Six teens from different background tell each others' oral histories in this new stage production.
Secret History: The Philadelphia Story debuted Friday at Old City’s Painted Bride Art Center. The play, written and directed by Ping Chong, a New York–based theater director, explores six teenagers’ first–hand experiences with conflict and violence. The catch? Some of them have never acted before.
At the end of January, these kids, all age 18 or under, sat around a table in the second floor of a rowhouse salvaged in the late 1980s by the Village of Arts and Humanities, a community arts center based in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia. For the first time, the teenagers read Secret History, which Chong wrote based on a series of recorded interviews with the student participants.
The actors come from two distinct backgrounds. Three are from North Philly and were chosen after taking classes at the Village. The others work with the People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern in Montgomery County.
”We all thought we’d feel some kind of way about each other, but now we’re cool,” says Joshia Genesis Dalnoroa, an outspoken 17–year–old who grew up near the Village, pausing from giggling with Montgomery County resident, Claire Inie–Richards, also 17. ”Our stories don’t get told … now we’re telling them together.”
What brought them together is a willingness to share their own conflicts, from watching parents struggle to pay the bills in the ’burbs or dealing with family lost to the streets. Other teens were interviewed, but Chong chose these six for their stories and their personalities.
”I was the awkward white girl from the suburbs and walked into here and was like ’Holy crap.” I didn’t realize these things—the violence—happen, really happen,” says Inie–Richards, who, in the performance, shares determination to help her parents by covering her personal costs like toiletries. ”We all learn from each other.”
In the production, Chong has the teenagers tell each others’ stories. The background is minimal—just six chairs and their words. In one scene, Inie–Richards, formerly a student at a prestigious private school, plays the mother of Leon Sanford, a 17–year–old native of North Philly whose father has battled addiction yet has remained a part of his son’s life. Then Romaine Hastings, 18–years–old and from Chester, is the father of Tayiib Ali, a 16–year–old from Philly.
”You don’t want to be like me,” Hastings says, as Ali’s father.
For a moment, Joshia Genesis Dalnoroa is the mother of Charisse Loving, a 15–year–old from Philly.
Loving answers her mother: ”I feel like people just expect black girls to get pregnant.”
Since 1992, Chong has led 40 similarly organized performances, collectively called the ”Undesirable Elements Project.” Chong says he focuses on displaying underserved voices of all kinds and has done his performances in Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and across the United States.
”They are all our kids,” Chong says. ”Problems in the black community or wherever else, is an American problem, or a problem for whatever broader community.”
Perhaps an impact has been felt. Sanford, who has seen gun violence first hand has been accepted by Penn State and is waiting to hear back from Temple. He says his few weeks telling his own story has strengthened his voice and helped him better prepare for a future in college.
”It’s another opportunity to see where we chose the right path,” Sanford says of the performance. ”This has influenced me. I need to learn to see all the horizons out there, all of them.”
Chong was tapped by the Village, led by Artistic and Executive Director Kumani Gantt, who first saw an ”Undesirable Elements” piece on the immigrant experience near Washington, D.C. It took two years to coordinate, but Gantt was finally able to bring Chong to Philadelphia.
”In getting to know our teens over five years, I am struck by the number of stories there are involving violence. There’s always a hesitancy to share those stories, to be reflective about it,” Gantt says. ”Ping focuses on resiliency … and ”Undesirable Elements” provides profound insight.”
The piece is a collaboration between the Village and People’s Light & Theatre, but Chong hopes the bridge spans much further.
”My goal is for the project to help whatever community I’m in to see this from a more dispassionate point of view, whether it’s gays, or Native Americans or African Americans or whoever else,” Chong says. ”We want them to see the human face beyond the stereotypes and ignorance.”
Fri., March 6 and Fri., March 13, 7:30pm. Free with reservations. People’s Light & Theatre, 39 Conestoga Rd., 610.647.1900. ext. 101. www.peopleslight.org
Fri., March 13, 7:30pm. Free with reservations. Village of Arts and Humanities 2544 Germantown Ave. 215.225.7830. ext 205.