in Minneapolis was at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s. Shortly after arriving on a flight from New York, Brooks moved into Comstock Hall, then an all-girls dormitory. In the dining hall, a group of girls nearby started to pray and cross themselves before their meal.

Brooks, who grew up in New York and went on to found Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul, hadn't experienced a religion other than her own.

"I thought to myself, 'OK, this is a little bit different,' " Brooks said.

The thought that religion in Minnesota was "a little bit different" from religion in New York would stick with her for years before she did something to change it. Her hometown of Forest Hills, N.Y., had a large Jewish population, but when she moved to Minnesota. Brooks didn't know a single Jewish person.

"I felt there was an undercurrent of racism because people didn't know about each other," she said. "While the Twin Cities were so diverse, they were also very separate."

Brooks eventually settled in the Twin Cities. She worked for St. Paul Public Schools for over a decade, got married, acted occasionally and did commercial work on the side.

Her son was born in 1994. "I nursed him for 11 months, and I was so protective of him. I didn't watch TV or read. Your mind wanders when you're just sitting there in a rocking chair," Brooks said, "and that's when I decided to start the theater.

She decided early on it was important for her son to be able to share his culture with his friends, as she'd been able to do growing up in New York.

"He was in classes that had one, maybe two Jewish children," Brooks said. Some years, he was the only one. "We had to explain why he wasn't going to be in school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- in New York, they close the schools on those days."

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company didn't look like much of a company at first. Although the Hillcrest Center in Highland Park is now MJTC's home, the company's first show was at Catholic Cretin-Derham Hall High School.

"The location didn't really matter though," Brooks said. "I was just so happy people came."

MJTC rented the Hillcrest Center for its second show, and became the center's regular group. Nearly 20 years later, MJTC is the longest-running independent professional Jewish theater in the country, according to Brooks.

Brooks thinks the theater's success has much to do with the fact that those who work with MJTC are compassionate, innovative and collaborative people.

"We have a very set schedule: we stop at 10 p.m., no questions asked," she said. "Some theaters go until 1 or 2 in the morning. How is someone going to turn around the next day and function without any sleep?"

Playwright Hayley Finn, who has directed six plays at MJTC, including the Ivey-winning "Rose," said Brooks is committed to the theater.

"First, she has a committment to tell compelling stories that will connect with the audience," Finn said, "and she has a real committment to artists, which is why so many of the same artists return year after year to work at MJTC."

Actors who work with MJTC have been all over the theatrical world, from Broadway to London, Brooks said. Many of them could work with any theater in the country, but she thinks they choose MJTC because there's something to be gained from working in its environment.

"The actors say it's a different feeling from working at, say, the Guthrie," Brooks said. With over 50 productions under her belt, and nearly all of them having been regional or world premieres, the most rewarding part for her is the commonalities discovered between people with different backgrounds.

Despite the fact that the theater performs shows under Jewish culture, its purpose is to expand perceptions of cultures, Jewish and not.

"People learn something about themselves when they see a show," Brooks said. "Experience is universal, and that comes out in different cultures."

Following a performance put on for kids at a St. Paul school, there was one moment in particular that demonstrated just how powerful messages of cultural acceptance can become when they're sent out artistically, Brooks said. In order to get feedback on shows, MJTC asks teachers have students fill out evaluations. The final question asked students what they learned from the play, and an 8-year-old African-American boy wrote: "I learned why not to hate Jewish people."

"That," Brooks said, "was really something else."