When you think of double Dutch, what do you think of? Friendship? The rhythms and songs? Two jump ropes whirling faster and faster? Or do you think of grit, of resilience?
That’s what playwright Josh Wilder, a Point Breeze native, thought about, and he turned it into a new play.
Good thinking. That play, She a Gem, will make its world premiere Friday, Feb. 15, at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Wilder’s play began as a two-page treatment for the center’s Theatre for Youth Audiences program.
“We loved it so much we knew right away we wanted to make this part of our season,” said David Kilpatrick, director of education programs and production at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "We’re having so much fun working with him.”
“My previous plays have been mostly male characters,” said Wilder, a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts — and then Yale University — who is now a lecturer at the University of the Arts.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to write a play about and for young women, especially young women of color,' " he said. “That’s when I thought back to my younger days on the block,” when he’d watch girls playing double Dutch "from sunup to sundown.
‘The perfect metaphor’
“When I thought about that, I felt it was the perfect metaphor for what young girls have to go through before they leave home, this toughening up, stay in the song but keep moving, not letting the ropes fall. A metaphor for resilience,” he said.
Beyond the play, an entire corner of American pop culture is associated with double Dutch, including close ties to hip-hop music. The rules of the pastime, which involves one or more jumpers inside two ropes turning counter each other, have been formalized for competitive purposes.
The Kennedy Center has posted a video of double Dutch coach Ebony Ingram offering double Dutch jumping tips, featuring the play’s cast.
Wilder’s association with the Kennedy Center started when his play Wrong River won the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award at the center’s American College Theatre Awards in April 2017.
“Josh was already on our list because of that,” Kilpatrick said. “Last year, we sent out prompts relating to the theme of ‘the human journey': ‘Here’s this theme, plus a little money. Send us pitches.' ”
Wilder’s stood out among the dozen ideas they received. “It was exciting, beautiful, insightful, and it fit both our Theatre for Youth Audiences program and the 324-seat Family Theater space” where it will be performed, Kilpatrick said.
The story is based on a double Dutch competition held annually at Wilder’s neighborhood block party in Point Breeze. "The women from my block, they remember the competition and the nostalgia,” he said.
In the play, an outsider appears and is challenged to step inside the ropes … and she’s good.
“She may be pregnant, but she shows pregnancy doesn’t have to slow you down,” Wilder says. “And she’s going to challenge the local girls to step up.”
Adding a touch of magical realism is the figure of Ms. Mary, a seer who can divine everyone’s lineage and introduces themes of African American history and awareness. “She’s another figure who can lead these young women into their individual futures,” Wilder said.
A big year for Wilder
He’s had a great year for any playwright, with four productions staged, including two of his drama Salt, Pepper, Ketchup, concerning gentrification in Point Breeze.
That one played at both the Passage Theatre in Trenton and Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre.
Wilder’s play Leftovers, also set in South Philly and examining the black male experience in America, was produced last summer by Boston’s Company One.
“I’m really excited,” Wilder says. “The Kennedy opening is a real step in my career. I am so hoping She a Gem can play in Philly sometime soon.”