'South Side Stories' captures neighborhood's progress through various characters

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Tami Dixon will be getting together tonight with some old friends. You are invited.

It’s “South Side Stories,” Ms. Dixon’s one-woman show at City Theatre, where she transforms herself into two dozen South Side characters, telling their neighborhood stories and bringing them to life through their own words.

Perhaps you caught one of her shows when Ms. Dixon presented them last winter, the culmination of a couple of years of work interviewing South Side residents and digging into their community.

Tami Dixon talks about 'South Side Stories'

Tami Dixon, star of the one-woman play "South Side Stories," talks with the PG's Sharon Eberson about her work. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 11/8/2012)

“I wasn’t a playwright before this project,” said Ms. Dixon. “I wanted a deeper sense of what it meant to steer the ship from beginning to end. I did a lot of research and collecting. I enjoy talking to people. But I was pretty fearful about the next phase.”

The next phase, of course, was taking those stories and turning them into a play.

“I was terrified,” she said. “It’s 1,200 words by myself. At least when there’s other performers you can get some help from your scene partner when you get lost.

“I’ve been in many, many plays, and I’ve written sketch comedy. But I hadn’t really tackled something as serious as this. I was nervous, thinking I was out of my depth, unprepared. But sometimes putting yourself in those uncomfortable positions leads to really incredible events.

“It was not easy. But I think somebody else can do the easy things. The failure from taking greater risks is far more fulfilling that the success of something you already know how to do.”

A success? Here’s how the Post-Gazette’s Sharon Eberson critiqued a November 2012 performance:

“The actress renders the handful of accents conversing in St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church’s Pyrohy Kitchen,” Ms. Eberson wrote. “In another story, she becomes a worried mother, her trouble-making son and the priest and nun who try to keep him on the straight and narrow. Next she may be a former mill worker recalling the horrible heat of the furnaces or a woman who has had trouble fitting in since moving here from Florida.

“A vivid scene that could be from any depiction of the South Side has young women trying to move a chair from the parking space in front of a house and arguing with the woman who put it there. They obviously don’t know the etiquette — that a chair holding a Sah Side space is sacrosanct.”

The stories are familiar, yet eye-opening. Just the way Ms. Dixon found them.

“I did not have a vision for what the result was going to be when I started, and that allowed me to be very organic and be in the moment,” she said. “I was not steering my ideas into a bucket of where things had to go because this is what this had to be in the end.

“I was very interested in the history of this. I live on the Slopes. The idea that 40 years ago there was a mill pumping out black smoke 24 hours a day. The view was not what I see today. How does that change people when that is gone? How do people survive transition like that? The more detailed I am about the specificity of the South Side, the more universal it becomes. These are stories about people surviving.”

The 75-minute show also involves music and humor.

“I think, being a Pittsburgher, you get some of the jokes,” Ms. Dixon said. “But I’ve had people from South Africa come and see it and say, ‘Oh, we do a little parking chair thing like that.’ People from Baltimore said, ‘We don’t use chairs, we use garbage cans.’”

Tonight, the characters return as Ms. Dixon kicks off a run of shows that will continue through Jan. 26. You can find dates and showtimes at www.citytheatrecompany.org.

“I’m really excited about this run because I feel like I was so scared the first time, so nervous,” Ms. Dixon said. “And now I feel like I can really tell these stories in a different way because they’ve lived inside me for another year and they’re more meaningful now and I’m a little bit more relaxed. I know that these stories touch many people, and I’m really excited about being able to live inside them again and tell them again.”

City Theatre is at 1300 Bingham St. on the South Side and tonight’s show starts at 7 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35 to $55.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

First Published January 8, 2014 4:26 PM

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