“This was Frank…,” said one audience member after stepping out of a “Rizzo” matinee, the show’s world premiere.
Through their latest production, Philadelphia-based company Theatre Exile set out to transform the controversies of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo into a full-length play. Exile commissioned Bruce Graham to create the production using excerpts of “The Last Big Man in Big City America,” by former Inquirer reporter Sal Paolantonio.
“We felt the book was a very balanced look at the man,” Exile artistic director Joe Canuso said.
Social, political and racial elements surrounding Rizzo during his time as police commissioner and mayor have evoked a spectrum of views by Philadelphians over the past half-century. The play strives to iron out these conflicting perceptions of the controversial mayor with neutrality.
“We didn’t want to glorify him, but we didn’t want to say he was the devil,” Canuso said. “We wanted to take a step back and be objective.”
The play is not solely an examination of the man—rather, the production uses Rizzo as a lens to witness the history of Philadelphia.
Bookended by the scene of Rizzo’s death during his 1991 campaign, the play flashes back to moments of his personal and public life while tracking major events of the mid to late 20th century, like the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War sentiment and gay and women’s rights reform movements.
“The Rizzo years were a very turbulent time in the city. … He was in the middle of all of this change going on,” Canuso said. “And he believed that the way to keep order was to keep the status quo.”
Headlines from Philadelphia newspapers were projected above the stage to convey cultural changes unfolding during the city’s tumultuous times.
“It’s fascinating to be an outsider and for the play to almost be like an explanation as to why the city is the way it is,” said California native Brey Ann Barrett, the company’s director of new play development. “Why the city almost feels like it’s going through a recovery since then.”
To embody the spirit of Rizzo, actor Scott Greer said he approached the role with impartiality when he joined the early stages of the production in 2014.
“Everyone has their own Rizzo story,” Greer said. “But in the end, you just have to forget who he was in terms of history and what people think and just play the part.”
As a native of Atlanta, Greer himself did not have his own Rizzo story from the 1960s and ‘70s. His preparation for the role, however, unbeknownst to himself, initiated two decades ago.
In a chance decision, Greer read Paolantonio’s book after moving to Philadelphia in the early 1990s.
“I was fascinated with his contradictions even before playing him,” Greer said. “I certainly never imagined when I read the book that I would be playing him.”
After receiving the role 20 years later, Greer reviewed several parts of the book in preparation for the show, paricularly segments regarding Rizzo’s relationship with his father. Alongside Canuso, Greer studied videos of Rizzo, concentrating on his speech pattern and mannerisms.
Aside from these technical aspects, Greer and Canuso enriched the play by interviewing individuals who had direct experiences with Rizzo, like former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode, former Pennsylvania state senator Vince Fumo and Rizzo’s political strategist Martin Weinberg, who is also a character in the production.
“We did not want to have a cartoon of this man,” Canuso said. “Rather than having to look or talk exactly like him, it was more about finding the essence of him … this truthful and honest sense of him.”
Grace Maiorano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.