‘Women of the Hill’ explores legacy

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At first glance, the Hill District may seem to have a one-dimensional story: what was, and what remains. But “Women of the Hill” featured the dramatized stories of six women raised in the historic Hill District, determined to not only only remember the past glory of the place Pittsburghers adoringly call “the Hill,” but to to boldly proclaim that the Hill, in all its splendor, will live again.

WomenOfTheHill
‘WOMEN OF THE HILL’— Seated: Charlene Foggie-Barnett. Standing, from left: Norma J. Thompson, Brenda Tate,  Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D. (aka Dr. Goddess), Phillis Lavelle and Marlene Ramsey.

As they told the tales of their lives in harmonious fashion, the audience laughed and cried, applauded and cheered, and remembered a time when the Hill boomed with diversity, and was self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Perhaps the “Women” also encouraged the audience not to count the Hill out yet, and that there remains gold nuggets in the Hill that will light a path of restoration for this historic region.

From the moment they emerged, “Women of the Hill” owned the stage.  They marched to their seats like women on a mission. And, in fact, they were. Charlene Foggie Barnett, Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D., Phillis Daniel Lavelle, Marlene Scott Ramsey, Brenda Tate and Norma J. Thompson were the dramatists, and the audience ate from their upturned palms, filled with the sweetness of personal success and fond memories of life on the Hill, and the tart reality of racial injustice and life’s disappointments. Disappointments that include unwed pregnancy, alcoholism, being called a “maid,” despite a high-ranking position in the workplace. Triumphs: raising a child alone, and becoming a pillar of hard work and determination in the community, earning a bachelor’s degree later in life, and a disciplined life of sobriety. These stories blended, one atop the other, so that each woman told the stories of another, proving that we are one and the same.

The stories of the “Women” were not only specific to their individual experiences, but also encompassed snapshots of African-American communal experience, from workplace discrimination against the kinky curliness of African-American hair, to being devalued and ignored based on African-American skin color alone. Their stories carried with them a feeling of pride that these women, most of whom blazed a new path of existence, carved themselves into spaces where no other African-American, man or woman, had gone.

While there were six women occupying the stage, there was a seventh performer on stage as well: the Hill itself. The Hill manifested itself as a triumphant place of African-American socio-cultural experience that was rich and expressive, sensual and strong, similar to the social makeup of Harlem.  Through the six women, the Hill told its story, of change through riots and racism, and the greed of those who care more about destroying the Hill than preserving it. Based on the women’s telling, the greatness of the Hill will remain as long as they can breathe and tell its story. And even beyond.

(“Women of the Hill” was produced by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, and directed by Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks.)

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