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Mike Durkin isn’t the first person to ask people in Kensington to share their stories.
The neighborhood has been a constant stomping ground for reporters, photographers and filmmakers — all trying to document one of the largest drug markets on the East Coast. Even Dr. Oz showed up last year, plucking his way through El Campamento, a popular site for heroin usage in Fairhill.
So when I set up my tripod and camera to interview Durkin, passersby asked if there was another documentary happening. Durkin wasn’t fazed.
“People see just, ‘Oh, ok. There’s another news story. There’s another thing,’” he said.
Durkin understands the assumption, but unlike Dr. Oz, he’s planning to stick around Kensington for awhile. That’s why he’s been wandering through the neighborhood for the past 14 months, searching for eye contact, a smile, a conversation.
“I’m really interested in really connecting with someone on a human level and seeing what happens from there,” Durkin said.
The end result? He hopes to create a play about Kensington— with residents doing the writing and acting.
The Old Man and the Delaware River
“People don’t want to venture up to Kensington Avenue,” Durkin said. “They feel unsafe or they feel whatever, but it’s just engaging in conversation, having human interaction and learning that like, ‘oh this person that I’m sort of immediately sort of putting down is someone who is a poet, is a painter, is a dreamer.’”
Durkin works as the artistic director of the Renegade Company, an experimental theater group. In performances last year, actors roamed Mount Moriah Cemetery in Cobbs Creek and explored North Philly’s Life Do Grow farm— each time, interacting with audience members.
The plotline is still blurry, but Durkin already has a title in mind. He coined “The Olde Man and the Delaware River” as a riff on The Old Man and the Sea, a book that zeroes in on themes like struggle and perseverance.
Those same themes, Durkin said, are present in Kensington’s story of substance abuse.
“The old man is, like, casting his line out, trying to capture this big fish,” Durkin said, recounting the Hemingway novel. “It’s always this thing that [he] keeps throwing in, trying to reel back in.”
And, like Renegade’s previous productions, “The Olde Man and the Delaware River” will move around.
The play won’t take place on a stage, but as a “community-created walking tour” starting at Allegheny Avenue under the El before leading audience members through a mile-and-a-half journey that ends at the river.
It’s a lengthy process. The final production, Durkin said, won’t happen until September 2018. For now, he’s still getting to know Kensington’s residents and sifting through stories in search of a plot.
Each Thursday, Durkin holds storytelling workshops at the Kensington Storefront, a small community center at Kensington and Somerset. With its wide windows and shining wooden floors, the storefront stands out against metal grates of the vacant shops nearby.
At each workshop, Durkin gives out a prompt, asking residents about themes like family and trust.
“From there I usually will take it further and add extra prompts to the people who are writing to think about other elements and other things,” Durkin said.
At times, the workshops are challenging, sporadic and even tense.
“It’s mixed, you know?” Durkin said.
Some participants, he said, have trouble reading or writing. Others stop by looking for food and coffee — drawn in by the tea Durkin sets out every week — and leave once hearing about the workshop.
But others are eager to talk.
‘When I come in here, I have a lot of stuff on my mind’
“We’ve been really fortunate that people are like, ‘I have hundreds of stories for you,’” Durkin said.
Howard Lyon, who grew up in Kensington, has been attending the workshops each week. It’s allowed him a chance to practice writing, and to talk about problems like addiction and homelessness.
“The reason I keep coming back is, when I come in here, I have a lot of stuff on my mind,” Lyon said.
When he first stepped into the storefront to escape the cold weather, Lyon said he felt reluctant to talk about his own life.
“I had this ego like, ‘I ain’t telling nobody shit about my life.’ You know what I mean? I’m born and raised in Kensington, that’s all I cared about,” he said.
Now, as he writes down Durkin’s prompts, he freely asks people how to spell words. At the shelter where he lives, he keeps a dictionary to study.
“[I’m] actually grabbing books now, and reading them. And if I get stuck on a word, I’ll ask somebody. Cause I let that ego go. I’m not no tough guy from Kensington,” Lyon said.
As the new year approaches, Durkin plans to hold more investigative workshops, eventually pinpointing about 10 participants to help craft a script. There’s no telling what to expect come next September, but for now, stories of Kensington are slowly unfolding beneath the rumbling of the El.