The Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival (PWTF) opened its fifth annual run on August 1 at the Arden Hamilton Family Arts Center, with a brisk slate of three one-acts exploring the pain, joy, hilarity, and histories of sisterhood across generations and centuries.
The evening of staged readings opened with Sarah’s Poem, by Charissa Menefee. Set in 1836 Philadelphia, it’s an intriguing window on a trio of free Black sisters who harbor people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. Sarah (Ashley Davis) is a poet who’s afraid she shies away from ministering to the refugees’ blisters because she’s weak, but her pragmatic sister Margareta (Niya Colbert) counters that Sarah just has especially sensitive feelings.
Sarah struggles with finding her inspiration for poetry in the people she aids on the Underground Railroad. Will her writing draw suspicion to the household or endanger her subjects? She wonders if telling these stories can help in the way that more practical, physical tasks can. And she looks at the desperate straits of the formerly enslaved people she meets and wonders, “Is life more precious than the circumstances, no matter what?” It’s a question she can never pose to the people she’s helping.
Villanova alum Marissa Kennedy’s Relays spins a family story of two elderly sisters and their teenage granddaughters/great nieces. Helen (Nancy Marie) and Cissy (Nicole Stacie) have been watching the Penn Relays every year for decades, since their own glory days on the track.
Danielle (Colbert) is already slated to run, but her younger sister Jasmine (Davis) hasn’t yet dared to prove herself, for reasons the four characters expound upon by turns. Jasmine doesn’t want to run. She wants to win. She refuses to risk becoming an object of pity by not meeting her goal. But in running, as in life, sometimes the prospect of success can be as scary as failure.
Relays takes a more stilted and didactic format than the evening’s other two plays, with the characters’ inner lives neatly delivered in a quartet of monologues to the audience, intermingled with the dialogue. But likable, robust characterizations by the ensemble and a predictable yet satisfying story arc keep things moving.
Ring Shout!, by Philly-based playwright and PlayPenn Foundry member Teresa Miller, introduces a quarrelsome quartet of sisters traveling from present-day New Orleans to Philadelphia. The women, who lost their parents to Hurricane Katrina, convene to arrange a memorial for their recently deceased grandfather in West Philadelphia. Miller deftly captures the way that a reunion for a death can bring out both the best and the worst in a family.
The sisters learn that there’s no need to call a funeral home: their grandfather’s last wish was for a Ring Shout memorial, in an African Christian tradition that puts the sisters barefoot at home in their Sunday best. The performance concluded on an infectious, riotous musical note, anchored by Stacie’s powerful voice.
A bright future
Director Christina May made full use of the space in the small venue, despite the actors carrying their scripts, making for an usually dynamic reading. And May’s committed ensemble gave full voice to the many characters onstage, without costumes or props.
PWTF, despite some bare-bones production elements and being fairly new to the scene, already has a polish in its talent and presentation that bodes well for its future—and the fest boasts high interest from writers. Cofounder and artistic director Polly Edelstein told me in the lobby that PWTF fielded 150 submissions for this year’s event.
The festival runs through Sunday, August 4. Take a look at our preview for more on the lineup, which includes full-length drama and kid-friendly musical shows. And on Friday, August 2, PWTF teams with the Parent Artist Advocacy League to celebrate the second annual International Mother Artist Day, which is gaining traction online with the hashtag #IntlMotherArtistDay.
What, When, Where
An Evening of One Acts. By Charissa Menefree, Marissa Kennedy, and Teresa Miller. Directed by Christina May. August 1, 2019, at the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival at the Hamilton Family Arts Center, 62 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. phillywomenstheatrefest.org.
The Hamilton Family Arts Center is an ADA-compliant venue.