Penn Live Arts Blog

Toll the Bell: A Cry for Peace on June 7

Posted May 29, 2024

Programs at the Annenberg Center have always addressed the pressing issues of the day, whether through August Wilson’s plays, campus and community-centered artist residencies, or commissions of new work such as the 2017 world premiere of A Period of Animate Existence. As one of Philadelphia's performing arts curators, my aim each year is to provide audiences with a range of performances that entertain, delight, challenge and inspire. So many of the artists presented by Penn Live Arts (PLA) are telling important stories that help us, the audience, reflect on and consider our world differently.

In 2022, we considered how we could support artists who were addressing the uniquely American tragedy of gun violence. Anyone in the Philadelphia area would be hard pressed to miss the regular reports of gun-related injury and death in our city. Weekly reports by the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting and recently, Philadelphia was featured in The New York Times’ robust analysis on the spread of the gun violence epidemic. There is also a seemingly endless stream of news about random shooting events and related tragedies both here and throughout our country. When I reflected on this issue, I not only found the statistics overwhelming, but realized that I had a limited understanding of the impact on certain communities and what work was being done to help mitigate this pervasive problem. How could PLA give voice to those deeply affected and uplift organizations working to improve conditions, prevent violence, and heal neighborhoods? How could we do this through the performing arts?

After a range of programs this season that included performances by the Negro Ensemble Company and choreographer, Rennie Harris, our 2023/2024 season will culminate on June 7 at 1 PM with a city-wide sound installation, Toll the Bell. Partnering with Penn’s Office of the Chaplain, Interfaith Philadelphia, and more than 50 community organizations across the city, over 35 sites in West and North Philadelphia, Old and Center City and locations in the suburbs will ring bells or make other sounds for five minutes, simultaneously. These five minutes represent the one in five Americans who have had a family member killed by a gun.

Sound has been used for centuries to alert communities of danger and to call neighbors together to share moments of reflection, worship, or celebration. Truly, no city in America is more connected to the imagery, history, and symbolism of the bell than Philadelphia. Toll the Bell is not a profile of tragedy, but rather a sonic disruption that serves as a call to action, a warning, and an invitation to Philadelphians to stop and reflect on our fellow citizens who have lost their lives, and to learn more about this urgent issue. A project of this type requires a tremendous amount of coordination and persistence, and partnership has been at the heart of our effort. We have been working diligently with partners to create a moment for our city that inspires, challenges, and leverages the unique and important work that communities of faith and other neighborhood organizations have been doing to mitigate this tragedy. To date, this is the largest community-wide event to support National Gun Violence Awareness Day in the city.

Now, we ask that you join us. Take five minutes on Friday, June 7 to listen, visit a partner site to reflect, pray, or honor our fellow citizens who have been victims in whatever way is meaningful to you. Make a sound along with us or learn more about ways you can get involved. On that day, my hope is that you will be outside with me, hearing the sound of warning, the call to action, and the intrinsic wish for change.