Quintessence Theatre wins prestigious Barrymore

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 11/24/22

Quintessence Theatre Group has won Theater Philadelphia’s $25,000 Philadelphia Award for Social Insight, honoring the company for its production of "Flyin' West."

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Quintessence Theatre wins prestigious Barrymore


Quintessence Theatre Group has won Theater Philadelphia’s $25,000 Philadelphia Award for Social Insight, honoring the company for its production of "Flyin' West."

The Social Insight award, formerly known as the Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award, is the largest cash prize administered by the Barrymore Awards and is independently funded and has its own jurors. Announced on Nov. 7, it honors the Philadelphia production which best illustrates how we interact with others, especially with respect to situations outside ordinary experience. Because of  COVID, the award is the only Barrymore that Theatre Philadelphia will issue in 2022. 

Quintessence, the Northwest Philadelphia region’s only classical repertory theater, is celebrating the honor by offering a streaming version of the production, which was filmed with three cameras during live performances. Tickets are $25, and streaming started Monday, Nov. 21, and runs through Sunday, Nov. 27. 

“This award demonstrates that some of the best theater in Philadelphia is happening at small professional theaters off Broad Street,” said Alex Burns, the company’s director. “We hope this honor brings new audiences to Quintessence to share our vision for progressive classic theater.”

Past winners of the award include Arden Theatre Company, which won the 2013 prize for "Next to Normal," a musical that explores the social trauma of people with mental illness. In 2014, Theatre Horizon won for "I Am My Own Wife," which tells the story of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who survived the Nazi regime.

And, according to Burns, “Flyin’ West” fits right in – because it “proves the power of old stories to better understand the present.” 

“‘Flyin’ West’ introduced a great American playwright and an unknown chapter of American history to our audiences, telling the story of four Black pioneer women at the turn of the 20th century,” Burns said. 

The play is about four African-American women who take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the westward expansion of railroads to build a settlement in Nicodemus, Kan. But they soon learn the idealism of "Go west, young man" and "The great American Dream" does not apply to them.

Playwright Pearl Cleage is a political activist with the avowed goal of advancing the sensibility of African American women regarding racism and sexism. Her character Sophie links the two: "Don't want no white man to tell me what to do all day and no black man what to do all night." 

Two women stand out. Miss Leah is a grandmother who grew up an enslaved person, (vibrantly played by Zuhairah "Z" McGill, who also directs). Young Sophie is a free woman  who lived through the collapse of Reconstruction in Memphis. Together, they bookend the experience of 19th century American apartheid.

The villain of the piece is Frank, the son of an enslaved woman and her enslaver. Frank hates his black ancestry and tries to undermine Nicodemus residents by conspiring with white land speculators. "Flyin' West" is the tale of how the settlers band together to beat Frank at his own game.

The story is fictional but rooted in history. Following the collapse of Reconstruction, the memory of abolitionist John Brown was the inspiration for former slaves to establish a half dozen settlements in Kansas. Nicodemus was the most prosperous, and by the mid-1880s it had a population of 600.

Decline set in, following the refusal of railroad companies to run a line through the town. Later, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression proved devastating.  Today, the permanent population is down to 20, the only Kansas settlement to survive at all.

Yet it thrives, thanks to the National Park Service registering Nicodemus as a national historic site. Every year, its population swells with a rush of visitors in the last week of July, when the town hosts its annual "Emancipation Homecoming" festival.

The Barrymore awards are in suspension because of COVID. The Virginia Brown Martin Fund, which funds the Social Impact award, was the only cash award benefactor willing to have their committee view performances and take submissions this year. Next year, Theatre Philadelphia hopes to sponsor a full slate of awards.

For information visit quintessencetheatre.org.