Giving voice to a neighborhood, beyond the statistics

Neighborhoods, like people, can suffer from cursory first impressions.

Listen 1:41
The Renegade Company's Mike Durkin (left) collecting a resident's story (Dennis Payne)

The Renegade Company's Mike Durkin (left) collecting a resident's story (Dennis Payne)

Neighborhoods, like people, can suffer from cursory first impressions. A label that’s applied to a community can have lasting negative or positive impact.

In Philadelphia, that’s been the case with Kensington: first enduring the loss of industrial jobs and now it’s the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic.

But a local theater company wants to show that even such serious struggles don’t fully define a community.

“The old cliché is, don’t judge a book by its cover,” says Mike Durkin, Artistic Director of The Renegade Company. “But even more so today, we’re more than what is put out and it takes the time and the effort to explore that.”

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So Durkin and his colleagues are giving Kensington residents a platform to tell their stories through theater. “Working with these residents, we’re here to understand what they’re going through on a day-to-day level and find creative outlets for them, creative forms of expression and then from there, taking that to create a performance work,” he explains.

To that end, the company is hosting listening sessions and workshops at their base on Kensington Avenue, and that will form the basis of a theater production. They’re calling it “The Olde Man and the Delaware River,” an homage to the Ernest Hemingway novel “The Old Man and the Sea,” a tale of perseverance in the face of great adversity.

“Particularly in an area that has struggled for years, it’s to highlight the good, positivity, and how it’s persevering past it,” says Durkin. “That’s the linkage between the old man and the sea: the old man is Kensington. We’re really drawn to exploring this idea of perseverance and want to understand the root of addiction, the root of fear within the neighborhood, the root of prejudice, all these issues that are encountered by the opioid epidemic in the neighborhood.”

A companion to the theater project is Kensington Echoes, an online oral history archive of residents’ stories of life in the neighborhood.

Throughout the project, Durkin wants to remind people to look beyond the statistics and see the individuals involved. “All the stuff that’s happening in Kensington is a human issue. There’s effects in the neighborhood, there’s effects in the community, there’s effects across the city, but in the end it’s human lives that are going away.

“And the more effort we can put into talking with one another, sharing perspectives, being part of a communal experience, the more impactful daily life could be.”

The Renegade Company is holding rehearsals and workshops for “The Olde Man and the Delaware River”  throughout April and May.

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