Playwright R. Eric Thomas’s provocative work opens June 3 and runs for three weeks.
Photo Provided by R. Eric Thomas
A play’s debut doesn’t usually catch front-page attention at the South Philly Review, but these are extenuating circumstances: the play is set in South Philly; the playwright has lived in South Philly for 11 years; the director, star, and scenic designer are South Philadelphians; and it’s a play that celebrates a pride in our histories, something with which many locals can identify. Simpatico Theatre Project’s “Time Is On Our Side” runs June 3 to 26, and R. Eric Thomas, programming director at the William Way LGBT Community Center and the play’s author, absolutely loves South Philly.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else in Philly. Philadelphia is so many cities but one of the most vibrant cities that Philly has is South Philly,” Thomas, a resident of the 1800 block of South Broad Street, said.
He’s also lived at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, the intersection of 16th and Ritner and South Bancroft streets, and now, at Broad and Moore. In fact, the 2400 block of South Bancroft Street is the home where the play’s protagonist, Annie, lives – a house she’s inherited by her grandmother.
“I feel really proud when I say I’ve lived in South Philly for 10 years. I’ve seen the neighborhoods change, and I feel a real sense of ownership and responsibility,” Thomas explained, noting that longevity means something to South Philly. He gets a notion of “Oh, you get what’s happening here and you’re not just some interloper” from his long-held addresses.
“The play is this conservation between generations of the gay rights movement, and I think there are a lot of different ways to be proud. This play is steeped in Philadelphia history but also steeped in South Philly neighborhood behavior,” he disclosed, acknowledging the neighbor lady who’s always leaning out of the house or the houses that have 16 coats of paint on their walls. “South Philly can be very queer-friendly and affirming, but it isn’t always visible,” the Baltimore native, comedic writer, event host, and storyteller said. “Time Is On Our Side” is “exploring the idea that queer people have been around South Philly for decades.”
The show’s premise is “The Schuylkill River Project,” a local history podcast that Annie and her best friend, Curtis, host. They’re queer and in exploring Annie’s Bancroft Street house, she finds a secret diary her grandmother kept – what she finds out about a woman whom she loved deeply may be disorienting, even disappointing that it was a well-kept secret. The play’s press release says what ensues is “a gleeful mystery that celebrates the intersection of our city’s past, present and future.”
It’s timely, too, because LGBT Pride celebrations are around the corner with the parade and festival taking place next weekend. Pride is a curious notion in it of itself, and Thomas has an interesting perspective on how he thinks Pride should feel.
“For me, it’s this big unifying event. In an ideal world, pride parades and festivals feel like the great coming together of all of our streams and everyone is affirmed and lifted up,” he analogized. “Because it’s a free-flow of ideas, nobody is shut out because of any difference; that’s what pride looks like to me in my heart.”
Bob Skiba, a curator at William Way and archives guru, remembers when post-WWII South Philly was decidedly territorial (not unlike “West Side Story,” he mused).
“You could be 20 blocks from Center City, but it was a whole other world,” said Skiba. “Being gay or queer in that kind of atmosphere could be a double-edge sword – it’s difficult because no one will talk about it but on the flipside, you become their queer so no one else can mess with you. They watched out for you because you were theirs, and I think the same kind of thing happened in South Philly.”
He’s met countless gay men and women who’ve only ever wanted to be “accepted and respected,” not unlike what many South Philly immigrants hoped for, but many who don’t come out until their 40s, 50s or 60s for fear of intergenerational rejection.
“They have to remove themselves from enclaves to come out, even if it’s going from South Philly to Center City – it’s a different world. Or they stay home in a tight community and say ‘It’s not time to come out,’” Skiba said.
Pride was born in the late 1960s and early ’70s as a direct response to the overwhelming notion that psychologists, politicians, religious leaders, and legislators cast on homosexuality – shame. He cited Barbara Gittings, a legendarily bold and brave Philadelphia lesbian, who stood up against accusations of sickness in the ’50s and onwards as a hero.
“People who have the courage to stand up in the face of people saying ‘You’re sick’ or ‘You’re going to hell and you’re a criminal’ and saying ‘No, I’m perfectly fine’” inspire Skiba.
In one scene of Thomas’s play, Curtis finds a note from ’76 in Annie’s grandmother’s diary that reads: “A community meeting in the 2nd District was disrupted by two homosexual rights activists last night. Bea Freemont, of Pennsport, and Charles Canning, of Queen Village, protested arrests, beatings and harassment of gay men in the 2nd District by the police department.” Rittenhouse Square and the park at 26th and Pine, dubbed Judy Garland Park, were prime destinations for queer South Philadelphians to meet each other.
An informal gay space is closer to our midst, though. Skiba remembers J&A Catering at 1212 S. Broad St. (now J&A Culinary Arts), was the home of a catering hall that allowed for weddings, communion parties, and drag shows, too. Money talks, as they say.
When Pride’s longtime producer, Franny Price, moved to South Philly and her neighbor asked her if she was a lesbian and she said ‘yes,’ the famous response she got was “good, you’ll keep the neighborhood clean.” Then she was asked if she knew the lesbian at 10th and Shunk streets.
Kristen Norine, of the 1100 block of Daly Street, stars as Annie. She came to Philadelphia to study due in large part to her fascination with history.
“Our heroes from the past are also human, deeply flawed, complicated, and inspiring all at the same time,” she said, indirectly referring to her fictitious grandmother. Theater is a rich tradition in Philly: Jarrod Markman, the director, lives at Broad Street and Washington Avenue; Brandi Burgess, who plays Claudia, lives on the 1300 block of Wolf Street; and the scenic designer, Christopher Haig, calls the 1700 block of Ellsworth Street home.
“South Philly also feels ripe for some real growth,” Norine said. “Theatre is so embraced in South Philly, and it makes so many other communities possible.”
“Time Is On Our Side” runs June 3 to 8 in half-price previews, opens 8 p.m. June 9 at the Drake Theater, 1512 Spruce St., and runs through June 26. Tickets are $10 to $25 through simpaticotheatre.org, over the phone at 267-437-7529, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at email@example.com or ext. 117.
Photo Provided by R. Eric Thomas