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."

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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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