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Acclaimed actor Edwin Lee Gibson splits time between Pittsburgh and New York to help at-risk youth here 

"I think about ... what these young people are able to do because they're so much smarter than we are."

Edwin Lee Gibson

Photo by Heather Mull

Edwin Lee Gibson

From January through April of this year, actor Edwin Lee Gibson has spent only about a month total in his Hill District apartment. It lacks any furniture except for an air mattress. Gibson has been working in New York City, doing some TV work or performing in shows like Minetta Lane Theatre's recent production of Caryl Churchill's Love and Information. Then he catches a bus to spend Mondays and Tuesdays in Pittsburgh before circling back to NYC.

The reason: He's volunteering here with Service Access for Youth Engaged in Service. SAY YES is a Gay and Lesbian Community Center drop-in program for "all GLBTQIA youth who are currently experiencing or are in danger of becoming homeless." It caters to adults age 25 and under, offering services like health care, job-search assistance and education. (The SAY YES coalition also includes the Homeless Children's Education Fund, UPMC and other organizations.)

Gibson got involved after initially contacting HCEF to become a tutor. When organizers saw his resume, they suggested he teach theater classes instead.

"I think about ... what these young people are able to do because they're so much smarter than we are," says Gibson. "What they're able to do, potentially, is great, and if I can have a hand in that, I'm all the better for it."

Gibson's acting credits include guest-starring on Law & Order and winning an OBIE award, in 2006, for his performance in Will Power's The Seven. With GLCC, he started out teaching an acting class, but switched his focus to play-reading and creative writing. He sensed that acting wasn't holding his students' interest. Printing out readings that students could look over on their own time lent itself better to the casual nature of a drop-in class. And by encouraging them to write their own plays, he could help students make their voices heard. That's important to Gibson, who is a stutterer.

"When I was 6 years old, I was having a really intense stuttering block with my parents and one of my brothers one night," he says. "And I said, ‘Ah, forget it.' My dad, who was a garbage man [with a] fourth-grade education, said, ‘No, say what you have to say. We'll wait. Your voice is important.'

"I never want anyone, especially any young person, to feel like ... there's something that they can't say. Or that there's not space for them to say what they want to say, however they want to say it."

Earlier this spring, his class was reading Stephen Adly Guirgis' raw, raucously funny drama The Motherfucker With the Hat. (Gibson starred in Pittsburgh-based barebones productions' staging of the play last November, at the New Hazlett Theater.) Class attendance at GLCC's Downtown headquarters has ranged from one to 11. On a sunny Tuesday in early April, three people were attending — 22-year-old Aaron, and a couple: Carly, 19, and Ralph, 26, who came to SAY YES as a 25-year-old and remains because of Carly.

When students share their ideas on what they'd like to write about — child abuse, alcohol addiction, a pastor who's hooked on cocaine — Gibson asks each of them to write down the following questions: Where is the protagonist? Is she speaking to someone? Is he speaking to himself? What does the protagonist want to change?

"You can't write page one, without word one," he tells the students.

Then they turn to Motherfucker, scene six.  Each student is assigned a character, and Gibson grins as they get into it, their tone and inflections changing line by line.

Gibson's initial move from New York to Pittsburgh traces back to 2012, when he starred in barebones' Jesus Hopped the A-Train (also by Guirgis). He landed the role of an incarcerated killer-turned-Christian after sending an audition tape to director Derrick Sanders and producer Patrick Jordan.

"His performance was very still and understated," recalls Jordan, "but [he] had a lot of intensity and fire in his eyes. There was a little bit of vulnerability. It wasn't just someone being scary. ... Edwin rang true. He was just sitting at a chair at a laptop."

Gibson moved to Pittsburgh later that year, charmed by the city's architecture and laid-back vibe. But the biggest draw was the city's ties to August Wilson. A passionate Wilson fan, Gibson has been writing out his ideas on the playwright's "artistic philosophy" since 2009. He hopes to introduce this philosophy to high school students in the Hill District, where Wilson lived.

Students in his play-reading class (a new session starts in June) have high praise for Gibson. "It's definitely a lot of fun," says Aaron. "We come in, he amps us up, inspires us, and then we get into it. We could really just take it anywhere."

"We try to faithfully be here," adds Ralph. "Because he really tries to inspire us to be beyond ourselves."

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