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Jawn Wooders is a hot mess—in the very best way possible. In his show, The Birth of Jawn, he is very clear about the fact that this is his first Fringe show ever, and that the show developed out of his first drag performance ever, which happened the week before the world shut down.
The Birth of Jawn is an audio tour you can experience in two ways. There is the virtual tour, which was my choice, and that version is augmented by Google Maps. There is also the meatspace option of a self-guided journey accompanied by the same audio tracks with the addition of directions. Wooders mentions that Google Maps can be glitchy, and I concur. I found that experiencing the piece on my phone using the Google Maps app was a smoother journey than on my laptop using Chrome. Your mileage may vary.
In his piece, Wooders takes us on a walk through his LGBTQIA2+ Philadelphia, from the Italian Market to the Avenue of the Arts. If you’ve ever walked around a passionate new friend’s neighborhood, and they feel they must explain every experience they ever had at length, that’s the overall vibe. This isn’t necessarily bad, just a lot to take in. Anticipating this, Wooders makes clear that you can stop the tour at any time and take the tour as many times as you wish, all for the price of one ticket. Although the level of detail can seem overwhelming, it’s ultimately worthwhile. As a native Philadelphian, I’ve spent many hours in the area the tour covers, and yet I saw it in a completely new light thanks to Wooders.
One of the best features of the show is the host’s kindness. He often checks in to make sure you are at the right location for the accompanying track or suggests ways to negotiate Google Maps when it proves problematic. Due to the app’s dedication to photograph as much of the world as possible, combined with the “Safer at Home” guidance of early quarantine, many of the Philadelphia photos are out of date. This grants the virtual pilgrim a benefit unavailable on the real-life tour: the chance to view a version of the city that no longer exists. I found that experience to be both edifying and saddening, as I didn’t realize how many safe havens for the LGBTQIA2+ community have shuttered due to the pandemic.
Wooders’s stories, while important in explaining his journey into the drag king world, often suffer from the fervor of the newly transformed, and this brings me to my biggest problem with the piece. There is a difference between skill and craft. Jawn Wooders has mad skills, there’s no doubt about that. However, he hasn’t had the time to develop his craft, which results in an overly baroque dramatic structure involving him, his producer, and his best friend Ricky, who is little more than a plot device. Perhaps due to his newness as a playwright, Wooders also has yet to realize that just because something is true doesn’t mean it holds dramatic possibilities. If you are willing to accept that Jawn Wooders is Philadelphia’s newborn drag king and enter the piece with that in the forefront of your mind, a gritty, honest, and ultimately rewarding trip awaits.
What, When, Where
The Birth of Jawn. Created and performed by Stephanie Wobensmith. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. Through October 3, 2021. The IRL tour begins at Ninth and Washington Streets and ends at 12th and Market Streets. (215) 413-1318 or fringarts.com.
If choosing the Google Maps version of the tour, when arriving at the show’s landing page, don’t select the link that begins a paragraph of information about that version. This will lead you to a broken link. Rather, go to the top of the page (on a lap or desktop) or to the menu (on a phone) and select the Google Maps option at the top of the page.
The Birth of Jawn is audio based with no visual component except for the walking tour. For the walking tour, sidewalks in the Ninth Street Market may pose a challenge for wheelchair users.
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