Teens take on big subjects during Philly’s Mouthful Monologue Festival

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Tyler Riddick wrote

Tyler Riddick wrote "Restore My Brotherly Love" for the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Mouthful Monologue Festival. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

This weekend, the Mouthful Monologue Festival in Philadelphia will present monologues written by teenagers who are part of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, an organization celebrating its 30th year of teaching kids to write.

The festival (formerly called Philadelphia Voices), featuring 18 monologues performed by professional actors, is the most anticipated event of the organization’s year.

“The monologue is a very powerful theatrical form,” said executive director Lisa Nelson-Haynes. “It’s something that people that might not be into performative work, might actually digest.”

I expected you to live up to my name. You know, the jawn I had for as long as I remember: The City of Brotherly Love. But you’ve failed me and I’m sad to call you my people. You always talk about how the cops are killing us, but never fix your mouths to say that we’re killing each other.

That is from “Restore My Brotherly Love,” a monologue as the voice of the city of Philadelphia. Author Tyler Riddick used the city as a character.

“It knows its problems and how they need to be fixed,” said Riddick, a senior at the U School in North Philadelphia. “It also knows its citizen. It knows its strengths and what the city looks like when it’s all lit up in a beautiful way.”

In the piece, Philadelphia calls on its residents to rein in their gun lust, urging them not to settle their squabbles with bullets while dropping lines from the rapper Bizzle: “Truth is if you get shot you gon’ cry loud and every drop of gangsta in your body gon’ dry out.”

Riddick wrote the piece a few weeks after a friend was killed in the crossfire of a North Philadelphia gunfight.

“I found out over social media,” said Riddick. “I didn’t believe it at first, until the funeral where I saw his body in a casket. He was only 16.”

Writing the monologue spurred Riddick to do more. Her friend — whom she did not want to name — was a fan of basketball, so Riddick organized a community basketball tournament between district police and city teens. She wanted to bridge the gap of distrust between local law enforcement and neighborhood kids.

The March 31 tournaments included speakers from the anti-violence group Mothers in Charge, and a halftime raffle. The events raised about $360, which went to a college fund for her deceased friend’s brother.

“I was so nervous, but everything turned out excellent,” said Riddick. “I was a mascot, giving out gift cards and fun stuff.”

Riddick is shy when it comes to public speaking, and she’s happy to let someone else — a trained actor — read her work as part of the Mouthful Festival. She will, however, have to stand in front of an audience in a few weeks to perform “Restore My Brotherly Love” as part of a competitive NAACP scholarship application.

The monologues featured in the Mouthful festival cover a range of topics, including discrimination, gender identity, catcalling and fun stuff — the anxiety of ordering at a fast-food counter.

Since the Parkland shooting in Florida in February, young people have taken the national stage to speak on urgent issues in America. Nelson-Hayes says this is not new. After 30 years of teaching kids to write, the Philadelphia Young Playwrights organization has given a platform to teenagers who not only have strong feelings, but an ability to articulate them.

“I remember seeing something on Facebook the weekend after Parkland. A friend of mine said, ‘Who’s putting these kids up there to say these things?’ ” said Nelson-Haynes. “I became enraged. No one has to put them up there. They just need to be offered the forum and the vehicle.”

The Mouthful Monologue Festival runs for a week. Afterward, all the monologues will be rolled out for a few months as podcasts, feature performances, an interview with the young author, and comments from an expert in the field of the monologue’s subject.

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