A Commotion of free community art

From left, Carlo Campbell, Shelli Pentimall Bookler, and Aisha Goss rehearse "The Greatest Life That Never Was" by Ed Shockley at a funeral home in South Philadelphia. It's part of the Commotion festival, an initiative of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and University of the Arts.
From left, Carlo Campbell, Shelli Pentimall Bookler, and Aisha Goss rehearse "The Greatest Life That Never Was" by Ed Shockley at a funeral home in South Philadelphia. It's part of the Commotion festival, an initiative of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and University of the Arts. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)

The Percent for Art festival in South Phila. presents provocative theater, video, more.

Posted: June 25, 2012

An architect waxes poetic about the cathedral and education center he has built for Grays Ferry, then says it never happened. He was shot dead at age 23 by his brother-in-law after an argument.

"I want to ask him something, like, 'Man, you want to make your sister a widow?' But I got no face. I got no future," the dying young man says. "My twin daughters never get born. His either. My half-face haunts him to his grave, a few drunken years later."

Such bleak, unflinching depictions of lives cut short by violence, alcohol, fate, and folly filled the Mitchum-Wilson Funeral Home in Point Breeze on Friday night. It was a play, not a funeral, but the same words of remembrance and grief pervaded the hall.

One actor depicted a young woman who died while attempting a motorcycle stunt on a dare from her brother. Another spoke of the young show-off who had been leaping from train car to train car whom he found dead under the wheels. A third portrayed a woman who perished as her apartment burned because the man outside was too drunk to figure out how to open the door.

The writer of the play, Ed Shockley, strung together true stories he collected from residents of South Philadelphia, where he grew up. He hopes the grim show, The Greatest Life That Never Was, can exhort his community to seize opportunities to better their lives.

In the final scene of his play, the would-be victims do not die. A man shot in a petty dispute lives to become a photographer despite his injuries. The victim's mother resists killing the shooter's child in retaliation, quits crack, and earns a college degree.

The message to the audience, Shockley said, is that they can choose their own paths away from the devastation depicted in the play's earlier scenes.

"We write our narratives. Once you see that, we can pick a happy ending," Shockley said. "How you see the event is what makes you the victim or the hero. In the ghetto, we tend to see ourselves as victims."

He adds: "The world's still sexist; the world's still racist. But it's not insurmountable. We're opposed, but we're not oppressed anymore. That's what isn't being preached in the black community."

He complained that people don't take the opportunities presented to them, mentioning that no students showed up recently for an acting workshop he offered at Audenried High School.

Free, provocative public art, he hopes, can help counter that problem. The play was part of a two-week festival, ending Saturday, designed to engage the South Philadelphia community in art.

It's paid for by Peco Energy Co. through the Percent for Art program, which mandates that when businesses construct buildings on land acquired from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, they pay 1 percent of their construction costs for public art. The $250,000 project, called Commotion, is a culmination of two years of free art offerings for the Grays Ferry, Point Breeze, and South of South Street neighborhoods.

For artist Jebney Lewis' temporary 20-foot statue that will be raised Saturday, University of the Arts students taught electrical engineering students at Audenreid to built parts and neighborhood elementary schoolers to nurture plants that will be incorporated into the sculpture, according to Commotion director John JH Phillips.

Visual artist Tim Fitts hosted workshops for residents to share stories. Those tales inspired his photography, which Commotion organizers hand out in a free 70-page book at the festival's events.

While creating his sound and video installation Night Ferry, which will take place Saturday night, Phillips, a University of the Arts professor, hosted free video-making workshops for the community.

According to Julia Guerrero, director of the redevelopment authority's Fine Arts Program, Commotion is the city's first Percent for Art project to take advantage of a 2010 change in the guidelines to permit performance art, not just permanent work like sculptures and mosaics. She said she believed it was the nation's first nonpermanent Percent for Art project, as well. That is fitting for Philadelphia, which launched the Percent for Art program in 1959, inspiring cities nationwide to take up the idea.

Festival organizers hope events like Commotion can help spur artistic excitement in the community.

"Getting people involved in this process, they realize it's not just being plopped down in their neighborhood. They had some relationship to it," Phillips said.


Contact Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771 or jzauzmer@philly.com.

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