Geno’s Steaks’ ‘Speak English’ controversy comes to the stage

William Zielinski is Nicky Grillo and Alex Keiper plays Sophia Grillo in William Zielinski is Nicky Grillo and Alex Keiper plays Sophia Grillo in “Down Past Passyunk.”
Credit: Kathryn Raines

When A. Zell Williams arrived in Philadelphia for the world premiere of his play “In a Daughter’s Eyes” in 2011, he did what so many other visitors to the city had done before him: he headed down to South Philly for a cheesesteak. But when he arrived at Geno’s Steaks, controversy had already become as enshrined on that location as the “Whiz wit.” The infamous sign posted by owner Joey Vento imploring visitors “This is America: When Ordering Please ‘Speak English’” had been hanging in the landmark shop’s window for five years.

“I was fascinated by the fact that we’re in a politically interesting time in this country,” Williams says. “In 2006 and 2007 there was a significant conservative swelling amongst tea party members and conservative Republicans. Fast forward to election night 2012, when President Obama wins his second election and you have conservative pundits saying Mitt Romney lost because he didn’t do enough to reach out to Hispanic voters and voters of color.

“I thought what was going on in South Philly really mirrored what was going on nationally, where you have a lot of change coming and a lot of people who are not comfortable with that change.”

The Geno’s controversy became the seed for Williams’ new play, “Down Past Passyunk,” set in a fictional South Philly steak shop, in its world premiere production this month at InterAct Theatre Company. Williams was playwright in residence at InterAct for the politically oriented company’s 2012-13 season, during which time he lived in South Philly and really got to know the neighborhood. “I love places that retain an identity at a time when most downtown cities all seem the same,” he says. “I like when I can go into a neighborhood and get a sense of its history.”

Set in South Philly

Much of Williams’ past work has dealt with conflicts of race, class, religion and violence in the country, so Joey Vento’s story offered an opportunity to look at some of those ideas from a new perspective. InterAct, he says, was the perfect home for the play, and not just because the piece is set in their backyard.

“There are unfortunately very few companies that are willing to go as far as InterAct is in terms of challenging their audience members,” he says. “It’s hard to walk into a community that you’re not part of and say, ‘I want to write a play about your audience members that might be controversial’ and have them do it.”

‘Down Past Passyunk’
April 9-27
InterAct Theatre Company
2030 Sansom St.
$22-$38, 215-568-8079

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