In the empty living room of their modest twin home in Tacony on a recent Sunday afternoon, the McQueens are rehearsing the story of their lives.
Sitting on a box, dad Calvin — a 52-year-old bear of a man — talks about trying to reconcile the different people he’s been in his life: Calvin, the quiet family man; “Mackie,” the party-lovin’ ladies’ man; and “Brother McQueen,” the stern man of God who counsels incarcerated juvenile offenders.
Mom Kendra, 39, speaks lines from Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women — a play she appeared in as Olga nearly 20 years ago. “I guess anybody’s life’d make an interesting plot,” she recites, with extra dramatic flair.
Daughter Kenya, 19, shares her tale of being the only black girl trying out for Penn State’s cheerleading squad, revealing the tricks she used to get around her shyness. And son Kassean, 12, flits agilely around the room to demonstrate being the only boy in his ballet class.
The family’s white cat, Salt, sprawls on the hardwood floor; in a corner, a production crew follows along, scripts in hand. When Kassean dons a sparkly fedora and plows through his jaw-droppingly good Michael Jackson routine — something they’ve seen him do dozens of times over months of rehearsals — director Andrew Simonet smiles broadly. Clearly, the audience is gonna love this.
On show night, that audience — limited to 14 people per performance — will also be sitting right here in the McQueens’ living room. The play is part of Headlong Dance Theater’s This Town Is a Mystery, a project in which four households around the city (each for eight nights) will perform 30-minute amalgams of storytelling, dance and music in their own homes, creating a window into their lives and their neighborhood. Performances will be followed by a potluck dinner and discussion — audience members are asked to make a dish and bring it along.
There’s one more thing: Ticket buyers won’t know which household they’re going to until performance night; they purchase tickets for House A, B, C or D, with the address to be revealed the day of.
The idea, explains Simonet — one of Headlong’s co-founders — is to take people out of their comfort zones, in particular the Center City art-scene bubble, and have them confront the mystery alluded to in the title.
“Philly is a city of neighborhoods, and we kind of know all the reputations and the stories, but we don’t really know the neighborhoods,” says Simonet, who collaborated with each household on the scripts. “I think if you actually go and meet someone and you learn what they’re about and you break bread with them, you’re not gonna believe the stereotype anymore. This piece is about opening a little doorway that people can squirt through and have an intimate experience that could change their perceptions a little bit.”
The three other households in the project are the Aryadareis, a South Philly Iranian-Irish family; the Bosticks, a single mother and her two grown children who live together in Northeast Philly; and Tobie Hoffman, a 59-year-old Drexel administrator who lives alone in Mount Airy and will perform solo.
If the Mystery concept is fairly simple, the execution has been less so. Few participants had any kind of performance background prior to being selected in the spring after an open application process. Headlong has a phalanx of stage managers, lighting and sound techs, choreographers and costume designers working with each production; they’ve also temporarily removed furniture to make each living room a usable space.
“We’re not the Kardashians — we don’t have 24,000 square feet — but they’re making it look pretty cool in here,” laughs Kendra, adding that the family’s not fazed by the idea of complete strangers coming into their home. “We don’t have too much fear or inhibitions. That’s why we jumped at the chance to do this.”
“It’ll be interesting,” says Calvin. “How often do you get to do something like this with your whole family? There’s a million other households in Philadelphia that have stories, too. This one’s ours.”
This Town Is a Mystery, Sept 7-22, $35, locations vary.
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