by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
The Saints have marched in, staked their claim in Braddock, and are ready to show you a mystical, magical world that takes place right here, right now, around us, among us, in “The Saints Tour,” an immersive theatrical journey through deserted industrial spaces, burgeoning gardens and decaying cemeteries.
Since we first learned to communicate, humans gathered together around the fire, in the cave, and in sacred oak groves to tell and hear stories. It’s an ancient communal ritual. In Braddock, the Tour Guide (Bria Walker) spins Homeric yarns about the people in the blighted-but-rebuilding neighborhood.
This time, humans gathered outside a desolate dog park, the Tour Guide marches in, bedecked in a black dress, a delicate silk scarf in vivid earth tones swirled around her head and shoulders. After a short introduction, the audience follows her down Braddock Avenue, and the extraordinary expedition begins.
The Tour Guide leads her charges through the New Guild Art & Design Studio; the shop is laden with beautiful glasswork and the stunning, saintly iconography. The group exits through the rear of the building. Fifty or so people are directed to a yellow school bus.
On the bus, the Tour Guide is a tigress, hunching down, ready to pounce, listening to an imperceptible, ephemeral, unseen thing; translating the language of saints.
There are many weird and wonderful stops along the way on the tour. At one point, the bus snakes through the serpentine pathways of the Monongahela Cemetery, a gnarled passageway rising upward to the highest point of the hilltop, past crooked markers of the dead. The view from the top of the cemetery is spectacular. The tourists looked down at the tiny, disfigured community below, an urban diamond in the rough. In the distance, the purple flame from an impossibly tall smoke stack burned bright. On the top of another hill, the bright lights of Kennywood Park sparkled in the distance. An aerial silk performer dances on the limb of a tree; she writhes and contorts on a bolt of orange fabric.
The best part of the tour was when the stoic Tour Guide gently dispenses humor. Most of the audience/tourists couldn’t see past the veneer, but a small, plucky group of us snickered on the back of the bus, especially when the Tour Guide told the crowd to look right and then left, as if she was instructing them to swivel their heads for the first time in their lives.
There are some excellent stops along the way. On one particular bright spot, TeaAjah Cannon asked the tourists to dig in the dirt for trinkets, talismans of the Braddock Saints. Cannon is adorable with her dark skin and bright green hair. She is ebullient, effervescent, a joy to be in her company. It was stunning to discover she was only a sophomore at Propel Andrew Street High School.
The play theatrical experience is a massive undertaking for Bricolage and Real/Time Interventions, involving local artists such as Vanessa German, Lindsey Scherloum, David Pohl, James Simon, and Zena Ruiz. Playwright Molly Rice makes artful use of her surroundings. Rice’s tale is mystical, magical, but peppered with small moments of hilarity.
“The Saints Tour” is a tour de force, and a multitude of hands brought this project to life, but the success of this show lays squarely on Walker. She is electric, engaging, exciting. It’s difficult to even imagine anyone else in the role. She commands the bus with a paradoxical booming voice and quiet dignity. Near the end of the tour, she tells the tragic story of one young man and almost brought the audience/tourists to tears.
Bravo and brava to Artistic Director Jeffrey Carpenter and Producing Artistic Director Tami Dixon for shining a bright, heavenly light on Braddock.
“The Saints Tour” runs Wednesday through Sunday through June 13. For directions, additional information and more, go to http://www.bricolagepgh.org/events/saints-tour-0