February 23, 2022

Removal of a Sculpture Sparks Debate in “The OK Trenton Project”; Passage Theatre Opens Mainstage Season with Compelling Docudrama

“THE OK TRENTON PROJECT”: Performances are underway for “The OK Trenton Project.” Written by David Lee White, Richard Bradford, and members of the OK Trenton Ensemble; and directed by Passage’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, the play runs through February 27 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left, are Richard Bradford, Wendi Smith, Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo (seated), and Molly Casey Chapman. (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In August 2017 the Associated Press ran an article with the headline, “Not OK? Sculpture of hand gesture moved over gang worries.” The subject of the piece was Helping Hands, a metal sculpture of a hand making the “OK” sign, which was installed on a city-owned vacant lot on the corner of Trenton’s Perry and Montgomery streets.

Helping Hands was created by students (ages 12 to 15) from Camp Mercer, a summer camp operated by HomeFront, a nonprofit group. The sculpture was crafted in collaboration with artist Eric Schultz of Grounds For Sculpture, along with Trenton-based community development organization Isles, Inc.

The AP article notes that the students chose the “OK” sign “because they felt the peace sign was overused.” After the mayor’s office received anonymous complaints that Helping Hands resembled a gang symbol, the sculpture was removed from city property.

The controversy surrounding the removal of  the sculpture — and reactions to other works of art — is explored in The OK Trenton Project, a new play that is being presented by Passage Theatre. The docudrama was developed through Passage’s PlayLab program, over a period of four years.

This iteration of The OK Trenton Project marks the first full mainstage production of  “Trenton Makes,” a season that will feature plays about the city. “Both true and fictional, each piece highlights the capital city’s triumphs and challenges while celebrating its unique community,” promises a promotional email from Passage.

Rather like Helping Hands itself, The OK Trenton Project is a sculpture of sorts. Playwrights David Lee White and Richard Bradford have crafted the piece from verbatim comments from interviews conducted by a team of local performing and visual artists. The play gives a voice to diverse viewpoints.

Interviewees included Trenton residents, artists, students, politicians, and law enforcement officials. The program credits the script to White, Bradford (who also acts), and “the members of the OK Trenton Ensemble.”

The OK Trenton Project demands, and receives, great versatility from its quintet of actors: Bradford, Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo (who also is credited as a sound assistant for the production), Molly Casey Chapman, and Wendi Smith. Every cast member performs several roles.

All five actors have characters named after them, who serve as co-narrators. These narrators stand in for the team of interviewers, occasionally replaying (and comparing) recordings of comments made by those interviewed.

Bergen is introspective as Schultz, and charismatic as Fox 29 reporter Hank Flynn. He also portrays Mayor Reed Gusciora, as well as unnamed characters such as a landlord, and a police officer. Bradford is memorable as Messiah, a high-ranking member of the Bloods street gang. He also plays musician Sam Kanig and podcast host James Peeples.

Castillo is effective in portraying Cassandra Demski (Grounds for Sculpture’s curator of education) and muralist Leon Rainbow. Smith is memorable as Felicia Brown, an impassioned theatre educator. Chapman is articulate and forceful as Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson, arts activist Marisa Benson, and Julia Taylor of Isles, Inc. Two of the students involved in the creation of Helping Hands, Blessed and Favourlynn Olando, are portrayed by, respectively, Castillo and Smith.

Bergen, Bradford, and Castillo each play characters named Joe Nonymous, who — as the name suggests — speak anonymously. All five actors play unnamed police officers, made distinguishable by wearing sunglasses.

Damien Figueras’ sound and projection design enhances the production’s
exploration of the role online communication plays in cultural debates. Pithy social media comments are displayed; the actors take turns reading these remarks, accompanied by an insistent bass riff.

When a thread of text messages is displayed and read, the actors stand still, and at a considerable distance from each other. This is a contrast from the rest of the play, in which actors often are grouped together. The staging seems to be articulating that we need art, and conversations about art — even if the conversations are divisive — to combat the increasingly isolating effect of technology.

Yoshinori Tanokura’s gritty set captures the industrial grit of the city; its metal frames and wooden slats resemble a building that is under construction. On either side of the stage are stairs leading to an upper level. The stage is decorated with paintings that evoke graffiti and murals. (The walls of Passage’s lobby sport the work of Rainbow and other Trenton artists.)

Costume Designer Robin I. Shane outfits the actors with assorted jackets, headwear, and other pieces they can add to their main costumes, to keep the myriad characters distinctive. Against the walls are nooks under which these garments hang, facilitating quick costume changes.

Director C. Ryanne Domingues (Passage’s artistic director) sets a swift pace, giving the show the urgency of a newscast. (Headlines and brief TV footage are projected, accentuating the piece’s veracity and immediacy.)

Domingues’ staging creates an illusion that there are more than five people in the cast. This is accomplished by strategic use of the full space; the actors are consistently being moved to different areas of the stage, and are put in different groups.

The lighting, by Jane Cox and Victoria Davidjohn, underscores this constantly changing focus. Put another way: the lighting moves with the shifting (and increasing) points of view about the issues.

If the number of characters and comments becomes a bit hard to follow, that seems to be part of the point. The OK Trenton Project is about responses to art, and reactions to those responses. The play captures the dizzying echo chambers of warring opinions that accompany every major news story.

Tellingly, Helping Hands is never seen onstage or via a projected photo in the course of the play. Instead, the audience gets an opportunity to view it in the lobby, after the performance.

There is a clear thematic reason for this: ultimately, The OK Trenton Project is not about one particular sculpture. The controversy surrounding Helping Hands serves as a point of departure for a discussion about reactions to works of art in general. Indeed, the play also discusses an incident concerning a door painted with the Puerto Rican flag, which was defaced with a swastika.

The play cogently explores a number of complex issues. These include racism — specifically, how decisions made by institutions and government officials affect underserved communities; the effects of social media on our discourse; and who gets to decide where to place art, and remove it. (Equivalencies are drawn between the situation with Helping Hands and the removal of statues of historical figures.)

The OK Trenton Project is a compelling collage of viewpoints — a work of art about art (and artists’ contributions to, and place in, contemporary culture). The play is a natural production for this theater; like a previous Passage production, Caged, it attempts to give voices that might otherwise be unheard a microphone with which to tell their stories. It also attempts to understand and find common ground for opposing perspectives, in a culture that is increasingly combative and polarized.

The OK Trenton Project will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through February 27. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.