Chris Rich’s one-woman show is less of a reflection of her own life than those who came before her.
The Yardley local is taking her family’s American story from where it began on a tight-knit street in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia to Broadway this week as she performs “Hope Street” at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York.
It’s not remotely Rich’s first foray into the world of performing arts. She’s a stand-up comedian, and her resume in that world is as long as it is impressive.
She’s opened shows for famed acts like Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne Barr, was at one point a regular on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend and traveled to far corners of the world, performing on cruise ships and for United Service Organizations tours in Europe, Japan, Iceland, Hawaii and active war zones.
Her new act, previously performed at the Bucks County Cabaret in New Hope in August, brings a perspective that is a little closer to home.
“I feel a real connection to Kensington,” Rich said to the Wire last week. “We made the typical migration, from Kensington to Northeast Philly, then to Bucks County.”
The show centers on stories relayed by her late grandfather, James Hall, and his four brothers, who grew up in Philly during the Great Depression.
“Everybody knew each other, they all grew up together and you never moved,” Rich said. “There was no TV. Life was so hard and there was no escape. They relied on each other for entertainment.”
Hall was a natural storyteller, a “seanchaí,” Rich joked, using the Ancient Celtic word for those who kept the oral history of a group, memorized in long lyric poems.
He told his granddaughter about how families on Hope Street would swap houses for periods of time, just to get a different view. He told her about the “powder boxer,” who would show up covered in powder to duck and dodge punches — if you hit him, you won some money. He told her about the pretzel man who used to come around, and smeared mustard on soft pretzels with a paintbrush. He talked about what it was like to be Irish during the “No Irish Need Apply” era, though he earned wages as a professional boxer, bartender and breadman.
But mostly, he just told stories about the family.
“We didn’t rush to the television after the meal. When we were together, my grandpop and his brothers would sit there and tell stories that were hilarious,” Rich said. “We saw my mom and dad as gods, they were our biggest authority figures. They were cast in these stories as human beings, and we never saw them like that.”
In her show, Rich talks about Eddie, her great uncle who suffered brain damage at birth. He was capable of all human skills, but not adult goals like getting a job or being married.
“He would wait until everyone went to work and just wander for three days,” Rich said. But the local beat cop would always catch up with him and bring him home. “Eddie hated that cop, because he always found him in the middle of his fun”
She talks about a rookie cop, who didn’t know about his disability and arrested him. A family friend, who happened to be under arrest at the same time, set him straight at the police station.
“I don’t know what was harder, surviving the Great Depression or each other,” she joked.
Mingled with these stories is Rich’s comedy, delivered with the warmth of someone who comes from a huge Irish-Catholic family and the wisecrack tone of a lifelong Philadelphian.
Now she lives in Bucks, and of course, she’ll make jokes: “We made a wrong turn looking for home,” “All we know is pigeons and cement,” “Hey, there’s no cops on those horses.”
But it’s a nice homebase, Rich said, especially for someone who spends so much time on the road.
Chris Rich will perform “Hope Street” during the Seventh Annual United Theatre Solo Fest on Oct. 8 at the Studio Theatre in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit unitedsolo.org/us/hopestreet-2016.