Although I no longer eat cheese steaks, I still appreciate the smell of fried onions and cheese whiz as I pass by the iconic intersection of 9th and Passyunk with Pat’s and Geno’s glaring at one another from their respective corners.
Once just a friendly place to chomp on a steak with your neighbors and a few tourists, in 2005 Geno’s set itself apart by becoming a firestorm of controversy. The owner of Geno’s Steaks, Joey Vento, displayed a sign at his establishment stating: “This is America. When Ordering, Please Speak English.”
The play and several of its actors have been nominated for Barrymore Awards.
I attended the play last April, and was taken by the accuracy of the South Philly “feel”that the actors portrayed, as well as the emotional intensity of the material.
Mr. Williams was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the play:
MC: Can you talk about what drew you to this topic and why you chose to fictionalize the material?
AZW: I thought what was happening in South Philly was a micro-version of the dialogue and reaction to immigration and changing racial stats in the rest of the country. It represented issues that were bigger than just one man. So I didn’t want to tell the “Joey Vento” story, but the story of people who shared his sentiments.
MC: The initial controversy in “Down Past Passyunk” centers around an interaction between Nicky Grillo and a customer who ordered in Spanish. The play begins, however, after the incident happened. Why did you chose to begin the play after the heated confrontation?
MC: Lastly, did you have some cheese steaks while you lived in South Philly? And if so, which was your establishment of choice?