Mayor Frank Rizzo’s larger-than-life personality outlived him in stories, statues and books, and now in a world-premiere show by award-winning playwright (and South Philly resident) Bruce Graham.
Graham’s “Rizzo,” set as the politician prepares for a comeback in the 1991 election, is based on Sal Paolantonio’s book “Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America.” Graham, now in his late 50s, recalls meeting Rizzo when he was mayor in the ’70s, and presented a teenage Graham with a distinguished student award.
The second time they met, Graham, still in high school, was working at Hickory Farms in the brand-new Gallery, giving out cheese. Rizzo came in, followed by a Mummers band, to celebrate the mall’s grand opening.
“He came over, he wanted free samples. He was shaking hands,” Graham says. “That was huge. He was followed by a throng of people. It was like the pope was in town.”
We talked to Graham about the play, which was commissioned by Philly’s Theatre Exile — and about hating Rizzo.
Rizzo was such a divisive figure. Does the play fall on one side or the other?
It doesn’t. And that’s going to piss a lot of people off. He’s really a terrible character [for theater] because there are no surprises. There’s no gray area with Frank Rizzo: It’s black or white. Great characters throw you curves. But I realized what makes him fascinating is that people love him or hate him. I can’t think of anything more boring than a one-sided argument.
Do you love him or hate him?
I already got into one fight about that. After the first reading, this guy stood up — he was old and I was in a bad mood — and he said “This is a corrupt play!” And I said, “Sit down and shut up, you’re done.” He wouldn’t shut up. And no one out-shouts me.
So... does that mean you loved Rizzo or hated him?
I remember hating his guts. The cops used to dress in black leather. They had carte blanche to do anything they wanted. They looked like storm troopers. He was a bully, with fascist tendencies. Probably racist. Arrogant. But I can’t bring those feelings to the play. You can’t hate your character.
Does the play, and Rizzo’s story, feel relevant to today?
Absolutely. We see these incidents with cops, with police brutality. But now we get it on film. Back then, everybody didn’t have a camera in their pocket. But Rizzo was from the school of “spaco il capo” — that’s Italian for “break their heads.”