Many deem money the root of all evil, though its absence usually incites sadness.
Yearning to link Americans’ financial pain and persistence during the Great Depression and the Great Recession, Kimberly Niemala composed “Spare a Dime,” a multimedia song cycle that will open tonight at Edward Bok Technical High School, 1901 S. Ninth St. Directly addressing anguish, the piece will indirectly involve irony, as the host facility, itself a solution to Depression-era angst, will close in June.
“The idea to explore different periods with similar setbacks proved too pressing to pass up,” Niemala, founder and director of the Manayunk-based CosaCosa art at large Inc., said Monday at the 75-year-old secondary institution. “What we have now is what our ancestors and predecessors had, namely, a time to look at what our country can do to pull together.”
Her take on the need for expansive support will mark CosaCosa’s first collaboration with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, whose overseers tabbed “If you had a time machine…” as their theme. The 105-minute creation will examine the Works Progress Administration, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt established in 1935 as part of his New Deal plan to revitalize the nation’s collective livelihood following the stock market crash six years prior. The federal government opened Bok in ’38 as a vocational location, and its student body complements a standard curriculum through nine career and technical education programs.
“I definitely wanted a Works Progress building for the project,” Niemala said of selecting the East Passyunk Crossing site, an ’86 designee on the National Register of Historic Places. “That authentic aspect needed to be there.”
Her 23-year-old organization has nurtured numerous unions with South Philly entities, including a thriving three-year partnership with Andrew Jackson School, 1213 S. 12th St., with whom it has designed a Garden of Diversity and is working on a rooftop garden, so Niemala met favor when courting Bok last year and set out to channel generational successes and disappointments. Through 100 interviews with multiple populations, she and her colleagues gleaned tales proving that no matter one’s lot, humans share limitations that economic and social opportunities can mitigate.
“What Kim has put together for us is fantastic,” tenor Victor Rodriguez, who plays The Builder, one of seven Depression-era characters, including Roosevelt, said of the songs. “There’s such emotion to them, and they really speak to present problems, too.”
The tunes will team with audio interviews, recreated photographs of ’30s individuals by CosaCosa constituents and illustrations by Bok art instructor Steve Teare to set the senses to appreciating Philadelphians’ bonds despite the passage of time. Niemala ensured the high schoolers would engross themselves in the process by helping to establish a Depression- and Works Progress-specific syllabus. That doubled with discussions on contemporary matters such as drugs and bullying, the latter especially significant since the Anti-Defamation League last year designated Bok as a No Place for Hate torchbearer, to intensify comprehension of liberty and democracy.
The learners used their increased knowledge to create Works Progress-style posters bearing those issues and to design a giant rolling dime for use in the production, which will run through Saturday. With 90 pupils involved, many working as production assistants, Niemala knows her initial interaction with Bok will further her belief that tapping into commonalities within the global family sustains and advances art.
“I’m eager to see how they enjoy the experience, especially the culinary students,” she said of the youngsters, who will prepare Depression-era recipes, such as Johnnycakes and milk toast, for the patrons. “They’ve worked as hard as anyone.”
Unfortunately for Niemala, her first alliance with the teenagers will also go down as her only occasion to sample their work ethic. Through collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. recommended Bok’s closure Dec. 13 as part of his employer’s Facilities Master Plan, with school-based speculation being that its age landed it on the list. After numerous community sessions, the School Reform Commission decided March 7 to accept his suggestion to send the learners to South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., with the Lower Moyamensing site to continue the vocational tracks to which they have become accustomed.
“The timeliness of our work really strikes me because of that ruling,” Niemala said. “We’ll be giving the last performances on a Works Progress stage and doing so in a work that lauds the WPA. That’s unique.”
Along with counting as her introductory exposure to the beloved school, the trio of shows also marks a creative evolution for Niemala, with “Spare a Dime” as the first theatrical foray for CosaCosa, which through such funders as the Knight Arts Challenge and the National Endowment for the Arts, will use the interviews to create Site and Sound Gardens in North Philly this summer. That initiative, along with other designs and kudos such as the recent receipt of the Cohen Award for outstanding commitment to social and economic justice from the City’s Cultural Fund, helped to entice Phyllis Chapell, who will play The Farmer.
“The work has this blend of despondency and ambition that touches the soul,” the mezzo-soprano said of her participation and the overall spirit of Niemala’s lyrics and notes, with Dickinson Square West resident and alto Sherria Watts as a Chorus of Liberty member and East Passyunk Crossing’s François Zayas as the percussionist. “Our characters come from many walks of life and are mostly Philadelphia-based to provide extra context.”
With a little more than two months remaining in its tenure as an educational haven and a community beacon, Bok is providing Niemala with a lesson its textbooks hint at and the outside world solidifies, that sparing a dime and sharing one’s time serve the same function — the fostering of hope.
“People need that,” she said. “I think that’s the most important bit we can take from the WPA. Whatever the era, hope must be abundant.”
Tickets are $10. Call 215-385-2554, or visit spareadime.org.
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.