If you’re like me, you probably don’t recognize the name Father James Cox. But, if you’re a Pittsburgher and a fan of history, you probably should.
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company made a good choice when they picked “Shantytown, The Ballad of Fr. James Cox” to open its new space in the Madison Arts Center at 3401 Milwaukee St. in Pittsburgh.
The musical, written by Pittsburgher, Ray Werner, traces the important work performed by this tireless pastor assigned to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the Strip District to feed and support the poor and needy caught up in the hopelessness of the Great Depression.
Among Fr. Cox’s numerous achievements were the serving of 3 million meals to the homeless during the 1930s and the introduction of the first free food script, which later became known as food stamps.
The good priest’s efforts even took him to the nation’s capital where he led a march of 25,000 to highlight the plight of the indigent and advocated for governmental relief to ease their economic distress.
|Father Cox Credit: Courtesy Photo|
Fr. Cox’s story is told largely by an ambitious and cynical cub reporter named Stephen determined to find and report on his suspicions that there’s more to the priest’s activities than meet the eye. Trying to find some of undercover misdeeds buried behind the Fr. Cox’s respectable veneer, he must first get his foot in the door by maneuvering beyond the priest’s protective and boldly assertive secretary, Catherine, played with a no nonsense attitude by Dominique Briggs.
The play opens with the cast clustered off to stage left around electric keyboardist and music director, Dwayne Fulton, singing the title song “Shantytown.” It’s the first of 18 surprisingly varied tunes that underpin the musical’s narrative that were composed and adapted by a collaborative team that includes the playwright, with input from Fulton, Bruce Foley, Mike Gallagher, Jerry McCarthy and Walt Woodward.
The reporter’s initial efforts to interview the priest prove successful as Fr. Cox (Michael Fuller) welcomes him and gives him free rein to come and go as he pleases. Soon, he’s seen milling among the downtrodden residents of Shantytown where he hears nothing but praise and respect for Fr. Cox after chatting with Larry (J. Alex Noble), Emma (Michele Bankole), Lazarus (Charles E. Timbers, Jr.) and Young blood (Sam Lothard).
In what constitute the first public performances of the musical during its run at the Madison Arts Center, the playwright lightens his script with flashes of humor and levity. All is not somber and solemn, even though the times are hard. Fuller, as Fr. Cox, has a kind of inner light that glows with optimism and good cheer. He offers hope and a helping hand to those who need it most.
As Johnny, one of the priest’s devoted followers, Chris Cattell is a cheery and smiling counterpoint to Larry’s ( J. Alex Noble in multiple roles) rational soberness and Lazarus’ largely somber demeanor.
Voice-wise, Bankoke’s powerful soprano has the strength and vitality of a Gospel singer while Timbers manages to thrill with his sonorous baritone. Early in the play, Lothard get to shine with his rendition of “Cross That Bridge.”
In what one in the audience described as a raw production in the Q & A following the play, Tony Ferrieri designed a bare bones set that starts off simply as a pair of white sheets strung along a wire line that’s fronted by a projector that shines various images as a background visual. Later the sheet curtain opens to reveal a microcosmic section of Shantytown in which much of the play is set.
Veteran director, Gregory Lehane (check out his list of impressive credentials listed in the program booklet) manages to get his actors to stoke the imagination of the audience by setting the right tone for the time and place of the musical.
Keep an eye out for the creative innovations of shadow puppeteer, Nick Lehane, who creates several interesting silhouettes in back of the sheet-like curtains. Kim Brown and Nicole White round out the technical support staff as costumer and lighting designer respectively.
As a play that’s themed around the concept of hope opens in a new space for a theater with hopeful aspirations, “Shantytown, The Ballad of Fr. James Cox,” is an apt selection. Producing artistic director, Mark Clayton Southers seems to have made a wise choice to kick off the first ever production at the Madison Arts Center.
“Shantytown, The Ballad of Fr. James Cox,” runs through March 26. For tickets and more information, go to https://www.pghplaywrights.org/shantytown/.