The first time I witnessed Bruce Graham's incendiary play "Rizzo" — commissioned by Theatre Exile, based upon Sal Paolantonio's best-selling book "Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America" — a fight broke out at a staged reading at South Philly's Studio X. Not between random audience members with heated opinions of the late mayor, but rather between a Rizzo hater and the playwright, in a situation that nearly came to fisticuffs. "That same guy I nearly fought at the preview paid to see the play on opening night," said Graham earlier this year about Rizzo, first staged to sold out crowds in 2015.
That's the sort of love/hate relationship that Frank Rizzo — the famed Philly beat cop-turned-police-commissioner-turned-mayor — inspired amongst the locals between the late 1940s and 1991 when he died at age 70. To some he was a still-lionized hero who helped working class and ethnic communities and kept peace by any means necessary. To others, he was a racist pig. That's why BlackLivesMatter's Philly chapter wants to remove the Rizzo statue from outside the Municipal Services Building.
When Theatre Exile director Joe Canuso and Graham restage "Rizzo," launching Philadelphia Theatre Company's season at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre (Sept.23-Oct. 16) with local great Scott Greer again in the grand, titular role, this marks a quick reunion for Graham and Canuso who just wrapped their "Tommy & Me" play with WIP sports announcer-writer Ray Didinger at the FringeArts headquarters. "It saves a lot of time and energy when you work with a director you know and trust," says Graham. "Joe's a nice guy. I'm the pain in the ass." Canuso counters that, in Graham, he's found a constant collaborator with a similar blue collar background to his. "And Bruce always provides a bottle of gin."
In reconsidering his play for restaging, Graham did pen a scene about how Philly cops treated minorities in the '60s ("it's taken right from Sal's book"). Another daunting aspect of Frank the man became very clear this time — the perceived parallels between Rizzo and Donald Trump. "We're certainly playing up Rizzo's similarity to another politician of the moment who 'says what he thinks' and likes to stir people up by scaring the hell out of them. There are some weird parallels between Frank and that current candidate."
Canuso agrees that when he first commissioned Graham to write the play two years ago, Trump wasn't even a thought. "Now, sadly we are in a position where we are discussing some of the same volatile issues that plagued much of Rizzo's tenure." The director doesn't see his role or the play's as playing judge or jury. Instead, Theatre Exile's "Rizzo" tells the whole story and tries to be as fair and objective. "We have no agenda except to be truthful and honest," claims Canuso.
"Wherever I can, I use actual quotes from the people who were there to keep it as honest as I can," says Graham.
"Moving it to a bigger stage this time feels right because Rizzo's personality demands it," notes Canuso. "He was bigger than life and we can stage it in a way that does justice to his enormous ego. It also feels right that we are doing it in the shadow of City Hall."
As for any potential protests or anger from BlackLivesMatter members (or anyone who perceived Rizzo as a power-hungry headbanger) Graham states the obvious when asked if he expects trouble outside the Suzanne Roberts Theatre during "Rizzo's" run. "God, I hope so. No such thing as bad publicity."
If you go:
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
480 S. Broad St.
Sept. 23 - Oct. 16