Quintessence Theatre receives The Philadelphia Award for Social Insight for Flyin’ West

-Courtesy of Perpetual Motion PR
photo by Linda Johnson

On Monday November 7, Quintessence Theatre, Philadelphia’s professional classic repertory theatre, was the recipient of the only award given out at Theatre Philadelphia’s annual industry celebration. The Philadelphia Award for Social Insight, formerly the Virginia Brown Martin Award, was given to Quintessence’s sweeping production of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West, a play that recounts the challenges faced by a group of Black pioneer women in 1898 who took advantage of the Homestead Act, braved the journey west and settled in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas. The production was directed by Zuhairah McGill. Quintessence was awarded $25,000 for the production. The runner up was Theatre Exile’s production of “The Mother F**ker With the Hat”. 

To celebrate the award, Quintessence Theatre will present an encore virtual streaming of Flyin’ West from November 21 – 27. This three camera recording from a live performance will be available to stream from the comfort of your home.

The Philadelphia Award for Social Insight seeks to honor the spirit of Philadelphia by acknowledging a production from any period or genre that demonstrates the ability of theatre to illuminate the way we live and interact with others as we seek to build community.  The award recognizes a production that leaves its audience with a deeper appreciation of the people we interact with, and a more focused understanding of the conditions and interactions inherent in our social world.  A production that provides a new, or enhanced, understanding about the lives, histories or specific situations of which we may not be familiar or cognizant.

Formerly known as the “Brown Martin Award” the name was changed to more accurately reflect its mission, which is to honor the spirit of Philadelphia by celebrating theater that brings its audiences deeper insight into the remarkable diversity that is humanity. Funded by the Virginia Brown Martin Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, this special Barrymore Award includes a $25,000 cash prize for the recipient and $2500 for the finalist.

“Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West enraptured audiences and challenged our patrons to rethink their understanding of American history and the western frontier,” said Quintessence’s Artistic Director Alexander Burns. “Pearl’s family drama brought laughter, tears, and hope to our theatre. We are so grateful to be able to offer an encore streaming of Flyin’ West so that more people can experience our wonderful ensemble of actors in this classic American play.”

Flyin’ West– Set in the all-Black Western settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, Flyin’ West tells the story of four Black female pioneers who stake their claim in the face of sexism, violence, and the constant threat of white speculators breaking up the home they’ve made for themselves. Through harsh conditions and complicated relationships, the sisters stand in solidarity, declaring “our lives to be our own and no one else’s.” Pearl Cleage’s American classic archives the history not taught in schools of the brave Black women who migrated West as part of the Exodus of 1879.

“Pearl Cleage, who is one of the most powerful, brilliant, exquisitely beautiful playwrights, has written a tribute to the African American women pioneers of this period, and the men that supported them…or didn’t.” says Zuhairah McGill. “It’s amazing to see how many of these issues from 1899 still resonate here in 2022. Maybe we can walk in through the front door instead of the back now, shop in stores without the brown paper bag test, sit in restaurants to eat, go to the schools of our choice, but all the while here in 2022 we’re still walking into the legacy of Jim Crow, poor education, poverty, police brutality, loss of family, hatred of each other and the self, gentrification and so much more.”

Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer whose plays include Pointing at the Moon, What I Learned in Paris, Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Bourbon at the Border. Her plays have also been performed at Arena Stage, Hartford Stage, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Huntington Theatre, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Long Wharf Theatre, Just US Theatre, True Colors Theatre, Bushfire Theatre, the Intiman Theatre, St. Louis Black Repertory Company, and Seven Stages. Her novels include What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah Book Club selection, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, Babylon Sisters, Baby Brother’s Blues, Seen It All and Done the Rest, and Till You Hear from Me. Cleage has been awarded grants in support of her work from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulton County Arts Council, the Georgia Council on the Arts, the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and the Coca-Cola Foundation. Her work has earned her many awards and honors, including an NAACP Image Award for fiction in 2008.

Quintessence’s 2022 production of Flyin’ West featured DeAnna S. Wright, Maya Smoot and Billie Wyatt, each making their Quintessence debut as Sophie, Fannie, and Minnie. Director Zuhairah McGill (Rachel, Sojourner) also leads the  production on stage as the matriarch Miss Leah. Dax Richardson joins as Frank Charles and Phillip Brown plays Wil Parrish.

The production features sets and lights by Brian Sidney Bembridge, costumes by Ali Turns, sound design by Jarious Parker, and prop design by J. Bean Schwab. Fights are choreographed by Alex Corardo and intimacy is staged by Colleen Hughes. The streaming presentation is edited by Lee Cortopassi.

Founded in 2009, the award-winning Quintessence Theatre Group uses the classics to explore the fundamental question of what it is to be human in today’s world. Through intimate, visceral, and innovative productions of epic theatre, Quintessence pursues its vision to become the Delaware Valley’s center for progressive humanism and an engine for radical empathy through the classics. 


Streaming tickets are available for $30 and are available at www.QTGrep.org.

For information on streaming, please contact the Box Office at 215.987.4450, ext. 1, or BoxOffice@QTGrep.org.   

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