The tough language and even tougher subject matter of Indoor Picnic, on stage through Sunday at the South Camden Theatre Company, hit close to home for many audience members. Perhaps too close.
Set in Camden during the 1960s and after, this evocative, provocative play is about blacks and whites trying to hold onto communities that are falling apart. Its nostalgia has an edge.
"As the only professional theater organization in Camden, we need to tell Camden stories," says Joseph M. Paprzycki, who wrote Indoor Picnic and spent his early childhood in the Whitman Park neighborhood, where the play mostly takes place.
Paprzycki is the founder and producing artistic director of the company, now in its eighth season - and the third in a handsome building at Fourth and Jasper Streets.
South Camden focuses on classic American fare by playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets, and August Wilson, and works by Philadelphia-area writers.
"We need to do plays you're not going to see anywhere else, plays you have to come to Camden to see," says Paprzycki, 55, who also spent part of his youth in Oaklyn and lives in Gloucester City.
Indoor Picnic is directed by Cherry Hill resident Ray Croce and features a vivid performance by the Philadelphia actress Zuhairah.
She plays Flossie, an African American employee of a Polish American social club, where ethnic and racial slurs - including the N-word - are part of the culture.
"It's such a raw, real play," Croce says. "It's not sugarcoated."
During Indoor Picnic, Flossie experiences great personal loss and confronts not only racism at the club, but also the crime in her neighborhood - with startling results.
"Being performed in Camden, the play makes more of a powerful statement than if it were performed in the suburbs," says Zuhairah, who founded Philadelphia's First World Theatre Ensemble. "And to have [theatergoers] come in from outside, to actually come to Camden and feel the environment," deepens its impact, she adds.
Jumbo Schimpf plays Benny, one of the Polish American pals for whom the club is a second home. A musician, Benny is more of a romantic than a racist; he's also a bit of a sad sack, with a sad fate to match.
"We're doing punch-in-the-gut drama," says Schimpf, of Wilmington. "It's that kind of theater."
Seeing the play last week with two friends who are former residents of Camden's Fairview neighborhood, I was struck by the drama's insights about white flight.
The characters in the club feel they're being evicted from a neighborhood they love but no longer recognize.
That's what happened to Paprzycki's family, who reluctantly moved to Oaklyn because of crime.
"My dad felt forced out because it was getting dangerous," says Paprzycki, whose play is about home - losing, finding, clinging to, going back - as well as race.
The Polish Americans aren't the only displaced persons. African Americans like Flossie also end up fleeing the city, because crime degrades the quality of life for all.
"When things start crashing down all around you, people think, 'It's not our fault, it's someone else's fault,' " Paprzycki says.
While Indoor Picnic suggests there's plenty of blame to go around, it also offers hope. The playwright, cast, and volunteer crew are committed to making art that matters, and the theater has encouraged other cultural initiatives in the Waterfront South neighborhood.
It's a Camden story still being written.
other information, call
856-409-0365 or visit www.southcamdentheatre.org.
Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845