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"Little Bosnia" is personal for many actors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When the Avalon Theatre Company announced auditions for its spring production of "Little Bosnia," excitement buzzed in the St. Louis Bosnian community. Four actors from the former Yugoslavia were chosen, some performing for the first time. They jumped at the chance to interpret a familiar story, one they've often encountered in their community and lives.

The play’s main character, Faris, explores a struggle common to young immigrants who come here as children, as they step into adulthood and pursue their dreams and careers as Americans. Their elders want to keep them connected to their culture and homelands, often creating frustration and, sometimes, a sense of resentment.

“I can actually relate to Faris,” said Anela Islamovic, a 20-year-old Bosnia native who plays Maja, a bartender Faris meets during his trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. “I came here very young, as he did, yet I never forgot my roots or where I came from. Faris sometimes feels torn between Bosnia and America, which I felt many times growing up.”

Islamovic took an early interest in theater and musicals. She participated in school plays and musical productions throughout elementary school and at Bayless High School. From there, she worked with the Meramec Community College’s theater, Family Musical Theatre and Take Two Productions. “This is my first show with Avalon,” she said, adding that she is particularly touched by the story of "Little Bosnia." “I see a lot of resemblance. This play is a very accurate and touching story a lot of Bosnians go through as they come to America to have a better life.”

In "Little Bosnia," it is not until Faris actually sees Bosnia as an adult, after the war, that he has a much deeper understanding of his grandmother’s intentions and forms his own connection to his ethnicity. Islamovic relates well to this situation, as she prepares for her first visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina since she left the country 15 years ago. "I feel like this play came right on time. I can't wait to go back to see where I'm from,” she said. “I was only 4-years-old when we left due to the war, so I really don't remember much.  I just think I'm going to have an eye-opening experience when I go back for the first time as an adult, and that this experience will give more meaning to my life.”

For 31-year-old Elma Mujanovic, a native of Teslic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the story of "Little Bosnia" brings a chance to perform for a theater for the very first time. “My friend, Hasse, who loves theater, thought I would be perfect for it, and made me go to auditions,” she said. “This play is important to perform for the American culture because it will familiarize them with some of the struggles immigrants have to go through, and hopefully get them better acquainted with the Bosnian culture.” Mujanovic was a college student when she came to St. Louis in 1999.

Saso Cemerski, who plays Faris’ best friend Admir, sees "Little Bosnia" as a private tale of getting in touch with your roots no matter where you are from. “It’s a very universal story you’ll find in any immigrant community,” he said. “We all have a place that we go back to, sometimes physically, sometimes just in our minds -- and while discovering that place, we learn about ourselves.”

Cemarski, 31, originally from Belgrade, Serbia, immigrated to St. Louis in 2003. In Belgrade, he performed for the local amateur theater Teatar Levo for about seven years. Landing the role of Admir presented him the opportunity to play for an American theater for the first time. “I am thrilled to have this chance to revive the great feeling of making a play,” he said. “ It is amazing to be on the stage with the other cast members, all of which bring something special and make this project so great.”

Also appearing in the production is Mirza Halilovic, who was born in Bosnia, a short walk from the border with Serbia. He is the understudy for Faris and a puppeteer in the play. Jason Contini, who plays Faris, is a native St. Louisan. A member of Actor's Equity, he has appeared in more than 60 stage productions throughout the Midwest. Susie Wall, who has performed at many theaters in the region, is making her debut with the Avalon Theatre Company. Theresa Hermann is returning to the Avalon, having appeared in the staged reading of "The Women."

The play is directed by Larry Mabry, artistic director of the Avalon. Karyn Joy DeYoung is the assistant director, and Kim Gifford is the stage manager. Dan Rubright, who has been on the music faculty at Webster University for about 20 years, wrote the original score.

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