Part of an occasional series on the Kensington Storefront, an art-based intervention on the front lines of Philadelphia's opioid epidemic.
As the setting sun did what it could to enchant the litter-strewn landscape of Allegheny Avenue, Darlene Ramage, 55, found her mark on the gas-station-parking-lot-turned-stage, kicked a Pepsi can out of the way, and raised her voice above the din of street traffic.
"When you see me, you see one version of me, but I'm so much more," she began her monologue. "I'm a lion. A lion is strong, loud, and truthful. I take no crap from nobody anymore. It's called boundaries."
Ramage was in final rehearsals for (Kensington) Streetplay, a new theater work developed by the Renegade Company that draws its cast, subject matter, and scenery from a neighborhood that has come to serve as a shorthand for the opioid crisis that claimed 1,217 lives in Philadelphia last year. This blunt call for close-looking — an opportunity to examine a struggling, complicated neighborhood as you would an artist's masterpiece — opens Thursday, Sept. 6, as part of the Fringe Festival.
The aim, said artistic director Mike Durkin, is to help residents reclaim their own narrative, beyond the bleak portrayals of Kensington seen in media like The Dr. Oz Show. Sure, the play will address familiar themes — open-air drug markets, crime, prostitution, homelessness, poverty — but it will also probe the joyous and playful moments in between.
"The goal of this project is to show all those different perspectives," he said. "I'm asking people to come to Kensington with open minds and open hearts."
That's essential, given the unpredictable nature of the performance. Most of the cast members have no acting experience, and many have struggled with addiction or homelessness. Some still do. And, as far as stage sets go, the corner of Kensington and Allegheny falls somewhere between challenging and hostile, what with the roar of the El above and spent syringes crunching underfoot.
"These people out there are so doped up, they don't know where their mind is," warned Eddie Ramage, 50, Darlene's brother, during rehearsals one weekend. "That's my main concern. They can just come at you."
Durkin assured him that he had the security issue in hand. After all, he's been making his way up and down Allegheny Avenue for two years now, getting to know the businesses, the regulars, trying to build trust in this neighborhood.
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Streetplay developed out of workshops Durkin's been running for the past year at the Kensington Storefront, a Mural Arts Philadelphia hub that embraces the concept of harm reduction. In that time, he's grown used to starting late, adjusting on the fly, navigating past bumps, and creating flexibility within his work to accommodate a fluid cast. Some of the performers in the show have been working with him for a year, others for just a few weeks. "There were folks early on who were involved for a couple months, then overdosed and passed away," he said.
Dani Bryant, a drama therapist who's working on the show, said the trick was finding a balance between therapy and theater: "It's about sharing with the audience, without it ever feeling unsafe or uncomfortable."
The evolving, interactive work is a mix of poetry, storytelling, improvisation, and visual art. One day, a man who busks around Jefferson Station showed up with a guitar and offered to contribute a musical number. Even a few weeks before the premiere, Durkin said, "It's hard to articulate what it will actually look like, because it's all dependent on who's there in the moment."
The structure, however, is set: It's a deeply personal walking tour that begins at K&A and rambles toward Port Richmond's leafy Campbell Square, where performers will man a series of stations exploring universal themes like home, kids, or food. (Eddie Ramage, for example, may wax ecstatic over his Top Ramen Special, a concoction that involves barbecue chips, melted cheese, banana peppers and summer sausage. "Don't knock it till you tried it," he told critics at a recent rehearsal.) The set changes are subtle: vacant lots and overgrown trestles, graceful old churches and humble rowhouses. The soundtrack is provided by wheezing trucks and shrieking dirt bikes, the shouts of wheelie kids and the how-you-doing-beautifuls of bored men sitting on stoops.
On a recent afternoon, Dennis Payne, 57, was working with Logan Schulman, the dramaturge, on his talking points.
"Kensington has a very racist past," Payne said. It's multicultural now, he said: "We've been over-invaded." He's not proud of the history, but he feels in many ways the neighborhood was better off back then. The way he remembers it, there was just one homeless man when he was a kid. Payne would sneak him cigarettes.
Schulman pushed back: "It's very easy to be positive about the past as nostalgia sets in."
In some ways, the play is designed for the neighborhood itself. The actors passed out fliers in McPherson Square, and invited area residents to attend the preview performances and provide feedback.
But it's also intended for a wider audience — as a plea for understanding, not exploitation.
"Kensington is full of crumbling beauty: buildings, people, me," Kathryn Wylde, 40, said in her monologue. "What we need is your support. Kensington doesn't want your lofts."