Mike Durkin stands on Kensington Avenue, handing out fliers for a play he wants the neighborhood to help him write.
It’s called The Old Man and the Delaware River, an adaptation of the celebrated Ernest Hemingway short novel, The Old Man and the Sea.
Hemingway wrote about an old fisherman who spends most of the book in rough waters, on a skiff trying to land his big catch. Persevering.
In Durkin’s version, the old man is the people of Kensington and the struggle is the opioid crisis.
Durkin is artistic director for the Renegade Company, a community theater troupe. He is 32 and soft-spoken with a thick red beard. For him, the story is personal. His father, Michael Sr., a Brooklyn construction worker, died in 2004 from complications of alcoholism and pancreatic cancer. For a while, Durkin had imagined the blue-collar saloons of the River Wards – the ones like his pop drank in back home – as a setting to explore addiction and the stigma that worsens it.
But by last year, the opioid catastrophe had drawn him to the epicenter of those issues: Kensington.
He brought his idea to Zoë Van Orsdol, a community development associate at Impact Services, a Kensington revitalization organization. Durkin, who landed in Philly after studying theater at West Chester University, assured her he wasn’t interested in doing a drive-by. Rather, the Pennsport resident wanted to stage the play in Kensington – at the El stops, on the street corners. A theatrical walking tour of the neighborhood with Kensingtonians and their stories weaved throughout.
“So, they can rewrite their own narrative,” he said.
To ensure that was the case, Durkin postponed opening for a year and began showing up in the neighborhood. He hit community meetings. Block parties. That little space on The Avenue – the Kensington Storefront, it’s called, an arts and health services hub opened this year by the city and Mural Arts.
“He’s done a really good job of listening to what people have to say – in all their complexity,” Van Orsdol said.
He hopes to cast the play by January. Five professionals, eight residents. He’ll be holding neighborhood workshops to finalize the script through summer, with the curtains set to rise for September.
A play can’t save Kensington, of course. But the ideas at the heart of this production might. This isn’t some drama-school exercise, but a small front in the bigger fight against the stigma that blankets Kensington, Durkin said. It gives people struggling there the opportunity to tell — even craft – their stories. And it invites the neighbors who have lived here through decades of neglect and abandonment – and who again bear the brunt of a citywide crisis – to stand up and against a narrative that reduces them to players in a Hellscape.
And that’s a needed platform, no matter how small. If the crisis in Kensington is to be stemmed, the people on The Avenue and the people who have been ignored here for years have to be at the forefront of the conversation. Durkin’s play models the kind of dialogue that’s needed.
Every week, the drama is worked out around a table in the storefront on The Avenue. With his fliers, Durkin invites people in to tell their stories.
Some do, about 50 so far. Like old fisherman, they tell of persevering.
Thursday, there sat Woodrow Jerome “Cowboy” Weldon, who is 61 and earned the nickname for his distinctive “yee-haw!” Cowboy had come looking for a room to rent and found himself in the middle of a workshop. He sketched some designs – a woman and a flame — that he said represented Kensington. He wanted to keep his mind occupied, away from the nonsense.
The people at the table told stories — where they’ve been, what they’re doing now, how they’re viewed, and how they wish they were viewed. How they’re so much more than their addiction.
There was Mike, who is 42, goateed and thin from his months on The Avenue. He talked of his children — an adult son had recently passed — and of his Army service and his printing press job. He told of his passion for restoring cars — his prized ’64 Chevy Nova, and the pride it holds for him.
“I’ll be buried in that car,” Mike said.
With him was a friend, Rob, who is 52, and works in Center City on a restoration crew. He had recently relapsed, he said, and the trade he had learned over the years was all he had left.
Mike Durkin listened to their stories, and invited them back to be a part of the play. Their play. It’s a drama we all need to see.