Reminiscent of summer block parties in Point Breeze, nationally renowned playwright Josh Wilder has once again found inspiration nestled in the streets of a South Philly neighborhood he once called home.
In his latest piece, Wilder, the theatrical sagacity behind SALT PEPPER KETCHUP, a play surrounding South Philadelphia gentrification that ran at the the Drake Theatre this past autumn, is now illustrating recollections from his childhood on a national stage – The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Cataloged as a “love letter” to all the young ladies he grew up with, “She a Gem” – the product of a two-year playwriting commission with the country’s National Cultural Center – examines the struggles and strengths of young African-American girls through the sport of Double Dutch.
“Looking back at it, Double Dutch is such a character-building sport….and it’s a sport that prepares, I feel, young women for all of the mess that they’re gonna run into as they get older,” Wilder said. “This idea that – when you jump Double Dutch, the rope is relentless. The rope is gonna keep moving, and you have to keep moving in the rope.”
The production, which is running through Feb. 24 at the Family Theater in D.C., is an installment of “The Human Journey” – a collaboration project among the Kennedy Center, National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art that works to “investigate the powerful experiences of migration, exploration, identity and resilience through the lenses of the performing arts, science and visual art.”
In the eyes of the High School for Creative and Performing Arts and Yale School of Drama graduate, the jump roping game offers an authentic view of this human journey, as the play follows four young black women in Point Breeze, which Wilder describes as his “theatrical universe,” as they compete in a Double Dutch pageant – vying to be crowned the “gem” of the neighborhood.
“It’s something about – how can I follow through?” Wilder said. “So, I think the follow through to one’s dreams and the grit that it takes to get there – I think that, for me, is the human journey, and that’s the human journey that applies to so many paths in life that young people in Philly have to take in order to make their dreams a reality.”
Although “She a Gem” was one of a handful of pieces commissioned by the national project over the last couple of years, Wilder says he began tossing around ideas for a female-centric play during his Jerome Many Voices Fellowship at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis a few years ago.
While meditating on concepts, a particular sight surfaced from his memory – group of young girls daring daunting Double Dutch competitions during community block parties.
In approaching the piece, Wilder, whose work has been fostered and presented at theaters across the country, felt it was crucial for adolescent minorities to see themselves represented on stage.
“What a great metaphor to write about – the art of jumping Double Dutch,” Wilder said. “And for me, I kept exploring that. I couldn’t shake it out of my head…I feel like this fear that young women jump inside of, for me, is a metaphor for growth and for resilience, especially in this country, especially within their communities and also within themselves.”
The play, which is not scheduled to run in Philly yet, is part of the Kennedy Center’s 2018-2019 season of Performances for Young Audiences, as the production works to not only elevate the experiences of juvenile theatergoers but serve as a sense of nostalgia for adults, too.
While workshopping the final version over the last couple of years, Wilder says he felt empowered to write a piece that connected to young women and their families, because Double Dutch, as he describes, is a multigenerational sport.
“It gives visibility, for sure,” said Kashayna Johnson, who plays 17-year-old Krystin. “Everyone knows what Double Dutch is, but I don’t think people realize how much it’s a part of our culture and historically just growing up, you’ve heard songs and chants, but also because it gave a space to black girls or black women…It was a place where black girls could be themselves and didn’t have to compete for any type of validation.”
The play centers upon three South Philly foster sisters, Krystin, Jaleesa and Amber, whose plans to form a Double Dutch team are interrupted when talented jumper Symone, a pregnant 17-year-old from North Philly, throws herself into the heat.
Recalling his days as a student of the School District of Philadelphia, Wilder says he had pregnant classmates who grappled with what their futures held.
Pushing the edges of theater for young audiences, he wanted to see a young girl who’s pregnant on stage actually fight for her future – even when others think that she doesn’t have one.
“For me,” Wilder said. “I kind of wanted to affirm those girls through this play.”
Wilder intends, though, for the production to allow everyone to feel extraordinary – even when the world says otherwise.
“The idea of being a gem – everyone is fighting to be crowned this thing,” Johnson said. “But in reality, we’re all already special in our own way and we already have the things that we need that we’re trying so hard to grasp, and it’s just a matter of waiting for your perfect opening and trusting yourself in jumping in and nothing can stop you and nothing can get in your way and you will stick the landing.”