Philly theater tackles hunger, race, immigration

AE1THEATER19D
David Bardeen (left) and Ariella Serur in "Grand Concourse" at Theatre Horizon. The play concerns hunger and poverty, and is woven into a community-engagement project called Imagine No Hunger.

Want to change things? End hunger, close the racial gap, address the immigrants' plight? Here’s a great first step: Go stage a play.

Plays have a role. Take, for example, Grand Concourse, playing through next Sunday at Theatre Horizon in Norristown. Heidi Schreck’s script addresses hunger, and this production -- set in a soup kitchen and coordinated with a social-outreach project -- is a call to action on hunger, poverty, and inequality in the suburbs where the company's patrons live. 

“Our part in the chain of solutions,” says Rebecca May Flowers, artistic associate at Theatre Horizon, “is to help build empathy. Give exposure to the issues and the organizations. Create new encounters between the audience and the people doing the work in the community.”

Such talk shouldn’t surprise us. This is a moment of political theater in Philadelphia -- one of those moments when, in a happy accident, long-planned productions happen to harmonize with the tenor of current events to give live theater crackling political currency.  

The Delaware Theatre Company is performing Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham’s Broadway-bound play White Guy on the Bus, in which Ray, the white guy, crosses paths, explosively, with an African American woman on a bus. Closing this Sunday, it’s theater as a slap across the face, a rough tearing-open of the bag of our social woes, starting (but not stopping) with race, gender, and class.

Danielle Leneé, who plays Shatique, the young single mother also on the bus, says, “You can’t land something this uncompromising in an audience’s lap and not talk about it afterward.” So every night, there is an after-show dialogue among cast, crew, and audience. “We’ve been able to talk about issues of race and how do we close the gap between the races.”

“Theater is necessarily social,” says Melissa Zimmerman, managing director of the Delaware Theatre Company. “It needs to be. It’s not fully finished until it’s a fully social event, until it’s performed and the audience makes it what it’s going to be.” In that interaction, the theatrical becomes the political -- not necessarily the partisan, but rather the enactment of our current issues, what could be working better, what we can do. Theater arises from our communal lives and speaks out.

“We’re finding that the audience is really hungry to talk about race, poverty, the prison and education systems,” Zimmerman says. “Usually, when you do these, it’s the cast talking, the audience asks a question, and so it goes … but in this one, it’s more a discussion happens in the audience, and the cast breaks in from time to time.”

Zimmerman says people definitely are bringing the weight of this divided time into the theater: “There has been dissent, no fistfights, but people are speaking passionately.” There also are answers to the frequent question “What can I do?” Audience members get a list of local volunteer organizations, including VolunteerMatch.org, which can connect their interests with community groups.

Going into the play, Leneé says, “I already understood the responsibility I had as the only person of color in the show. What the dialogues have done is deepen that sense of responsibility.” A Philly resident since 2013, she credits this place and time: “I like it that Philadelphia is so inclusive and so forward-thinking in how we use the arts to engage the community and activate our political voices.”

Thus, you’re seeing a Mary Tuomanen explosion. Actor, activist, and playwright, she has been prodigiously busy, with the recently concluded (and splendid)  MARCUS/EMMA at InterAct Theatre Company, mashing up Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman, and issues of race and sexual inequality; Hello! Sadness! last month at FringeArts, mashing up Joan of Arc and the Black Panthers; and in May, Peaceable Kingdom via Orbiter 3, about human settlements, utopian thinking, and the environment.

At Camden Repertory through Saturday, you’re seeing Desi P. Shelton’s For Sale!, addressing sex work and race. At New Freedom on Friday, they’re going to flip a 20th-century American classic in a staged reading of For Colored Queer Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enoughturning the great Ntozake Shange choreopoem in a different direction. And I can’t wait to see Blanka Zizka’s autobiographical play Adapt! in March at the Wilma, addressing immigration and geopolitical (and human) borders.

Theatre Horizon’s Grand Concourse is intertwined with Imagine No Hunger, a social-education and outreach project. (Two years ago, Theatre Horizon did Imagine No Homelessness together with Suzan-Lori Parks’ play In the Blood.) 

Cast and crew visited and worked at day shelters, soup kitchens, and other service organizations. “We wanted as many people to serve as many people as possible,” says Flowers, who also is project coordinator of Imagine No Hunger.

Photographer, activist, and Cabrini University professor Linda Panetta documented the process. When you enter the lobby of Theatre Horizon, you walk into a photographic exhibit about hunger and poverty in Norristown and Montgomery County.

“We’ve learned that hunger is real, that a lot of people are working to serve the mentally ill, that there’s a lot of economic depression, and all these things are tied together,” Flowers says. “So we have three ways of interpreting the information: Linda’s photos, the play Grand Concourse, and a post-show discussion, at which we have a couple of the artists from the production, one or two people from local helping organizations, and we let them talk about their work, and the audience joins in.”

Ariella Serur, who plays Emma in Grand Concourse, says helping serve food to the hungry awoke her to the invisible walls among us. While ladling goulash, she “locked eyes with this one blue-eyed man and thought, ‘If circumstances were different, maybe I could talk to him and get to know him,’ but they’re not and we can’t. And many people would just look away.

“As actors, we want our art to have an impact,” Serur says. “We want the audience to question their reality. Most of the time, we cross our fingers and hope it happens. But here, you can really see it. ... It’s gratifying and inspiring. I can say, ‘Yes, I’m part of this thing that will help.’ ”

Every post-show session ends with a question directed at the helpers: “What can we do to be part of the solution?” And every night, Flowers says, an audience member approaches her and says, “I didn’t know it was like this,” followed by that golden question: “What can I do?”

Like many theaters in the Philadelphia area, Theatre Horizon has a suggestion for a great first step: Go see a play.