by Anna Rasshivkina
Everything has an unseen history. Every place is imbued with hidden magic. And through the history, we can sometimes glimpse the magic.
That’s the premise of Saints Tour, an immersive performance that led its audience on a bus and walking tour around Braddock, North Braddock and Braddock Hills. Created by nationally acclaimed playwright Molly Rice, Saints Tour is a site-specific play, personalized for every neighborhood in which it takes place. In 2009, it premiered in Louisville, Kentucky, then came to New York City’s West Village in 2010, and returned in Lower Manhattan in 2012. Braddock was the play’s fourth incarnation.
Saints Tour came to Pittsburgh through Bricolage Production Company, which is known for innovative and immersive theater, and Rice’s own production company, Real/Time Interventions. Saints Tour was supported in part by a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund.
“There’s something in the dirt,” Saints Tour’s tagline tells you. The audience is informed that Saints are known to emerge here this time of year. In episodic performances, these ghostly “Saints” illustrate the neighborhood’s stories. Meanwhile, a Tour Guide, “whose family has been rooted to the land for centuries,” leads the audience. Her job is to guide them through their journey, translating and illuminating the glimpses of Saints around them.
The Tour Guide was witty, serenely commanding, almost queen-like. “We will travel together. You will travel alone,” she says. The Tour begins.
Saints Tour starts on Braddock Ave., winds up into Braddock Hills and back down through North Braddock. The audience learns of Saints both mystical and real. There is the tale of Saint Lavuta, a Hungarian violin player from America’s largest sedentary gypsy camp, which was once behind what is now a Braddock warehouse. (“Sedentary gypsies—a strange concept, yes?” the Tour Guide quips.) In the shadow of “the black-breathing castle” (the Edgar Thomson Steel Works), the Tour Guide shares stories about Saints from Braddock’s battlefields during the French and Indian War, from its thriving steel town years, and, perhaps most importantly, from its complicated present.
By weaving fiction with local history, Saints Tour begot a folkloric sense of place. As the audience members wandered through Braddock, they periodically participated in small rituals. The acts symbolized appreciation for and revitalization of this overlooked neighborhood.
The journey concludes with a communal meal at Unsmoke Systems Artspace. Playgoers eat a simple soup created partly from locally grown ingredients and devised by Kevin Sousa (the chef behind restaurants Salt of the Earth, Union Pig & Chicken and, soon, Superior Motors in Braddock). After the meal, audience members are encouraged to share their own stories about their community, particularly those from Braddock.
Saints Tour was a touching and thought-provoking production, as revealing as it was whimsical. As it tells Braddock’s stories, it also gave voice to its inhabitants. Most of the performers were Braddock residents. Bricolage Production Company and Real/Time Interventions also partnered with local organizations like Braddock Farms, the Braddock Carnegie Library, the Braddock Youth Project, a work-skills program that engages youth in community service projects, and Gardweeno, a small garden where children plant vegetables and learn to code.
The play is, as Molly Rice once said in an interview, “Community Theater, in the deepest sense.” To make the performance accessible to the community, Bricolage Production Company reserved forty percent of the tickets for free admission for Braddock residents and mailed out flyers telling them about the play.
Saints Tour just wrapped up its first sold-out run this past weekend. But who knows—maybe the future will bring the performances to another unsung Pittsburgh neighborhood.