Imagine you're a kid in Ethiopia and your dream is to be a juggler or an acrobat. You might as well aspire to be a Middle Earth magician, because circus arts are foreign to most in the African continent. What does one even say to Emama (Mom) and Ababa (Dad)?
"They never agreed with it or took it seriously — they just wanted to make sure we studied in school," said Mehari "Bibi" Tesfamariam as he shook his head to imitate his parents' horror. "But now that we're doing it, they understand."
Bibi and his brother, Binyam "Bichu" Shimellis, both jugglers, founded Circus Abyssinia, which brought its first show, "Ethiopian Dreams," to the Children's Theatre Company in 2019. That crowd-pleaser was about their unlikely journey of building a homegrown African circus.
Now the circus, based in Ethiopia and in London, is back with its sophomore effort, "Tulu," which celebrates Olympic gold medalist Derartu Tulu and kicks of CTC's new season Saturday.
"Circus Abyssinia was a big draw for us because they have such an infectious spirit of joy, resilience and family," said CTC artistic director Peter Brosius. "I've had many people ask, when are you bringing them back. Well, at a time when we're all still trying to find our way, this show about how we can all work together to achieve excellence, beauty and virtuosity is just what we need."
The lightbulb for "Tulu" went off during the troupe's Minneapolis engagement. They had a show the day they learned that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who famously appointed women to fill half of ministerial posts in his cabinet, had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"When the Nobel happened, with a lot of women in power, we thought, yes, this is the right time to celebrate women and girls in Africa," said Bichu. "We wanted to honor our mamas, aunties and cousins so we do that through our heroes. Tulu changed athletics throughout Africa."
At 5 feet 1 inch, and tipping the scales at under 100 pounds, Tulu looms large in lore and the African imagination. When she won gold in the 10,000-meter race at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the Ethiopian distance runner became the first African woman to achieve that feat. Ethiopians erupted in joy and many began to emulate her, including the circus brothers.
"The next morning, I was out running and all my friends were running, as well," said Bichu. "Now, at 4 o'clock every morning, the streets are packed from here to yonder, and there are literally millions of people running. Tulu did that."
Tulu won gold again at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and would go on to win marathons in New York, Tokyo and London.
The show has no dialogue — it is a circus, after all — but the music, costumes and acrobatic feats convey information about Tulu's struggles and achievements. She grew up herding cattle in the Ethiopian highlands, a subsistence existence with plenty of narrow escapes. One incident in her life that's represented in the show makes the Olympics look tame by comparison.
"There's a scene where she's chased by a hyena," said Bichu. "That happened."
While the COVID pandemic was disastrous for much of the world, including the families of the circus performers, the brothers found an upside. They had time to work on new ideas, and "Tulu" is the fruit of them.
"We had been touring the world nonstop and didn't have time to create until COVID came," said Bibi. "COVID was a shock for everyone, especially the kids in our company who were supporting families back home. But it was a good break, and we used it."
"Tulu" also was created against a backdrop of the civil war that erupted in Ethiopia in November 2020. The conflict pits the government against the Tigray People's Liberation Front in the country's north. A Belgian-led academic team estimates that 500,000 people have died as a result of battles, disease and starvation.
"It's a bit sad where we are now but it's a perfect time to do 'Tulu,'" Bibi said. The Olympic medalist "always preaches peace, unity and love. So, when people come see the show, they're celebrating life and living."
Where: Children's Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 11 a.m. & 2 p.m. Sat., 2 & 5 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 23.
Tickets: $15-$80. 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org.