The Braddock Saints Tour is another ambitious, thought-provoking immersive theater experience from the folks at Bricolage, this time in collaboration with a company relatively new to Pittsburgh, Real/Time Interventions. As with last year’s Ojo, the Saints Tour involves a journey, but where Ojo took participants into the experience of the blind, this one involves an exploration of the past and present of a community that once saw much better days and hopes to see them again in the future.
The journey through Braddock is led by a Tour Guide (Bria Walker), whose task it is to help us discern the signs and traces (and, at times, to point out the surprising emergence) of “saints” in Braddock, during this year’s “season of saints.” Her winsome stories blend fact and fiction in mischievous ways, drawing attention to landmarks along the route whose significance resides wholly in the imagination. To a great extent, this is the point and power of the journey – like one of those transparency overlays that historians or archeologists use to demonstrate the before and after of a given plot of land or city block, the stories that the Tour Guide weaves along the way layer a magical realist past onto the present and provoke a fresh-eyed look at an area of the city most of us only perceive as blight. Members of the local community play a prominent role in the tour’s storytelling, both as artists for many of the installations that serve to mark the saints’ presence, and as performers. For example, at one point in the tour, participants are welcomed into the Gardweeno, a local community garden, by the extraordinarily charismatic TaeAjah Cannon, a local high school student; at another, they are heralded and then led on parade by jazz trumpeter Sanford-Mark Barnes and his son Nathan. Some stops along the way celebrate the strength and resilience of members of the community and pay homage to people that members of the Braddock Youth Project have identified as “saints”; other stops reflect more somberly on tragic aspects of Braddock’s past. The journey ends with a communal meal in a cozy courtyard, where participants are invited to share stories and memories of Braddock (and where I learned, for example, that within my own lifetime Braddock had not only been a thriving community but a go-to destination for shopping and entertainment. And that the local nuns had quite the stockpile of booze in their cloister).
The potency of such immersive theater experiences stems from the very personal and subjective experience they provide – more than conventional theater, the immersive theatrical journey is one from which you emerge changed in molecular ways. This also makes the experience difficult to write about – I find myself at a loss for concrete language to describe its effects. It’s certainly a journey to which you must give yourself over and suspend, for a spell, your disbelief and skepticism. If you do, you may find, as I did, that it lingers, like a flavor or a smell, long after the journey is done, wafting its way into the crevices of your consciousness in strange and unexpected ways.