Young playwright captures the heart of Toronto’s Somali-Canadian community in new musical

When Fatuma Adar thinks of the home, her memories are filled with the sight and sound of Toronto’s Dixon Road community, its beloved convenience stories, aunts who would run daycare from their apartments, and a neighborhood whose character she has never quite been able to find others places.

Adar, a 30-year-old first-time playwright, grew up at the intersection of Dixon Road and Kipling Avenue, known as Little Mogadishu.

Now she brings the personal stories to the stage Dixon Road, a musical inspired by the Dixon Road community, Adar’s personal experience, and her relationship with her father, who came to Canada with her own hopes and dreams.

The musical follows a Somali family’s journey that immigrated to Canada in 1991, when a civil war begins to tear through their homeland, forcing many to flee and eventually settle in Dixon Road, near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

“The big joke is that Dixon was like the closest thing to the airport. It was just an intuitive, ‘We want to go to those towers right there’, as you know, also tracks [for us] as a nomadic people, “Adar said.

Fatuma Adar, a young first-time playwright, grew up at the intersection of Dixon Road and Kipling Avenue, known as Little Mogadishu. She was inspired by the Dixon community to create the musical Dixon Road. (CBC)

The musical explores the dynamics between a father learning to navigate a new world in Canada and his daughter seeking her own options – one that reflects Adar’s own relationship with his father, Mohamed Adar.

“It’s a dynamic of what it means to take care of each other, to listen to each other, to find each other,” Adar said.

“It’s been incredible figuring out what’s at the core of making your parents proud and making your parents proud of you.”

Make Dixon Road home

Mohamed Adar fled Somalia in the late 1980s after the outbreak of the Civil War and sought asylum in the United States before coming to Canada.

When he arrived, the Dixon Road community was still very small at the time, Adar said, before it became a magnet for many Somali families arriving in Toronto.

After getting a job as a taxi driver, he became the neighborhood’s “go-to” person and wanted to help other Somali newcomers settle in and navigate the city, his daughter recalled.

For families fleeing the civil war in Somalia at the time, it was important to be able to create a community in Canada that they could call home, she said, why the close community adopted the neighborhood as their own.

While her family would end up moving in and around the city, the Dixon community remained just as important wherever they went, Adar said.

‘I will always remember it as the first place to welcome my family and create a legacy from what Little Mogadishu becomes,’ says Adar. (CBC)

In the musical, the father – a documentary filmmaker at home – arrives in Canada before realizing that he cannot achieve the same level of status as he had in Somalia.

“Besides trying to navigate this new world, he has his daughter who sees new opportunities for herself, and what does it mean for her to go after her dreams when her father has lost so much of his?” Adar explains.

“I hope [others] find themselves in the story of what many diasporic children are going through, who are the sacrifices our parents have made to come to this country, “she said.

Dixon Road, co-produced by the Musical Stage Company and the Obsidian Theater Company, has been underway for several years.

When something does not exist, you just have to manage it.– Fatuma Adar

When she was growing up, Adar remembers watching Disney movies and falling in love with musicals, but says she never saw her own experience reflected on screen – so she decided to write it.

“When something does not exist, you just have to deal with it,” Adar said. “We’re inherently a fun, energetic community with musical tendencies, with rhythmic poetry, so I just gave it a try.”

Esie Mensah, a Ghanaian artist and director of Dixon Road, tells stories like this to be on stage.

“To me, it reflects the history of the immigrant, it reflects the story of so many people about why they came here,” Mensah said. “So it’s really beautiful to get into who these people are and their impression of what it means to be Canadian.”

Esie Mensah, a Ghanaian artist and director of Dixon Road, tells stories like Adar’s need to be on stage. (CBC)

Adar said the team is currently developing the story and choosing the music.

“It’s so exciting to work with Esie, who has been a revelatory addition to the project of finding out what’s at the heart of this story,” Adar said.

“It’s rare to work with another African female instructor, so it’s a bit iconic.”

Mensah said she relates to Adar’s story when she also told her parents who immigrated to Canada that she wanted to pursue a career in the arts.

“Being able to have a bond with history for me is so memorable within my own journey and everything I wanted to be able to show,” Mensah said.

More colored people need to be involved in the art so that stories like these can be captured and taken on stage, she said.

“We need to be storytellers and storytellers in our communities and preserve our cultures while we are here.”

Meanwhile, Adar hopes the play will help show others how her community came to be – and help change the story of the Etobicoke neighborhood, whose narrative has been overshadowed by a gunfight over the years.

“I always knew Dixon Road was where Somalis gathered to celebrate, to have fun, to talk, to have joy,” she said.

“The legacy of Dixon has clearly changed a lot in the last few years. But I will always remember it as the first place where I welcome my family and create a legacy of what Little Mogadishu is becoming.”

Dixon Road will be at the Musical Stage Company next season.

For more stories about black Canadians’ experiences – from anti-black racism to success stories in black society – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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