The following is a guest-post from Norma Thompson and Charlene Foggie Barnett — two of the six women who had the opportunity to act out their life stories on the August Wilson Center stage in “The Women of the Hill.” The stage piece, produced and directed by Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks, embodied the legacy of the strong women at the heart of African American culture–specifically Pittsburgh’s historical Hill District. Norma and Charlene wanted to share their experiences with you. The play and the women were the featured cover story in the Pittsburgh City Paper on November 19, 2009.
One of the greatest experiences of my life was working in the production of The Women of the Hill. The producers, Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks, were excellent. Our technical staff, stage manager, and all others who worked with us had so much spirit and understanding.
Each of our stories was unique in their own way, but they wove a tapestry of the similar experiences of our lives and the history of the Hill District. The play set us on a journey together through the years -where we shared our ups and downs, triumphs and failures, hopes and fears - from the oldest to the youngest in the cast. The audience also traveled in the journey with us, and I am constantly hearing how our stories touched their lives. The audience shares in our bond with their hope for all good things to come to the Hill.
The six of us formed a bond that I hope will never be broken. Kimberly, Marlene, Phillis, Brenda, Charlene, and I have a sisterhood that looks forward to all the wonderful things the future will bring to the Hill District.
A Wonderful Sisterhood
From the moment I became aware of the play, “The Women of the Hill,” I felt magnetically drawn to the process. Simply put, I feel that my being cast in this play was a dream come true, and I will always cherish how seamlessly my “worlds” came together.
The thought of performing was not frightening to me, because I was a theatre major in college and have performed many times since, but never for anything as personal, nor historically significant as this. I gulped each time I remembered that this play was to be included in a celebration of the great playwright, August Wilson and his homage to the strength of the black women he encapsulated in the character, Aunt Esther, of his historic Pittsburgh Cycle of plays. The thought of being a performer in this beautiful theatre, in its inaugural season, was at times, unfathomable to me.
Once confirmed that I was indeed in this play, I couldn’t wait for the rehearsal process to start and to meet the other ladies chosen. The evening finally came when I walked into the August Wilson Center, and we were introduced to one another. Immediately, we started filling in connective links as to how we might know each other, and our family and friends. Talvin Wilks, our writer/director, gave us a script overview, and discussed the next phases of the production. We did our first reading of a portion of the play, and it started to come clear to us, how this unique presentation would be performed. We all left filled with anticipation for the next meeting, and a sense of sisterhood and camaraderie began to unfold. Talvin brought treats for us to nibble on for each session, as many of us were coming from work for rehearsals, but then one cast mate made us some tasty chili one evening, and that set the tone for all of us to take turns bringing something to keep our energy up for the two weeks of rehearsals, prior to the show. One thing that stood out about our cast was it’s strong faith in God, and we prayed before each rehearsal and performance, for His honor and glory. We gave cast and crew members rides and helped each other in any way, necessary.
In the course of these weeks, we had rewrites, and script changes everyday, as things had to be tightened for the pace of the show. It was often quite hard to relinquish a beloved storyline, but we came to understand and appreciate the stride we needed to allow the performance to take. Along with rehearsals came television, radio, and newspaper interviews and photo sessions. We made our costume selections, which basically was to be any outfit in which we felt comfortable and most like ourselves.
In addition, Ping Chong always includes a potluck dinner with the cast and crew, prior to the production of his shows. I was privileged to host the potluck in my home, which was like having our own Thanksgiving with our new “Women of the Hill” family. We even celebrated two birthdays.
Finally the day came to hold our first rehearsal on the main stage. The script, lighting, music, props, and costumes - everything was coming together. We were all very excited, and at times edgy, because changes come fast in live theatre, and adapting quickly is essential. The full production staff, from our director’s, and stage manager all the way to the wardrobe mistress, was all wonderfully accommodating and supportive of any thing we needed. Before each actual show, Talvin and Ping led us in “theatre games” on stage, which cemented the vibrations of everyone’s feelings, and created a sense of trust between we six actors.
The performances felt magical, and although we were nervous, we gained strength from each other and through the response of the audience. It was very difficult to do our last show. We had only done one weekend together, but it felt like saying goodbye to a season long run! Many of the “professionals” commented on our positive attitude, and I can attest that I have never felt so connected to both cast and crew, in any other show I’ve ever done. I’ve had countless emails of praise from friends and audience members who attended the show. I was also stopped at the grocery store by a new couple to the Pittsburgh area, who said the piece taught them so much about the Hill District’s rich history, and they are even more proud to call Pittsburgh their new home.
My gratitude for this opportunity knows no bounds. The spirit of the August Wilson Center staff is as beautiful and impressive as the facility they work in. Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks brought the best of our collective pasts to light, and patiently gave us the confidence and poise to reveal our stories. In turn, we were honored to bring a positive view of our beloved Hill District, to the world. My thanks to my fellow cast mates, for their respect, love and friendship. I am truly blessed!
–Charlene Foggie Barnett