The hushed crowd at the Penn Museum was rapt as each character rose from a “pew” to take center stage. The innocent man who’d served a 20-year prison term railed against a God who did not stand by him. A mother whose son was shot and killed looked across the aisles at the mother of the shooter and mourned the time that had been stolen from her. Later, a young man, his head hanging, wondered if he’ll be able to do the things that would make his mother proud—finish high school, go to college—now that she’s dead.
The “Community Monologues,” written by students in the University’s August Wilson and Beyond seminar, an Academically Based Community Service course supported by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, were inspired by the words of West Philadelphia residents and the works of Wilson, a playwright considered by many to be the greatest documentarian of African-American life in the 20th century. What began eight years ago as a class to introduce Wilson to Penn freshman has grown to also include older Philadelphians and students from William L. Sayre High School that wraps each semester with a “must-see” performance of dramatic monologues by both class members and professional actors.
Herman Beavers, a professor of English and Africana studies who leads the class with instructor Suzana Berger, says he hopes the course helps bridge the gap between the University and its students with the surrounding community.
“When University Police send out an alert telling people there’s been an incident at 42nd and Locust … instead of thinking, ‘That’s over there,’ I think what happens is somebody says, ‘Ms. Williams lives a block over from Locust Street. Let me check on her and see if she’s OK,” he says. “It’s not much, but if we can get Penn students to think that they are residents of West Philadelphia, we will have accomplished something.”
The course also seeks to bridge the divide between generations, with teenagers studying alongside senior citizens.
“The number of generations in the room has grown over the years,” Berger says. “That’s really helpful because, especially with August Wilson, a lot of the plays center on relationships across generations, sometimes of conflict and sometimes of support. To be able to discuss those plays having multiple generations in the room makes the understanding of each characters’ perspectives a lot richer.”
And, as the “Beyond” in the title implies, the course is bringing the ideals represented by Wilson, who died in 2005, into today, building a new generation of writers who will focus on forgotten communities.
“The charge to the class is that they are the beyond and that’s where it gets into their own experiences,” Berger says. “They create something they feel honors the stories that they’ve heard and learned in the same way Wilson wrote his plays to honor the stories he was hearing around the neighborhood in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.”
The class is built around Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” a collection of 10 plays, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century. The collection is also called “The Pittsburgh Cycle” because nine of the 10 plays are set in the neighborhood where the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner was born and raised.
In a 1999 interview, Wilson told The Paris Review he wanted to shine a light on a forgotten community: his own. “Fences,” for example, centers on Troy, a trash collector. By watching a play about Troy, Wilson says, “white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
The intergenerational seminar had 23 students—six Penn undergrads, three Philadelphia residents, and 14 Sayre students. This semester was the first to include the high school juniors.
“I like that my kids have a chance to expand their horizons. Penn is right down the street, but sometimes Penn feels like a whole separate world,” honors English teacher Jada Warfield-Henry says. “I like that the worlds got a chance to mesh. My juniors can get their feet wet and understand the college experience may be difficult, but it’s not more difficult than they can handle. These experiences get them more engaged, get them more excited about that next phase.”
Older Philadelphia residents joined the class midway through its first year after a community member began joining the classes. The relationship is now formalized, with residents who want to take the class donating volunteer time to the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance/Paul Robeson House & Museum.
Class and community member Roslyn Thomas, of Germantown, says she saw a posting about the class online and was eager to join. Wilson, she says, wrote for people of color and “what it’s like to live in a community with no voice.”
“He represents us,” says Thomas, 66, whose family is from Barbados. “He gives us presence in a world where we are so very often invisible. He gives us a voice, not only in the mainstream but also inside the culture.”
Also eager to participate are the West Philadelphia residents who are interviewed by the students, says Vernoca L. Michael, the director of the Paul Robeson House & Museum.
“Many of them are excited. This is their first experience having young people interested in them and their stories,” Michael says. “It’s always exciting to them what they have learned from members of the community.
Sayre junior Tyshaney Houston, 16, says the interviews were exciting and enlightening for the class members, as well.
“Everybody gets the Center City view of Philadelphia. They don’t know what really goes on,” she says. “It was just amazing to hear those stories. People walk around with a smile on their face every single day, but they could be hiding something that’s really deep.”
Penn sophomore Zita Ndemanu, a native of Indiana, says it would have been impossible to write the monologues without sitting down and talking with members of the West Philadelphia community.
“It doesn’t make sense to put on a play about Philadelphia if you’re not from Philadelphia and don’t know Philadelphia,” says Ndemanu, 19. “It relates to August Wilson because he’s from the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a majority black community, and he tried to characterize the experiences of his neighbors. We’re trying to do a similar thing, but with Philadelphia as a model.”
Support for the August Wilson & Beyond Seminar has been provided by The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. Additional support came from The Mellon Foundation via The H+U+D Colloquium: The Inclusive City.
Story by Natalie Pompilio. Photos by Avi Steinhardt.