I am rain–soaked, hangry, and 30 minutes late when I finally arrive at Theater Exile. The South Philly black box performance space, tucked next to homes and across from a park, is the location for Theatre in the X's February installment of their OG Reading Series, which honors long–time Philadelphia playwrights. Inside the lobby, I’m greeted by the laughter of LaNeshe Miller–White and Walter DeShields, two of the three co–founders of Theatre in the X (along with Carlo Campbell). “We’re still in the eating and drinking portion of the night,” Miller–White tells me, before I am whisked downstairs to a table filled with vegan cheeseburger sliders, boxed wine, and beaming faces. 

Though the general aesthetic of Theatre in the X is one of hope, Miller–White credits the initial conception of the group as one that emerged from feelings of frustration. As a Black theater artist, she felt constrained by the limited opportunities for her within mainstream theater companies. “Everyone did their Black History Month show. And that was it… We were over that.”

The ‘we’ in question included DeShields and Campbell, and together the three wrote up a grant to put on a show in 2013 in Malcolm X Park at 51st and Pine. “At that point, we were really just doing something to both bring art to the community and to give [Black theater artists] the opportunity to work,” Miller–White recalls. But when they were done, “everyone was like, ‘What’s next?’ And we were like, oh okay, this is a thing.” 

Today, Theatre in the X is going on its 11th year of delivering free Black theater to residents of Philadelphia. Though the group also holds staged indoor play readings throughout the year, the centerpiece of the program remains the annual outdoor summer performances at Malcolm X Park, which is just 10 blocks from Penn’s campus. The outdoor staging allows audience members to see the entire process of the show, from the wardrobe department steaming costumes to the set designers finishing up construction on the makeshift stage. 

With every show, the organization tries to comment on parts of the Black experience through stories that their primarily Black West Philly audience can relate to. Richard the III was transposed into the context of the Black church to make Shakespeare’s words more accessible to the modern audience. After a particularly rough year in terms of police violence against Black Americans, Theatre in the X put on The Wiz to celebrate—and facilitate—Black joy.

One of the stars of the TITX Richard the III production, Nancy Marie (known as Ms. Nancy), came to Philadelphia in 1985 straight out of USC where she studied acting. She’d since started a family and made a career writing Billboard chart–topping songs. But despite this, at times she still felt as though something was missing. “I realized I literally felt like I was dying,” Ms. Nancy recalls. “It was just a matter of, you know all this creativity that I have, I’m not doing anything with it.”

She still can’t help but recount with awe the muggy August day in 2015 when she stumbled upon an all–Black troupe of actors performing Othello to an enraptured intergenerational all–Black audience. Being adjacent to the Philly theater scene, she contacted DeShields and got involved right away with Theatre in the X.

Ms. Nancy has maintained a significant profile with TITX, being nominated for acting awards by organizations such as Broadway World. During the reading at Theater Exile that I went to—where TITX put on playwright Richard Lamont Pierce’s Ordinary People, directed by DeShields—she played an aging widow whose tears appeared so authentic that they rendered the audience utterly silent. 

Soon, Ms. Nancy will bring her talents to the organization as a playwright. Her play The Bookstore is the final installment of TITX’s OG Reading series. The script adapts the little–known true story of the FBI’s 1968 war on Black-owned bookstores, centering the tale in Harlem by featuring Una Mulzac’s Liberation Bookstore. It will be read May 13.

As Penn students, we have the unique opportunity to integrate ourselves within the city that our campus is situated in. It can oftentimes seem easiest to engage with Philadelphia by studying at an off–campus café, or by eating out, or perhaps through community service. The arts, and in particular the arts centered in West Philly, are typically overlooked when it comes to student engagement. However, as people residing in West Philadelphia, particularly because of some of the violence that Penn as an institution has enacted against (primarily Black) West Philly locals, there is a responsibility to interact with the area, to grow knowledgeable and familiar with West Philly residents. Theatre in the X provides a wonderful chance to do just that. 

Familial is the word that I’d use to describe the entirety of my recent evening at Theater Exile with TITX. The playwright, Richard Lamont Pierce, sits in the very back row smiling genially as audience members (many of them involved in some way with past or future Theatre in the X productions) gasp, laugh, and even sometimes talk back to the characters on stage. It is one of the actor’s birthdays; we all sing to her after the show. There’s some time allocated at the end for a “talk–back” with the playwright, where people can ask him questions about his writing process or provide feedback. The night ends with a standing ovation. 

In speaking to me about her experiences with TITX, Ms. Nancy spoke passionately about the chance that TITX has given her both to utilize her creativity and to make her community’s stories accessible. “What’s the point in being able to tell all these wonderful stories and not be able to reach the masses?” she muses. “The masses need it, you know what I’m saying?”