Described in its initial 2011 run as “a high-octane verbal cage match about love, fidelity and misplaced haberdashery,” playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ ‘The Motherf**cker with the Hat’ farce cuts like a machete through far bigger issues of ethical relativism, street politics, prison life and true addiction every time one of its whip smart, rapier fast, drug-and-dread focused characters speak out. Originally portrayed by Chris Rock as Ralph D. and Bobby Cannavale as Jackie, ‘Motherf**cker’ was riveting, Mamet-esque machismo at its best.
For its local area premiere at South Philly’s Theatre Exile—running now through Feb. 27—neighboring director Ozzie Jones has relocated the action of ‘Motherf**cker’ (a title as glorious in its printing as it is in its pronunciation) to good, old Kensington. To add to that luscious local flavor, Jones brought in a Murderer’s Row of this city’s finest thespians (J. Hernandez, Amanda Schoonover, Scott Greer, Daniela Malavé, Zach Valdez) to tell a tale of a man just-released from prison in love with his childhood sweetheart, until… you know, that hat, and the motherf**cker wearing it.
And Jones is just the man for the chapeau’s snug fit, as the West Philadelphian is beloved for his funky but chic longtime work as a writer, director, composer and producer for self-created film and theater projects, as well as being a force for educational good in this town.
Knowing Jones’ work and personality as I do, this writer understands just how much this director’s feel for Guirgis’ material got under his skin beyond the utter wack-ness of the title.
“Well, you and I have known each other for a long time, so you know that I respond to the vibes and the artists that surround the vibe,” says Jones.
Talking about how Exile’s Producing Artistic Director Deborah Block called Jones for the gig, and that working with Block means nothing but good vibes and great working relationships, Ozzie then caught wind of the Chris Rock connection. “When I heard it was Rock’s first show on Broadway, I became super intrigued. Reading the script, then, sealed the deal completely. “
Metro sat down with Jones to learn more.
Amorosi: What’s so special about the playwright’s tone before you even get into the action of ‘MF’? How does he navigate the crossroads of addiction and crimes’ past without waltzing into cliché? And what is your special sauce in making that all happen?
Jones: That’s a great question. The special sauce is humanity and heartbreak. Drug addiction dehumanizes. Makes people look in the mirror and see perpetual ugliness. The special sauce is the love story, the fight to be seen and heard. Everybody wants to be seen and heard. And horrors abound when they are not.
Amorosi: Let’s talk about making Kensington a character of its own volition here. Not unlike what local playwright Bruce Graham does with Philly inner-city life, you give the traditions and vague future of that neighborhood its own voice… its own narrative.
Jones: As a Philadelphian it is very hard to ignore the nightmarish tragedy of addiction that has befallen the Kensington area. So I met a photographer named Shawn Reid and asked him to go up there and take pictures of the people and the movements in the areas where drug addiction has devastated the community. Some of those pictures hang over the set of our production. I want the audience to see the ugly side of the struggle to sobriety that the characters in the play are facing. And Kensington is part of our community. So, seeing them is seeing ourselves.
Amorosi: Dive deep and tell me all about the decision to cast non-Black actors in all the roles. What were you seeing in locals such as J Hernandez and Amanda Schoonover and Scott Greer?
Jones: J, Amanda, and Scott are all extraordinary actors that have been staples in the Philadelphia theater community for many years, but the concept for the show did not come from casting them. I thought this the moment I read the play. Now at 51, I am old enough to say that I have seen some things change over time. When I was young the face and presentation of the scourge of drug addiction was nodded out black people in the deep dark ghetto. But know when I walk the streets of center city Philadelphia, I predominately see young white men and women passed out, spaced out, nodded out in the street. And to that end, the language and discussion of the drug addiction phenomenon has moved from a criminal conversation, to a public health crisis. I wanted a cast that looked like that reality. And having some of the best actors in Philadelphia to execute it was beyond a blessing.
‘The Motherf**cker with the Hat’ is running now through Feb. 27 at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street. For information and tickets, visit theatreexile.org/shows/the-mfer-with-the-hat/