Theatre Exile embraces South Philly Neighbors

Tue, 11/11/2014

Theatre Exile embraces South Philly Neighbors: A Daily News Feature


EAST PASSYUNK Avenue has transformed itself from a street of struggling mom-and-pop stores to a restaurant-rich Foodie Field of Dreams.

But man cannot live by bread, or wraps, alone.

Even the coolest neighborhood with the hottest Italian, Mexican, French-Canadian and Japanese soul food needs food for the soul, the kind that stimulates the brain instead of the tongue.

Housed a couple of blocks off the main drag in a former taxi garage on 13th Street near Reed, Theatre Exile is the hungry heart of East Passyunk.

"Slowly but surely, we're bringing in our neighbors," said Exile's artistic director, Deborah Block, sitting by the onstage swimming pool where "Red Speedo," a tense play about the morality of performance-enhancing drugs, runs through Nov. 23.

Although Theatre Exile specializes in morally complex dramas without easy endings, Block, who lives near the theater along with several of her colleagues, is fiercely devoted to making it an organic part of the neighborhood.

"I have breakfast all the time in a little diner at 12th and Reed," she said, talking about the locals' hangout, Atlantic Pizza, home of the fab four-dollar breakfast.

Last fall, during a diner schmooze with her neighbors, Block met a man in his 60s who told her he hadn't seen a play since high school.

"I walked him from the diner to the theater," Block said.

The play was "Cock," in which a gay man breaks up with his partner, hooks up with a woman, then returns to his estranged lover to sort things out.

That's a lot to process for a senior citizen who hadn't seen a play since high school.

"He was OK with it," Block said, smiling, pleased with a small victory in her mission to warmly welcome her neighbors into her gem of a local theater.

"Now, I want to get him to bring his wife here for 'Red Speedo,' " she said. "It'll be like a date night for them."

Theatre Exile's ultimate bond with its East Passyunk neighbors should happen in the fall of 2015 with the world premiere of a play based on Sal Paolantonio's biography, "Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America."

"Here we are in Rizzo Land," Block said happily. "One of my friends from the diner was a cop for 16 years when Rizzo was police commissioner and mayor. One of the crossing guards here is an African-American woman who lived in the neighborhood during Rizzo's time."

Block invited both to a reading of the play and to share their Rizzo memories afterward with playwright Bruce Graham and director Joe Canuso.

"We want the audience to feel the love and the fear of Rizzo in a real way," Block said. "He was a man whose moral structure was unique to himself. He raised questions about the difference between what is legal and what is right. This is so Theatre Exile."

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