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

When Fatuma Adar thinks of home, her memories are filled with the sights and sounds of Toronto’s Dixon Road community, its beloved convenience stories, aunties who would run daycares from their apartments and a neighbourhood whose character she’s never quite been able to find anywhere else.

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’s bringing those personal stories to the stage in 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 hopes and dreams of his own.

The musical follows the journey of a Somali family that immigrated to Canada in 1991 as 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 just like the closest thing to the airport. It was just an intuitive, ‘We will go to those towers right there,’ which 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 dynamic between a father learning to navigate a new world in Canada and his daughter who’s seeking opportunities of her own — one that mirrors Adar’s own relationship with her 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 to sort of figure out what’s at the heart of making your parents proud and making your parents proud of you.”

Making Dixon Road home

Mohamed Adar fled Somalia in the late 80s after the civil war broke out, seeking asylum in the U.S. 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 cab driver, he became the neighbourhood’s “go-to” person and would help other Somali newcomers get settled 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, which is why the tight-knit community adopted the neighbourhood as their own. 

While her family would end up moving in and around the city, the Dixon community remained just as important no matter where they went, Adar said.

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

In the musical, the father — a documentarian back home — arrives in Canada before realizing he can’t achieve the same level of status he held in Somalia.

“In addition to him trying to navigate this new world, he has his daughter who is seeing 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 a lot of diasporic kids go through, which is the sacrifices our parents made to come to this country,” she said.

Dixon Road, co-produced by the Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company, has been several years in the making.

When something doesn’t exist, you kind of just have to make it.– Fatuma Adar

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 doesn’t exist you kind of just have to make it,” Adar said. “We’re inherently a funny, energetic community with musical tendencies, with rhythmic poetry, so I just gave it a try.”

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

“For me it mirrors the immigrant story, it mirrors the story of so many people as to 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, says stories like Adar’s need to be on stage. (CBC)

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

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

“It’s rare to work with another African woman director, so that’s kind of iconic.”

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

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

More people of colour need to be involved in the arts in order for stories like these to be captured and taken to the stage, she said.

“We need to be the storytellers and storykeepers of our communities and preserve our cultures while we’re here.”

Meanwhile, Adar hopes the play will help show others how her community came to be — and help shift the story of the Etobicoke neighbourhood whose narrative has been overshadowed by one of gun violence over the years.

“I always knew Dixon road to be where Somalis gathered to celebrate, to have fun, to speak, to have joy,” she said. 

“The legacy of Dixon has obviously shifted a lot in the last couple years. But I will always remember it as the first place to welcome my family and create a legacy of what Little Mogadishu becomes.”

Dixon Road will be at the Musical Stage Company in an upcoming season.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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