Review: RealTime’s ‘The Constellationist’ Spotlights a Bright Star of Braddock


In a vignette during The Constellationist, the person at the center of the story is represented by a towering puppet with a smiling golden sun for a face.

The people in Mary Helen Carey’s orbit have been portraying her real-life story, making the center of the solar system a picture-perfect choice. To hear those touched by her warmth tell it, the brightest star in the sky can’t hold a candle to Mary.

Told in chapters with titles such as, “When the Moon Dips Below the Trees, The Sun Comes Up,” The Constellationist illustrates what makes Mary the “extraordinary ordinary” person who Rusty Thelin and Molly Rice aim to illuminate in RealTime Arts’ People of Pittsburgh series. 

The installments celebrate unsung community leaders who devote themselves to uplifting others. You know, The Helpers who Fred Rogers told us to look for in troubled times? The Mary Carey’s of the world.

Lish Danielle and sons Azriel and Elliott Rose Hutchins rehearse Baby Mama Drama, a scene in People of Pittsburgh: The Constellationist, a RealTime Arts production at Attack Theatre Studio in Lawrenceville. (Image: Zev Woskoff & RealTime Arts)

The Constellationist is the second in the series, after The Alchemist of Sharpsburg. No two pieces are alike. The theatrical way forward is dictated by the subject and dozens of interviews – in this case, representations of Mary as a bright light in the darkness have revealed the way.

Mary Helen Carey (Laura Petrilla)

There are those who call her a guiding star … inspiring … encouraging … supportive … a “here’s the shirt off my back” once-in-a-lifetime force of nature. Or, as Mary’s husband sums it up, she’s “the last of a dying breed.”

Through Sunday at Attack Theatre Studio in Lawrenceville, Mary’s life of activism and self-sacrifice, amid her own suffering and struggles, unfolds through audio interviews, music, songs, dance, testimonials and larger-than-life puppets.

The woman known to many in Braddock as someone who has endured a lifetime’s worth of her own hardships but who keeps on going — “she just can’t help herself when it comes to helping others” — was in attendance on Wednesday, with friends and family surrounding her in the audience. The well-met greetings and hugs went on nonstop before the show, while we listened to a recording of songs such as “You Are My Shining Star.”

In the process of developing The Constellationist, it became obvious to Thelin, who directs, and Rice, who researched and co-created the work, that many of those in Mary’s orbit wanted to be directly involved in the project.

Among the cast – referred to as the “Devising Ensemble’ – is Sanford-Mark Barnes, a jazz trumpeter, singer/actor, single dad and Mary’s neighbor, who will be familiar to those who were onboard in 2015 for the Braddock-based Saints Tour, a RealTime/Bricolage collaboration. Besides lending his mellow trumpet and character roles in several chapters of the work, he shares that his children and Mary’s played together, and how he would suddenly find himself “nominated” for community-oriented tasks by Mary. If he protested, she would say she knew he would do it even without asking. And he could only nod.

Time after time, interviewees and ensemble members explained that, when it comes to accomplishing a task, it’s hard to say no when Mary is leading the charge.

Travis Matuke, left, and Sanford-Mark Barnes rehearse for The Constellationist, an ode to Braddock activist Mary Carey. (Zev Woskoff & RealTime Arts)

The Devising Ensemble also includes Lish Danielle, a charismatic fitness trainer, model and performer, and her children, Azriel and Elliott Rose Hutchins; singer/songwriter Erika Denae J; performers Aerin Addams, Travis Matuke and Calise Cowans-Rini; and Jasmariah, Mary’s 10-year-old grandniece. 

The show features original songs by members of the ensemble, and those puppets – Mary (a golden sun) and the Men in Her Life (silver to her gold). They are the creations of sculptor and puppetmaker Cheryl Capezzuti, who wanted to be a part of celebrating a woman who encouraged her artistry.

Cowans-Rini was a Woodland Hills High student selling ads for the school’s musical when she met Mary, who took a break from her job and marched the youngster around the neighborhood to help her reach her goal. As they approached one store, Mary told the youngster to pretend to be her niece, because that would give her a better chance of securing an ad. 

Danielle, a multidisciplinary performer, spoke movingly of her personal struggles and how Mary was instrumental in her achieving her goals. And so it went throughout the night, by testimonial, via audio interviews, music, songs and dance, Mary’s life up to now – and the promise of a bright future – unfolded.

Erika Denae J (Zev Woskoff and RealTime Arts)

A particularly poignant moment was the reading of the long, seemingly never-ending list of Mary’s family and friends who had died in recent years. Hopefully, it also brought to mind the dozens of people who were surrounding her with love on Wednesday.

The Constellationist began with Denae J singing about connections, starting with the lyric, “Let’s all take a group photo.” The night ended with Mary’s voice washing over what had revealed itself as her own support group, as she spoke about the importance of positive connections – not only those from the past, but the new ones being made that very night, in her own ever-widening constellation of people of Pittsburgh.


PEOPLE OF PITTSBURGH II: The Constellationist will be presented at Attack Theatre Studios, 212 45th St., Lawrenceville, through July 16, with discounts for people living in the Braddock area, zip code 15104 (shuttle available for Braddock residents on July 15 and 16). https://realtimeinterventions.thundertix.com/events/214243  Note: The show deals with adult themes. For content warnings, contact info@realtimeinterventions.org

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