For Curtis Saxton it won’t be much of a stretch when he takes on the role of a priest as one of the cast members of A Thousand Fibers, a new play that Theatre Productions is presenting at Taller Puertorriqueño this weekend.
Saxton is a pastor in real life.
“In some ways, I don’t have to actually act,” he said. “I just do what I do normally.”
Saxton is pastor of Ekklesia Church of North Philadelphia, at 902 W. Susquehanna Ave., and prefers the title “Pastor” rather than “Reverend.”
He is among seven community members who have joined the 12-person cast, alongside professional actors, in A Thousand Fibers. The production tells the story about the life of a Puerto Rican woman named Maria, who works as a maternity-ward nurse in a hospital.
While she has no children of her own, Maria becomes a friend, an abuela, a tía, and a confidante and advisor to the children and adults in Fairhill, a neighborhood whose residents are mostly Latino and Black. The title refers to the many individuals who are the fibers in the fabric of a community.
There are three free performances this Saturday and Sunday at Taller Puertorriqueño. Although there is no cost, people must reserve tickets. Donations are accepted. Masks are required.
The play is the third production in a two-year community theater project aimed at bringing the arts to residents of neighborhoods who might not normally attend mainstream theater venues, said Georgina Bard, Beacon Theatre Productions’ artistic director.
“Our mission has been to reach people who don’t have access to theater,” Bard said.
Sometimes, that is because of a cultural distance from the Center City theater scene, and sometimes, it is because it is financially prohibitive, she said.
A Thousand Fibers, written by Alec Hersh, was created after Hersh, Bard, and others conducted dozens of interviews with Fairhill residents beginning in 2019.
The script is based on the stories they told about their community. Maria became a composite character, drawn from real-life people.
Yajaira Paredes, who plays Maria, is a professional actor from Venezuela, with a list of credits from Venezuelan television soap operas, along with movies and plays.
Fibers is her 15th play since she arrived in the United States 26 years ago. Paredes, the co-founder and artistic director of Teatro del Sol, a bilingual theater company in Philadelphia, said she loves her character.
“Maria is so open and big-hearted. She likes to help anyone, to save kids and help them have a better life,” Paredes said in a phone interview.
Gentrification and faith in ‘the long haul’
Paredes spoke with The Inquirer a day after the cast held rehearsals inside Saxton’s small storefront church in Hartranft, a community adjacent to Fairhill.
Like so many city neighborhoods, the community around Ekklesia shows signs of change and gentrification.
Scaffolding towers over a construction project across Susquehanna Avenue from the church, and on the other side of 9th Street, a large, red-brick warehouse has a “for sale” sign posted.
Inside the church last week, the light hum of a square box fan stirred the air on a particularly hot evening. Cast members and the two co-dire wore masks as they rehearsed.
Paredes said later she was impressed with Saxton’s performance and wondered if he had acting experience.
“I was so amazed when he started talking about Maria, and he had all this passion,” she said.
Saxton, 38, said he performed in high school plays when he lived in Oregon. He moved east to attend Princeton, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy. He has a masters in divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary.
Prior to leading Ekklesia, he was co-pastor of the Philly Open Air Church at 2503 N. 5th St. in the heart of Fairhill. Saxton and co-pastor Jomo K. Johnson not only preached from the pulpit, but every two weeks would also spend time preaching on street corners. That church then merged with another and took on the name Ekklesia.
Saxton said he knows all too well the stories of the people who would have encountered a woman like Maria.
“It’s very true to life,” he said. The people who know and love Maria question whether the definition of success means getting an education, then moving away from their struggling neighborhood to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
The play also “pushes back against two narratives about our neighborhoods: one, that it is ‘the Badlands,’ this horrible place [where people are selling drugs on every corner], and the other narrative, that it is a great place and everything is wonderful.
“There are a lot of challenges and difficulties. But people are committed to the long haul, to each other and are willing to walk with each other [to make things better.] ”
Saxton is Indian American and the first of his family to attend college. He said people walk up to him and begin speaking Spanish, but his mastery of the language is not great. Meanwhile, his wife, Christina, who he describes as Anglo, was born in Honduras and is fluent in Spanish.
Theater tuned into the neighborhood
The play has two co-directors. Eric Carter is a Black theater artist who grew up in North Philadelphia and acts on stage in both New York and Philadelphia (as Damon in Azuka Theatre’s 2019 Sunset Baby, among other memorable roles, and as a company member with Theatre in the X), on TV (NYPD Blue), and in films (But Deliver Us from Evil, LUV Don’t Live Here).
Sofía Anastasia is a playwright, director, and performance artist based in Philadelphia. According to their profile at Revamp Collective, Anastasia’s college thesis “explored queer latinidad, Puerto Rican colonialism, and how communities of women and woman-aligned people support and uplift each other in the face of trauma.”
Bard said it was important to have two directors with insights into both the Latino and Black perspectives of Fairhill’s community.
“It’s been extremely fun, to take actors who do not have any experience, and to put together a show where they want to get on stage and bring a professional show,” said Carter. “It has sharpened me as a director and as an acting teacher.”
Beacon’s first production, in 2018, was the one-woman play Letters to Aunt Hattie, about Black abolitionist Harriet Forten Purvis,
In early 2020, before the pandemic, the project presented Under the Bonnet, about abolitionists Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and James Mott, at the Julia de Burgos School and at the Providence Center, a Fairhill community center.
In addition to developing and presenting its three plays, Beacon’s lead artists have attended community events, developed an after-school drama club at the Providence Center and worked with neighbors in the community gardens located at the Fair Hill Burial Grounds.
A Thousand Fibers
Performances at 2 and 6 p.m. Sat., Aug. 21, and 3 p.m. Sun., Aug. 22, at Taller Puertorriqueño, 2600 N. 5th St.
Tickets are free (donations accepted); reserve in advance at beacontheatreproductions.org. Masks required. There will also be a community art show in the lobby.