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In 2013, Eisa Davis visited Kennett Square, PA as one of the first round of writers commissioned through our New Play Frontiers (NPF) Residency and Commission Program, launched with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Barra Foundation. NPF invites nationally renowned playwrights to immerse themselves in this region and develop new plays—in collaboration with local community partners—that speak to our neighbors and our nation. Here is a glimpse into the decade of creation, community, and deep listening that allowed this play to sprout onto the stage in front of you.
On an initial orientation tour with the NPF group, Eisa visits LCH Health and Community Services – which has served Kennett Square communities, including mushroom industry workers, since 1973 – and the Chester County Food Bank.
At the Chester County Food Bank, Eisa meets Hannah Johnston, who shares her graduate thesis on the mushroom industry and insights from her lived experience as a mushroom picker. Hannah also connects Eisa with local stonemason Luis Siguenza. Talks with both of them inspire significant character and story elements in Mushroom.
In the fall of this same year, Eisa returns for a residency to delve more deeply into the mushroom world of Kennett Square. From the Cordivano Brothers’ mushroom farm to the Coatesville VA, community members generously share their stories and bring Eisa into their daily lives.
On her second visit to LCH, Eisa meets Anel Medina, who jumpstarts the narrative of Mushroom. Eisa’s conversations with Anel, a Dreamer studying to become a healthcare professional, provide the “spark” for the central story and narrative lens of the play, and Anel graciously continues to work with the team throughout the play’s development.
Eisa returns to the area for more interviews and discovery. People’s Light audiences also get their first taste of her writing in a public sharing that features multiple NPF playwrights, part of the free Community Matters series.
Development continues with a week of workshops from Kennett Square to People’s Light.
The team holds a sharing at The Garage Community and Youth Center, which serves middle and high school students with after-school youth development programs, academic and social support, and career guidance. “It was so beautiful to be able to go to The Garage and have people say, ‘I really identify with this,’” Eisa remembers. “Over and over again, to have people in tears because they’re seeing something that they’ve experienced.”
This connection marks the beginning of a steadily-growing partnership with the organization: As of 2022, People’s Light teaching artists lead twice-monthly sessions at The Garage that allow many students to try theatre for the first time in a fun, supportive environment, while also practicing valuable life skills like confidence, teamwork and improvisation. Thanks to Mushroom actor and teaching artist Angel Sigala, these sessions are also now taught bilingually.
Back at People’s Light, the workshop team participates in a Restorative Justice workshop led by Eisa’s mother, Dr. Fania Davis, and the week culminates with a public Community Matters reading of the in-progress “Mushroom Play”.
“We care for those in the mushroom industry, and you're talking about the reality of our lives. The things you wrote about are really happening."
With additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts allowing for further development, Eisa and People’s Light dive back into Mushroom in earnest, evolving the early draft to reflect the increasingly dangerous reality of being undocumented in the United States amid new, draconian immigration policies. The team partners with the Kennett Friends Meeting House for its annual Citizenship Day, where volunteers help individuals who are applying for citizenship. People’s Light provides the food. Eisa meets lawyers who volunteer their time to represent many of the detainees from the widespread ICE raids earlier in the year.
In the summer, the creative team visits two mushroom farms - The Woodlands at Philips Mushroom Farm, and a smaller farm owned by an undocumented person from Mexico. The team also spends more time at Kennett Friends, LCH and The Garage.
That fall, Eisa and a group of actors present excerpts from the revised Mushroom draft to LCH staff members, as well as representatives from Kennett Friends. “We care for those in the mushroom industry, and you're talking about the reality of our lives,” one LCH nurse comments. “The things you wrote about are really happening.”
With major support from a grant awarded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, workshops continue from Malvern to NYC as Mushroom is written and rewritten against the backdrop of a volatile political climate. The state of the world only lends more urgency to the issues at the core of Mushroom, and People’s Light prepares to premiere the play just prior to the presidential election of 2020—but the global pandemic had other plans.
With the world premiere postponed and our stages dark, People’s Light brings People’s Light On the Move - a series of outdoor, interactive, in-community events - to Casa Guanajuato in Kennett Square. This On the Move event is a Playback performance, a form of theatre where actors interview audience members about their real-life experiences, then "play back" the audience’s stories in improvised scenes and songs. Casa Guanajuato, which has been organizing community gatherings, classes, cultural events, and educational opportunities with the Mexican and Latinx communities in the Kennett Square area for almost 20 years, selects “Migrant Mushroom Workers: Leaving Everything Behind for a Better Life” as the theme for the performance. The resulting stories of dislocation and resilience, sacrifices and hopes, elicit tears and cheers in equal measure and bring Kennett and People’s Light communities together in a time when connection is especially difficult.
“Having spent 2 years where we couldn’t gather in person, the appreciation of just being able to sit with each other and listen . . . it’s the gift that theatre provides."
Fall 2021 - Spring 2022
The team regroups for a 2022 world premiere. During the fall workshop, the group returns to the doubles, now joined by many brilliant new artists who will help create the production you see onstage. A final workshop in the spring collects fresh insights from the new artists as well as the learnings of the past decade for further script revisions.
“Strangely, I feel a greater impulse to trust what’s already there on the page than before,” Director David Mendizábal explains. “Having spent 2 years where we couldn’t gather in person, the appreciation of just being able to sit with each other and listen – it’s one of the first lines in the play, and it’s the gift that theatre provides. When we asked each other, well, now what? How do we incorporate the last few years, the pandemic, and so on into the script? In this workshop we realized we don’t have to talk about it, it’s just there. This sense of isolation, longing for connection, quiet and loud oppression, they all exist if you’re just listening—along with the joy.”