This inspiring play shows how a child’s imagination can thrive — even in war

After last fall’s sold-out shows, playwright and performer Ifrah Mansour is bringing back her solo work How to Have Fun in a Civil War this week.
The play, which includes and is inspired by some of Mansour’s personal experiences, tells the story of war through a child’s eyes. That means that the focus isn’t always on the trauma and violence that it inevitably brings. “I remember all the cool things,” Mansour says, “like finding a stick to play with, or the 20-seat car, and playing with the other children.” There is also the time her aunt gave birth and a memory of another female relative bringing her fancy furniture with her and being so worried about it getting damaged.

“I’m really interested in people being people, even in the most harsh times,” Mansour says.

Born in Saudi Arabia in 1987, Mansour moved with her family to Somalia’s capitol when she was a young girl, just before a civil war erupted in the country.

“When the war broke out, a lot of people’s families who weren’t from the capitol were essentially being kicked out of the city,” Mansour says. “My family was one of those people.”

They had to move quickly, so they headed toward her aunt’s home. “We started walking to her house,” Mansour recalls. “I don’t know what we were thinking.” They left without their passports, but, oddly, with sugar in hand. “We were leaving our house as if we were going to a friend’s house.”

During their long journey, the family stopped many times to hide. First, they went to a marketplace, as they were seen as safe locations. There, they got a ride with a relative. Along the way, they met another relative who had to go a different route because, as a government worker, he was more in danger. “If you were prominent and people knew your face, you were literally being hunted down,” says Mansour.
Since she was so young at the time, Mansour’s memories aren’t always crystal clear. “When you are seven or eight, time exists in a different world,” she says.

As she has gone through the process of remembering her experience, she’s reached out to other family members to share their memories. For the play, she also interviewed other people from Somalia, and audio voiceovers of their experiences are part of the piece. The stories “help the little girl understand what is happening,” she says. “That was intentional. It speaks to a shared conflict.”

Finding interviewees was one of Mansour’s biggest challenges. “I had to sweet talk them to make the time,” she says. Part of that meant assuring the Somali community members she interviewed that they could remain anonymous, and that their stories wouldn’t be exploited. KFAI donated studio space for the recordings, which allowed for an intimate quality. “It was important for me to create these audios as individualized and unique as possible,” Mansour says.

How to Have Fun in a Civil War debuted at the Minnesota State Fair in 2015. At that point, the play was only 10-minutes long, and employed the use of the puppet. Now, a year and a half later, Mansour herself plays the main character, a young girl of about six or seven. She also takes on the roles of other family members. Mansour’s memories are supplemented with the audio voiceovers of people she interviewed for the project.

“I’ve always wanted to create a work that has a multi-generational storytelling element to it,” Mansour says.

To get into the part of a child, Mansour has also been observing her own nephew. “I’ve been secretly watching him and turning him into my lovely guinea pig,” she says. “He has no filter.”

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