Michael E. Evans brings artisan Philip Simmons to life by recounting his 10-year relationship with the uniquely gifted, internationally-recognized blacksmith. Because it’s a firsthand account, Evans’ story is powerful. He describes Simmons as a practical, committed dreamer, who “valued and loved hard work.” When Evans (a pastor, motivator, author, and actor) met Simmons 13 years ago, Simmons was one of the oldest living blacksmiths in Charleston (and in the world).
The friendship started in 2000, when a Charleston high school teacher who’d written a one-man play about Simmons’ life for a Spoleto production was anxious to cast Evans in the role of Simmons. Simmons was actually in the original audience; when Evans asked, at the end of the show, how he’d done, Simmons responded, “I give you a 99 percent, so that you know you can always improve,” a statement that speaks of his work ethic and commitment to excellence.
Through the process of taking on the role of Simmons, Evans met him on Simmons’ turf. His shop, dating back to the 1800s, was humble and was left to him by mentor Peter Simmons (no relation). The workshop, Evans said, was “like a broom closet” and he had a dresser for his desk. Simmons’ forge was one he’d made himself, styled after the one his mentor Peter Simmons had built. The two developed a friendship over the next 10 years. — Evans brought Simmons meals, drove him around, and spent as much time as possible in his presence.
Simmons was a master craftsman for over 70 years, but was also a man of great faith, one active in the community and church (the performance takes place in Saint John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, where Simmons was a member for over 90 years). Evans relates how Simmons would pray before every commission, then make three different designs and let the customer choose. But even at his busiest, Simmons consistently reached out to needy individuals whose paths he crossed.
Evans’ performance emphasizes Simmons’ work ethic, level of excellence, servant’s heart, and the cultivation of an amazing gift. When Evans asked Simmons why anyone would want to be a blacksmith, Simmons responded that he “wanted to be where the action is,” and that the fire was his favorite part (his first job as an apprentice at the young age of 13, was to “tend the fire”). When Simmons worried about job security in the 1920s era of mass production, mentor Peter Simmons told Philip, “There’ll always be room in the world for a blacksmith.”
Evans is an inspirational, magnetic storyteller with a lot of love and passion for what Simmons’ life represents. He brings humorous, loving insight into a great man, stoking the fire of Simmons’ legacy. One doesn’t have to look far in Charleston to see Simmons’ handiwork. As Simmons said, “The work will speak for itself because the iron sings.”
Philips Simmons, who passed away three years ago, would have been 100 on June 9. Go to Sunday’s show to hear Evans and stick around afterward for a birthday celebration and Evans’ book signing.