One-woman show shines theatrical light on diverse South Side

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Five hundred concrete steps connect the South Side Slopes and Flats area below.

“The two neighborhoods are one, but very different,” says Tami Dixon, who has come to know both neighborhoods well.

Since 2005, Dixon has lived in the Slopes. She also has performed in four plays at City Theatre, which has had its home one block off East Carson Street, in the Flats area, since 1991.

“The Slopes — you don't go up there unless you live there,” Dixon says. “The streets are narrow. … When I see someone (unfamiliar), I get protective.”

An isolated community with many long-time residents, the Slopes has its own etiquette rules for driving — those going uphill have the right of way — and is home to an abundance of wild animals, such as deer, rabbits and raccoons.

The Flats also has its own breed of wildlife, especially on weekends, when outsiders remove parking chairs and leave their cars in spaces on residential streets while carousing till the wee hours of the morning at the area's abundant restaurants and watering holes.

“The bar scene is a bone of contention with locals who have been here forever, and it's not just parking,” Dixon says. “Kids come in and don't know the sacrifices immigrants made. They had an incredible family community.”

“South Side Stories,” which marks Dixon's debut as a playwright, covers the people and places past and present that have created this multi-faceted community with depth, respect and humor.

Though Dixon grew up in Cleveland, her South Side neighborhood and her neighbors' stories felt familiar. “It made me think about my fathers, my family, their struggle,” she says.

It will have its world premiere when it begins performances Saturday at City Theatre.

Dixon wrote, developed and rehearsed “South Side Stories” over the past four years. She performed it as a workshop production last spring as part of Momentum, City Theatre's festival of plays in various stages of development.

“South Side Stories” is a one-performer show. But Dixon will not be alone onstage.

While showcasing the dynamism of the neighborhood, she will bring to life 26 characters who shared their stories with her, including tales of teenage mischief-makers, steel-mill workers, and invasive suburbanites.

“I wanted it to be organic,” Dixon says. “I knew I wanted to use interview-based material for building my story.”

She began by soliciting locals' recommendations that led to one-hour interviews with people from the community. She also collected tales through activities such as shaping pierogies with the ladies at a local church.

“I didn't want to connect with people who were familiar (but with) everyday people who have stories to tell. I can read about famous people in books, but not about somebody's grandmother,” she says.

In 2010, she began traveling around the South Side with a shopping cart that contained her tape recorder, two folding chairs and a sign that said “Tell me a story.”

“I would sit and wait for someone to tell me a story. I got a lot of weird looks and a lot of stories,” she says.

She estimates that 70 percent of the writing in “South Side Stories” was taken word-for-word from the people she interviewed.

“These are specific, everyday people. You are going to see your mom, your dad. My dad didn't work in a steel mill but I see that brand of existence.”

Dixon believes the show will have a life beyond Pittsburgh.

“I want to think that because the stories are so specific to Pittsburgh they become universal. I want to go on a Rust Belt tour — Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit — places that had industries, cities that have survived or are trying to survive.”

Tami Dixon's career

Tami Dixon is an actress and South Side resident who is making her debut as a playwright with “South Side Stories,” which she wrote after receiving a TCG/Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship.

She is also the producing artistic director for Bricolage Production Company, where she has worked since 2005 in collaboration with her husband, Jeffrey Carpenter, who is Bricolage's managing director.

A 1996 graduate of Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Dixon has previously appeared at City Theatre in: “The Clockmaker” (2009), “Marriage Minuet” (2008), “The Missionary Position” (2007) and “The Muckle Man” (2007).

Some of the other shows Pittsburgh audiences have seen her perform in include:

• “The Hothouse” and “Celebration” (2010) and “Rock ‘N' Roll” (2009) with Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre

• “The Task” (2009) and “El Paso Blue” (2006) with Quantum Theatre

• “The Chicken Snake “(2007) with The Rep

• “Metamorphoses” (2009) with Pittsburgh Public Theater

• “Every Tongue Confess” with the August Wilson Center Theatre Ensemble

• “STRATA” (2012),” “Dutchman” (2012),” Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” (2009) “Key to the Field” (2008) and numerous episodes of “Midnight Radio” with Bricolage Production Company.

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