The ‘Rite’ Stuff

Residents await the construction of a community theater in the heart of Camden.

Joseph Paprzycki surveys construction on the new home of the South Camden Theatre Company. It occupies the same site as Walt’s Cafe, a corner bar run in decades past by Paprzycki’s grandparents.
Photo by Ted Axelrod.

For Joseph Paprzycki, the construction site at Fourth and Jasper in South Camden is not just a future community theater, it’s a piece of his soul.

“I never left Camden, or, I guess more properly, Camden has never left me,” says Paprzycki, the producing artistic director and Sisyphean mover and shaker of the South Camden Theatre Company Inc., whose new 96-seat home is scheduled to be completed by the time its fall season opens on September 10.

For the last five years, the company has been staging its productions, eighteen of them, in the basement of Sacred Heart Church, where Paprzycki is a member. As much as Paprzycki loves that church basement, the nearby ground at Fourth and Jasper is more sacred to his heart.

That is because it was the site of Walt’s Café, the corner bar run by his grandparents, Walt and Sue Evanuk, and the setting of his play, Last Rites, which will open the company’s new season. Two years ago, the Heart of Camden, which is associated with Sacred Heart Church, purchased the long-abandoned bar property and two adjacent rowhouses in hopes of converting them into the theater. None of the buildings could be salvaged, so they were demolished and construction began in 2008 on the new building.

Paprzycki insisted the space resemble as closely as possible Walt’s Café, which catered primarily to the workers at the nearby New York Shipbuilding Company—a plant that made military vessels for six decades until its demise in 1967.

The door of the new structure is on the corner, just where it was in Walt’s Café’s heyday. The stage—and the seating area—is off to the right, where Walt Evanuk’s customers drank and told their stories of the day. The back bar area eventually will be a snack bar. The coats of the theatergoers will hang just where the coats of the shipyard workers did four decades ago.

The first season in the new theater will emphasize plays with working-class characters and emotional themes like The Old Settler, a love story set in Harlem in the 1940s, and Waiting for Lefty, about a 1938 taxi strike.

The 52-year-old Paprzycki says he is not a theater natural. He lived in South Camden until sixth grade, when his parents moved to nearby Oaklyn. He attended Collingswood High School, went to Pierce Junior College in Philadelphia, and became a regional manager for the Red Cross. He found his calling when he went to see Angels in America on Broadway fifteen years ago. “I literally saw an angel at the Walter Kerr Theater that day,” he says. “It all inspired me.” Within two weeks he had written Last Rites to honor his grandfather and his barroom patrons and started looking for places to produce it, while writing other plays on the side.

The South Camden neighborhood near the theater is hardly anyone’s idea of upscale. On a recent weekday afternoon, a nearby park was nearly empty, and stoop-sitting males were abundant. But Paprzycki focuses on the upside. He shows off a small community garden, the mural alongside a small store across from the theater, and a block of rowhouses in the midst of renovation.

“There is still some spirit in Camden that was there when the shipyard was thriving, and the Russian and Irish and Italian and black workers all had good jobs,” Paprzycki says. “I hope anyone who comes to see Last Rites will see that.”

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