Imagine the woman hours spent in streets and homes and churches the past two years, listening, taping and transcribing before emerging as the proprietor of dozens of voices, all hoping to be heard. Then, the hours of writing and rewriting, memorizing and staging, rehearsing and performing -- all of that, for Tami Dixon to tell her "South Side Stories" in 75 minutes on stage.
Ms. Dixon has created a powerful one-woman show at City Theatre -- on the South Side, of course -- transforming herself into two dozen characters and bringing their true stories to pulsating life. The tales coalesce into a tour de force with clever connecting threads of words, music and colorful, whimsical projections by illustrator David Pohl.
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. The play opens Nov. 10 at City Theatre. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 11/8/2012)
Characters fly by in a phrase or stick around for a while, depending on where they fit into the tapestry woven by Ms. Dixon, who studied storytelling techniques and worked with director Matt M. Morrow to push at the boundaries of where a story begins and how it ends up being told and retold.
At last Thursday's opening-night performance, Ms. Dixon entered singing Woody Guthrie's "Pittsburgh Town," which includes the line, "What did Jones & Laughlin steal?" Then she described her view from the Slopes, where she can see "from the hill of Troy to the hill of Squirrel," a cue to sit back and see what we could see through Ms. Dixon's prism of discovery and invention.
The actress, artistic director of Bricolage Theater Company and now playwright, took us along on her journey from the mundane to the wow as she traversed the stepped terraces of Tony Ferrieri's set in the confines of City's intimate Hamburg Studio Theater. With Mr. Pohl's animated illustrations, the set seemed to expand the small space as the stories spanned the distance from the Flats to the Slopes and back.
Ms. Dixon begins at the beginning of her own South Side story, letting out a primal scream to signal a distraught neighbor who discovers a body in a nearby home. Events unfold over the course of show, woven between scenes of Ms. Dixon becoming someone else, and then another someone, and so on.
The actress renders the handful of accents conversing in St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church's Pyrohy Kitchen. 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.
One resident blames the yuppy invasion (yuppies are not welcome by long-termers) on the arrival of Mario's saloon, with all those ferns. Why would anyone wait in line at a bar when there were so many others to belly up to at a moment's notice?
Ms. Dixon demonstrates her dexterity performing a rap written for the occasion, with music by composer and sound designer Nathan Leigh. A sampling of the words celebrating the 179 bars in the Flats: "A boy grabbed my caboose / In the Smiling Moose. / Grandmas in babushkas / Hanging out in the Hookah Bookah. / Wearing next to nothing / So the boys give me the lookah ..."
In 2005, when Ms. Dixon was a newcomer to the South Side, she was learning the rules of engagement but already felt an immediate personal connection to her neighborhood. She could sense the loss and renewal of a place where J&L steel had ruled for a century and then ceased to exist, but the community kept on ticking.
The Cleveland native and Carnegie Mellon alumna won a fellowship to find out what people from the Slopes to the Flats were saying about how life had evolved -- or in some cases, had not -- and to translate what she heard into this cultural happening. To inhabit the characters she encountered, Ms. Dixon worked with dialect coach Sheila McKenna, chair of the Point Park University theater department and a frequent collaborator with Bricolage and City theaters.
They have succeeded in creating distinct characters -- young and old, educated and not, old country and born in the USA. Some yinzer accents seem over the top, but perhaps that's because I have not spent two years embedded in the South Side.
No one can accuse Ms. Dixon of being wishy-warshy about her vision. When it comes to creating a theatrical experience, she's all in.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published November 21, 2012 3:30 PM