With productions running on both stages, free play readings, workshops, hootenannies, theatre camp, a backyard BBQ, and more, this summer at People’s Light has been a wonderfully non-stop celebration of our vibrant community. As August began to wind down, individuals from every part of our extended family (and beyond!) came together for the last Community Matters event of the season: the New Voices Ensemble’s performance of Where You From?
The ensemble, comprised mostly of students from the city of Chester, presented the brand-new play on our Leonard C. Haas stage to a sold-out crowd – a well-deserved culmination of months of intensive work. New Voices students receive scholarships to attend theatre classes at People's Light all year long, and also meet regularly to conceive and develop an original play inspired by their own experiences. Under the direction of company member Nadira Beard (a New Voices alum herself), ensemble members brainstorm themes and storylines, which Nadira transforms into a full-length script. By the time they debut the play in Chester at the start of the summer, the process has also helped develop their confidence, academic discipline, and communication skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.
This year’s New Voices piece, Where You From? explores life, love, and loss on one city block. It’s a heartfelt portrait of a resilient and endlessly caring community, with neighbors who support each other through struggles big and small. Although “pain lives there too,” as the narrator (portrayed by recent New Voices alum Alayna Todd) explains, the story balances heaviness with plenty of joy, romance, and laughter. The spirit was contagious – an onstage karaoke battle had audience members clapping and singing to The Jackson 5, and inspired several to jump up and do the Electric Slide with the cast!
That energy carried over into the post-performance discussion, a feature of every Community Matters event; the CM series aims to spark dialogue about vital issues in our community, pairing free readings and performances with panel discussions based on the themes of the play.
Where You From? inspired animated conversation among audience members and the panel of Chester community leaders, professionals, and business owners. Several attendees commented that they grew up in tight-knit rowhome communities like the one depicted onstage, and missed the days when “the whole block raised your children,” but took heart in the fact that the future is in the hands of talented, passionate young people like the New Voices Ensemble.
The evening also marked the final week of our 18/19 season, coinciding with the run of Our Town. The overlap made sense – beyond artist crossover (Nadira and Alayna had roles in both productions), both plays explore the everyday happenings of a community, revealing universal human experiences along the way. Along with love, loss, and coming-of-age, residents of both neighborhoods grapple with the dilemma of living in a place that can limit their opportunities – and is also home to everyone they hold dear. But as we move into the 19/20 season (our 45th Anniversary!), we would do well to carry the attitude of both play’s characters with us: the way they relentlessly fight fear and grief with hope and care.