Pennsport performing arts company produces fairytale featuring dance, puppets and poetry

Philly PACK presents “Brown-Eyed Rapunzel,” a new show exploring parenthood and race. 

Pennsport-based performing arts collective Philly PACK is presenting an original work, “Brown-Eyed Rapunzel.”  A part of the citywide FringeArts Festival, the production – a fusion of visions from three Pennsport mothers – intertwines dance, poetry, puppetry and acting to tell a multi-dimensional story exploring parenting and race. (Above: 10-year-old Kya and seven-year-old Lynnea Prunty with Philly PACK founder Jess Noel.) (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

An old auto mechanic’s garage once sat at the corner of Federal Street and Moyamensing Avenue. 

But, when Pennsport resident Jess Noel, founder of Philly Performance Art Club for Kids (PACK), discovered the property a few years ago, she envisioned the space in a new light – figuratively and literally.

Along with scrubbing grease and removing cars, her PACK team, which was founded in 2011, replaced a rolling steel garage door with a dozen white-trimmed windows. 

“I could just picture how much light would be in here,” Noel recalled. 

The former garage, which Philly PACK calls home, has transformed into an extensive performance venue featuring a stage, studios and even a costume wardrobe – all in an effort to deliver a spectrum of performing arts to the Pennsport neighborhood and across South Philadelphia. 

Continuing its community-centric mission, which especially stresses fostering both dance and theater skills in children and young adults, Philly PACK is presenting an original work, “Brown-Eyed Rapunzel,” which runs Sept. 6-7 at 7 p.m. at the re-imagined venue (233 Federal St.).

A part of the citywide FringeArts Festival, the production –  a fusion of visions from three Pennsport mothers – intertwines dance, poetry, puppetry and acting to tell a multi-dimensional story exploring parenting and race.

“I really wanted to open up a conversation about race and motherhood,” said the show’s writer and director, Monica Flory, who is the playwright and education director of PACK. “Being a white mom to mixed-race kids, I found that there are some things that are really specific to that experience and something that all of us experience as parents that I wanted to touch on and just really start that conversation.”

Framing a semi-autobiographical work, Flory, whose children are making their professional debuts in the show, originally workshopped the production through the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival last summer.

The project, which is described as a “time travel poem,” follows a mother as she tries to recount a difficult family story to her mixed-race 7-year-old. But the mother is transported 23 years into the future, which is present day, when her daughter is an adult.

“We just want them to talk about race in a real way,” Noel said. “And we want to be a part of that conversation.”

Using fairytales as the focal point, the production retells the story of Rapunzel, which is conveyed through shadow puppets that concurrently serve as the backdrop of the play. 

Performed by puppeteer Kat Caro, who is also PACK’s production designer, the images, encompassing a cast of paper characters and castles, then correspond with the movement choreographed by Noel.

“It just has a very dreamlike quality,” Caro said. “It is happening. It isn’t happening. Every part of it – it’s symbolic but very, very immediate. So, it’s like all happening at the same time.”

Transporting audiences to this dreamscape, the pivotal objective during rehearsals was weaving together the various performance techniques to create a coalescence. 

Noel says, as she’s choreographing, she tries to translate Flory’s language and Caro’s shadows into certain shapes. 

“That was the challenge for us – to figure out how these two worlds connect with this world, and so, what we’ve been doing through the rehearsal process is finding, we call it, the nuggets,” Noel said. “Finding the moments where the dancers connect with the shadows connect with the actors. That’s the key so it’s not just three pieces but it’s cohesive.”

Though the storyline embraces the spirit of a fantasy, its nuances allude to real life, especially today’s reality. Amidst meeting her 30-year-old daughter, the mother uncovers the social and political climate of 2019.

Among the show’s many facets of motherhood, one theme centers upon the approach to parenting in the modern era. 

“I think (Flory) touches on so many incredibly current, difficult things right now, like police brutality and the border,” Caro said. “And it’s a lot about the world that we’re leaving to our kids and how it’s not what we wanted it to be or how scary it is – regardless of what you are or aren’t doing. So, I think it’s a lot of how much can you protect them? How much can you prepare them? And, how much can you explain, even?” 

All three performing artists, who call themselves “work wives,” say while they hope audiences are enchantedly entertained with “Brown-Eyed Rapunzel,” the production is intended to spur difficult dialogues between parents and children of all ages and races. 

Like a dream that might not make sense in the moment, the show could gradually feel clearer to audiences well after they’ve left the theater.

“I think there’s a lot to leave with and think about later,” Caro said. “And I think just the idea of a conversation with your kids and how much it stays with them and how important it is to be frank with them. And, I think that people do need that lesson – that they can handle anything. That’s something that we keep coming up against here at PACK….Telling a story that is easy to watch and beautiful on top of everything else – makes it that much more poignant in the end.” 

To purchase tickets, visit here. 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano