Play Set in South Philly Nominated for Barrymore Award

Play Set in South Philly Nominated for Barrymore Award

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Geno’s Steaks

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.”

A. Zell Williams used this conflict as fodder for his play, “Down Past Passyunk.”performed by the Interact Theatre Company.

The play and several of its actors have been nominated for Barrymore Awards.

A. Zell Williams

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?

AZW: It’s a bit of a writer’s tool called a late point-of-attack.  Starting after an incident that the characters on stage know about forces the audience to catch-up with them.  This gets the crowd to invest a bit more in the story and connect to the situation on a deeper level.

MC: Why did you chose to develop the story into a morality play instead of just focusing on the racial conflict?
AZW: The two are intertwined.  I don’t know if you can have a character who questions someone else’s validity based on race without a question of morality.

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Alex Keiper and William Zielinski
MC: At the end of the play, you touch on the gentrification that has evolved within the neighborhood. Did you see this firsthand while you were living in South Philly?
AZW: I see it happening in all large American cities.  We’re becoming a country more staunchly divided by class lines then racial lines.  This is leading to those with means taking over places that used to belong to working class citizens.  I’m glad we’re living at a time when people are opening discussing income gaps, but I worried we aren’t doing enough to deal with the problem.

MC: Lastly, did you have some cheese steaks while you lived in South Philly? And if so, which was your establishment of choice?
AZW: Of course!  I probably frequented Jim’s on South Street more than any other place.