Windy City donut story parallels Pittsburgh

By Sierra Starks

Superior Donuts

Pittsburgh Public… Superior Donuts

Pittsburgh Public Theater

O’Reilly Theater

Today through May 15

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What do a young, inner-city black man, a middle-age Polish-American and a donut shop in Chicago have to do with Pittsburgh?

According to actor Wali Jamal, a lot. Jamal, who plays a straight-laced black cop in the play “Superior Donuts,” calls the Windy City in the production a carbon copy of the Steel City.

Pittsburgh Public Theater will present Chicago playwright Tracy Letts’ play as it aims to get the Pennsylvania city to embrace its history.

“Superior Donuts” is set in the declining era of the last independent donut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. The shop is now forced to compete with the likes of Starbucks and other big corporations.

“The shop, Superior Donuts, itself is reminiscent of any [steel] mill or business in Homestead or Braddock, PA’s Steel Valley,” Jamal said. “Those businesses were making strides and taking care of their own. And that isn’t happening anymore with the decline of the steel industry.”

Rob Zellers, director of education at Pittsburgh Public Theater, said, “[The play] could just as easily have been set in Pittsburgh.”

In that regard, he said that in “Superior Donuts,” “Pittsburghers will find the setting, the characters and the situation very relatable.”

Jamal, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, agrees. “Pittsburghers are going to identify very much with the plight of these people and the struggle that goes on in the play,” he said.

For actor Brandon Gill, who plays Franco Wicks, the optimistic black assistant to the Polish donut shop owner, this story is also about two unlikely characters becoming friends.

“The friendship between my character, Franco, and this Polish man inspires people from the neighborhood who are not blood family to form their own … family through the two of them,” Gill said. “In how these two characters interact in this small town, it makes the big city of Chicago seem relatable.”

Aside from diverse friendships, Letts “sets up a challenging conflict that the characters must confront and navigate,” Zellers said.

Gill admires Letts in particular for writing about an educated black man striving to overcome a world that’s against him.

“I think Tracy Letts has given young black actors such a gift with the role that I’m playing,” Gill said. “Because it’s about a young kid from the ‘hood’ who doesn’t want to be a product of his environment … He did a wonderful job of meshing the two black worlds that you don’t see portrayed together in contemporary theater or television.”

Having been a part of theater, television and film productions all of his career, from the movie “Big Momma’s House 3: Like Father Like Son” to the Off-Broadway “Neighbors,” Gill is familiar with roles of many kinds. But it is this role to which he relates the most.

“Franco and I are both young black men who want to do something more,” Gill said. “We aspire for more than what we can see in our near future.” Like his character in the play, Gill has a mother and sister whom he wants to take care of through his art.

“Franco wants to do the same,” he said. “He’s so optimistic. He thinks nothing will go wrong. One of his favorite mantras he wrote is ‘never stop moving.’”

Jamal said this motto can also be applied to Letts’ writing style. “As a fellow playwright, I was blown away by Tracy Letts’ writing style,” he said. “He really does keep the audience in mind and lays a nice track for them to follow. The play always keeps moving.”

Gill agrees that “Superior Donuts” will move the audience through an array of different emotions. He was moved to play the part of Franco when he first saw Jon Michael Hill originate the role on Broadway. “I saw it and immediately wanted to be in it,” Gill said.

Coincidentally, after his time at the Juilliard School, he went on to work alongside Hill in the television show “Troy 187.”

“And now I’m playing [Franco],” he said. “It almost feels like I was meant to do it.”

Whether it’s the coincidences that brought Gill to Pittsburgh Public Theater to play this particular role, the paralleling stories that make “Superior Donuts” relatable to the city of Pittsburgh or the circumstances that bring two unlikely characters together in the play, “Superior Donuts” calls for a reflection, an embrace even, of the past.

“The history is there,” Jamal said. “You just have to turn stuff over to find it.”