Tami Dixon is spending much of the summer walking along East Carson Street pulling a cart containing two chairs and a sign that reads, “What’s Up With South Side?” When she comes across a stranger willing to talk, the actress and playwright pulls out the chairs and sits down to gather anecdotes that could become part of a play that will run for six weeks in January at City Theatre.
For the original 2013 “South Side Stories,” Dixon conducted interviews and drew from her own experiences living on the South Side Slopes. It featured Dixon becoming about two dozen characters enacting vignettes of life in one of the city’s most colorful neighborhoods.
Format-wise, “South Side Stories Revisited” hews closely to the original.
“It’s not going to be an entirely new show,” Dixon said one hot July afternoon walking down East Carson Street. “That’s why it’s a revisiting, ‘South Side Stories Revisited,’ because there’s going to be some stuff that remains from the last show, some old hits, and some new pieces.”
Dixon had just come from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s South Side branch. She had been looking for a tape recording of a neighborhood walking tour created by Phillips Elementary School students. She struck out at the library but her Carson Street stroll yielded two interviews.
I caught up with Dixon as she was speaking with Autumn Annan next to a parking lot at the corner of 18th and East Carson streets. Annan is an artist who sells her wares on weekday afternoons from a folding table at her informal open-air market.
Dixon describes her interview with Annan as an “A” on a scale of A to F.
“She was very open and honest and shared with me a lot of deep things,” Dixon said. “When she was talking, her conversation was a lot about loss and a lot about grief and a lot about trauma. And I think a lot of young people are feeling that, no matter where they’re from.”
“I was in an abusive relationship and I was fleeing,” Annan told me later. The community of people she connected with on East Carson Street helped her move on from the relationship.
The same day that Dixon interviewed Annan, she approached a man one block away. Ralph — he declined to give his last name — was eating lunch outside a pizza restaurant.
“What’s that? Is it alive?” Ralph asked Dixon when she whipped out her iPhone recorder.
“It’s my little pet. It’s a windscreen for my little microphone,” Dixon replied before launching into her own questions.
Dixon’s interview with Ralph ended not long after it began when the conversation veered into politics. “He did not want to continue,” Dixon said.
For the 2013 production, Dixon used a Sony mini-recorder. She now uses her phone, which has become sort of an icebreaker and a prop.
“That microphone on the iPhone is pretty good so I used that for a long time,” Dixon says. “I wanted people I was interviewing to think I was legit so I got the little Rode [microphone].”
Dixon moved to the South Side in the early 2000s. It was the Cleveland native’s second stint in Pittsburgh. She came here in 1992 to attend Carnegie Mellon University and moved to New York City after graduating. When Dixon returned a decade later, she became partners with Jeffrey Carpenter, founder of Bricolage Production Company. She’s now the company’s co-artistic director.
Carpenter was living on Mission Street at the time.
“I moved there and started getting acclimated into the city and fell in love with this quirky neighborhood,” Dixon recalls.
Since returning to Pittsburgh, Dixon has been part of some of the city’s most memorable theatrical productions, behind the scenes and on stage. Earlier this year she performed in City Theatre’s production of “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
“We were admittedly in the eleventh hour of deciding our season,” says Monteze Freeland, City Theatre’s co-artistic director. “As we were throwing ideas and titles around, actually it was Clare Drobot, our other co-artistic director, who said, ‘What about South Side Stories?’”
Within a few weeks, the plans were laid for Dixon to bring a new “South Side Stories” to City Theatre’s intimate Lillie Theatre.
“South Side Stories Revisited” reunites Dixon with the play’s original director, Matt Morrow, who “was essential in the development of the original piece,” says Dixon.
The new play, which is still being written, again has Dixon drawing from interviews with people like Ralph and Annan. In her first spin around the South Side in 2013, Dixon dug deep into the neighborhood’s past.
This time she’s focused on the present and the decade that has elapsed since the first production. Hence, the sign asking folks, ‘What’s up?”
“I knew my assignment was to talk about the last ten years,” Dixon says. “How’ve you been over the last ten years? How’s your decade going?”
A lot has happened in that decade. A pandemic and changes in consumer behavior created churn along East Carson Street. Loft conversions have been turning churches, schools and industrial sites into condos and apartments. And, over the past two years, the neighborhood has been in the headlines for perceived increases in violent crimes.
Dixon’s challenge is finding the right mix of tales from her interviews and threading them into a moving and funny storyline with compelling characters like the first iteration’s parking chair lady and Tina, who in the play is visiting a park while preparing for an estate sale and reminiscing about growing up in an all-women home after her laid-off father “drank himself to death.”
The playwright is finding it harder to get people to open up about recent history than it was getting them to talk about the good old days when the mills were open.
“Many more people would prefer to talk about what it was like because their memory of it is that it was a wonderful, magical place to grow up,” Dixon says.
With a deadline fast approaching and lots more material to collect and transcribe, neither Dixon nor City Theatre knows what the final product will look like.
“Time will tell,” City Theatre’s Freeland says.