Man of the hour: Philly, for one night it’s time to welcome playwright Ed Shockley back to the stage

Tell Ed Shockley that he’s too young, at 62, to win a Lifetime Achievement Award from Theatre Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards next Monday at the Bok Building, and he laughs. “I’m glad you noticed that, but the fact is I started earlier…

Tell Ed Shockley that he’s too young, at 62, to win a Lifetime Achievement Award from Theatre Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards next Monday at the Bok Building, and he laughs. 

“I’m glad you noticed that, but the fact is I started earlier than anyone else. I was writing plays at age 10 and got produced when I was 20,” said the street poetic West Philadelphia author of 50-plus plays, such as “Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues,” “Bedlam Moon” and “Bobos” (co-authored with James McBride), and recipient of accolades like the Richard Rodgers Award. “That is a lifetime, but one with many more years to go.”

The fact that Shockley and wife Terri Cousar Shockley (CEO of University City’s Community Education Center, or CEC) can joke, optimistically, is a miracle, as the playwright — a man who could speak and write in Spanish, French, Chinese and Swahili, a positivist and a lover of language and life — was felled by a serious stroke in 2012, then smacked by aphasia, a language impairment that causes difficulty in speaking, listening, reading and writing. 

Nevertheless, this doesn’t deter or take away from one’s intelligence. “Every day, he’s either writing or looking up the etymology of [some] word,” Terri said. “He’s actively looking to get better, get facile in a way that he was in the past.”

Ed’s intellect has never left. “That first month, I had no words, yet I was still writing,” Ed said laughing. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t writing real words.”  

This is where Terri’s role as life partner is heightened in how she aids Ed through daily existence and through the travels of overseeing his literary affairs and legacy. She helps puts his words in order.

“Sometimes you have to do it yourself, to keep it moving forward,” said Terri of having Ed’s work, such as “Bessie Smith” and a new, wordless, visual play about war, famine and his stroke — both performed recently at the CEC — reignited and produced on stages in Philadelphia. “It will happen. Ed is the most positive person I’ve ever known, and I’m confident in him. He’ll never stop.”

Ed isn’t stopping. He talked through the process of re-learning, writing new plays (which he is doing, slowly) and reordering what he remembers. “The good of speaking several languages is that I still understand parts of them all,” he said. “The bad thing is that I have it hard defining what is English… I might be saying something in Swahili.”

Ed noted how, right before his stroke, he had plans for producing his radio plays — on Marian Anderson, film work, musicals, some here, some in New York. 

“I’d like to get back to that soon,” he said, after discussing how well he’s doing in terms of language (he sounds great) and writing (a process he is getting through daily). “My wife will often let me know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

While Ed does aikido and slowly writes new plays and a book about getting through aphasia, Terri is concentrating on Ed’s words and the potential of mounting his productions, as well as the welfare of the CEC. Though she left the CEC in 2017 after 20 years at its head, Shockley has returned with ideas of bettering the space and heightening the welfare of women stuck in cycles of abuse and generations of poverty.  

“These women need more than being shifted to computer school, and that can happen through the arts,” Terri said. “I’m looking to start a daytime program at CEC called Still I Rise that focuses on those women. That and helping Ed is where my head is at.” 

When it comes to legacy and awards such as the Barrymores, both Shockleys are pleased that the arts community that they both have long served is showing up in force.

Even if they’re not exactly sure why.

“As much of his work made its success in New York City, a lot of people in Philly don’t know Ed’s work as it hasn’t always been produced here, and they don’t know it from the several years he’s been away,” continued Terri, who went on to credit her husband for aiding in the creation of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, the Philadelphia Dramatists Center and even the Barrymores in its early days. “This award is a nice celebration of a life and how he continues to live his life.”

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COMING TO THE STAGE

Best laid (date night) plans sometimes happen in a theater seat. If you’re looking to catch a show this fall, here’s a few you should definitely consider adding to your calendar.

Minority Land

It’s a literal tale of what’s happening in just about every gentrifying pocket of Philadelphia. Developers muscle in, new residents buy and old residents feel priced out. This is a look at the other side of gentrification, you know, the side that doesn’t involve yoga studios, coffeehouses and breweries.  | Oct. 11-13 8 p.m. (3 p.m. on Oct. 13), $25. Theatre Horizon, 401 Dekalb St. Norristown. theatrehorizon.org/shows/minorityland.php 

A Small Fire

You young bucks might not be familiar with actress Bebe Neuwirth, but if you’ve ever seen “Cheers” or “Frasier,” you know exactly who she is. If not, drop her name on YouTube or come see this production at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, where she’ll play Emily Bridges, a no-nonsense woman who runs shit who’s now losing her senses and the precipitous fall from grace that coincides. | Oct. 19-Nov. 10. $25. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. myptc.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/ 

On the Exhale

An act of violence that leaves a college professor scarred as she searches for her own meaning in life. She can use this tragedy to teach a lesson, but she’s got to learn from her own experiences involving corruption and inaction on the hands of government and the bullshit bureaucracy that coincides. | Nov. 29-Dec. 22. $ 10. Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St. theatreexile.org/ 

The Wizard of Oz

We know it’s a timeless classic, but it’s one that’s going to completely reimagine the Sedgwick Theater if you’ve ever been exposed to the gem Philly has that is the Quintessence Theatre Company. You already know the story of Dorothy; now grab the family or make it a sweet date night to get a bit of nostalgia when you come see it one more time right here at — home. See what we did there? | Nov. 27-Dec. 29 $30. Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue. quintessencetheatre.secure.force.com 

The Last Match

This jawn involves two tennis stars — one American and one Russian — both vying to be the best. Naturally, the twist (or tryst) here is that it’s the women in their lives that hold the key to control. Sounds like some 1980s Soviet Union Red Sparrow-type shit right there. Except it’s not and we know its not…we’re just saying, that’s what it sounds like. | Nov. 7-Dec. 15. $28. Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St. lanterntheater.org/plays/the-last-match.html

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    A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.