- Non-theatrical, but that hardly mattered
- Pressing and moving monologues from the performers
- A beautiful, urgent way of getting to know a neighborhood
In my pockets
I live in West Philadelphia, and hardly have a reason to go up that far north in Kensington (the show starts at the Allegheny MFL stop). In general, I don’t like traveling up to Kensington or Fishtown. The only reason I have had to go in the past is to visit friends, and they live in the parts of the neighborhood that feel like Brooklyn (and I don’t want to be in Brooklyn). I’m also a white, educated young woman, and have varying degrees of comfort walking around in a city (in all parts). This was an illuminating piece for me.
There is no real design in this show, unless we think about it geographically. The “play” starts at the Allegheny stop on the MFL, in the parking lot of a Walgreens. This part of Kensington is busy – there are people waiting for folks to step off the train in order to sell them wares and trinkets, or folks waiting for buses down on the street – it’s a bustling intersection, and obviously a really interesting place to start a theatrical experience. From there, the audience is split up into groups, led by a facilitator in a blue shirt (a Renegade Company member) who takes you on a walk down Allegheny Ave. Occasionally, they will bring you to a stopping point (a lamp post outside of a gas station, a fence by an abandoned lot, a church yard gate), where two performers will share the monologues they have developed over the two-year course of this show. After this walk, the performers and facilitators bring you to Campbell Square, a beautiful park in a part of the neighborhood where gentrification’s effects are extremely visible. The design of this second half of the piece is more like an outdoor fair – each performer invites you to join their station where they lead you through an interactive activity of their design as the sun sets.
The monologues the performers deliver all have the same theme: “when you look at me, you see one thing. But I am so much more than that.” The performers – most of whom do not consider themselves performing artists or folks who have a performance background – obviously feel great ownership over this piece, this process, and the writing they have chosen to share with you. Their personhood is so magnetically visible in these monologues, and range from poems, songs, or, in one spirited performance, a message about Jesus Christ’s love for every single one of us. Regardless of the form, the monologues open up these people to visitors of a neighborhood, and challenge all of us to get to know the Kensington streets through the people who live on them.
Mike Durkin directed this beautiful experience, and what is clear is not necessarily how he crafted the performative quality of each resident, but rather the effect of the overall theatrical process he led with these folks for two years. Even though this play is not necessarily very theatrical, and it is hard to talk about it like it is a show, it is clearly an event and experience that is deeply informed by theater and performance. It’s a wonderful example of what kinds of collaborations and community experiences can be created with the tools that performance gives us.
This play was for me, a transplant to Philadelphia from another place, with economic mobility and privilege. It’s for the gentrifiers, essentially. As we move into neighborhoods with cheap rent, we draw arbitrary real-estate lines to make us feel safer about the people that we’re pushing out. There’s a whole host of politics in the question of what distinguishes Kensington from Fishtown, and where those lines are drawn. As we entered the park, one of the performers shouted, “We’re in Port Richmond now! Addiction doesn’t exist here!” Regardless of the sarcasm, you could tell that there was more money going into this half of our walk than the other, more gentrification, more denial.
That the show asks you to engage with the material by walking through a city landscape is incredibly potent, and a very personal experience. There are a lot of preconceptions that I was asked to abandon at the start of the play, and by abandoning them, I noticed what they were – preconceptions about the kinds of people I was likely to encounter in (Kensington) Streetplay, about the performers, and about the neighborhood itself. For a lot of white women, there’s an old narrative about walking around urban (i.e. black and brown) neighborhoods, and how are bodies affect and are affected. But it’s not true that only in poorer neighborhoods do I experience more harassment. I was shouted down on Saturday night on UPenn’s campus by a frat boy to suck his dick, and at (Kensington) Streetplay, one of the male performers hugged me tightly for way too long and thanked me for being adorable. Neither was great, to be honest. The thing that (Kensington) Streetplay illuminates so beautifully is that people are really just kind of the same everywhere – families love each other, people strive to succeed, everyone loves food. The difference between the residents of (Kensington) Streetplay and I is that the geopolitical effects of our country have affected us in deeply unequal experiences. Gentrifiers have to own up to that shit, especially because we are the first steps in a wheel of development that will eventually price us out of these neighborhoods as well. Our desire to live in Brooklyn no matter where we are has a deep impact on the kinds of services that come into a neighborhood, and who they’re for. A necessary reminder in a necessary new form.