August 23, 2023

Directing Trenton Youth Theater at PU Is “Full Circle” for Faith Iloka

LEARNING THEIR CRAFT: Through the Trenton Youth Theater, Trenton Central High School students meet weekly at Princeton University to develop their skills at acting, directing, design, and other aspects of theater-making. The program is part of Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP), encompassing theater, dance, and music.

By Anne Levin

On Saturday mornings during the school year, 10 students from Trenton Central High School board a bus bound for Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. For two hours — including breakfast and lunch — these participants in the Trenton Youth Theater (TYT) immerse themselves in all aspects of theater.

Student coaches from the University work with the aspiring actors, directors, and designers to develop their skills. The weekly rehearsals will culminate in a showcase next spring at Richardson Auditorium, marking the fifth anniversary of the Trenton Arts at Princeton Program (TAP), of which Trenton Youth Theater is a branch.

Heading TYT is Faith Iloka, who has the unique distinction of being an alumnus of both Trenton High in 2017, and the University in 2021. Her background, which includes playwrighting and mental health counseling, led TAP to appoint her as artistic director, succeeding former director Jamie Goodwin.

Iloka spent her early childhood in Nigeria. When she was 7, her family moved to the U.S. and settled in Hamilton Township. She entered Trenton High around the time the school was being rebuilt, and classes were held in different locations. “There wasn’t any arts presence at that time,” Iloka said. “So, I found myself seeking it out at the Trenton Boys and Girls Club. Through the classes there, a sense of community started to build through those of us who were interested in the arts.”

When the new building was finished and students moved back in, Iloka began studying with drama teacher Christina Forshey, whom she cites as a major inspiration. “She actually drove a bunch of us to McCarter Theatre to audition for A Christmas Carol in 2016. I and another student got in, as part of the community ensemble. She took us to rehearsals, and was really invested in us.”

Trenton High’s reputation as a rough place is largely unfounded, Iloka said. “I had heard stuff, of course — stigmatized rhetoric about it being ghetto and violent,” she said. “My brother said, ‘Good luck. I hope you don’t get beat up.’ What I found when I got there was that people were really friendly, and there was a big sense of community. I personally didn’t have a problem there. But I think that was intentional. I wanted to avoid the drama. I learned that a lot of people had a tough upbringing at home. Trenton High doesn’t subscribe to this one stigma. People are human and have a lot of nuance.”

While in high school, Iloka participated in the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), a multi-year, tuition-free program that prepares students for admission to and success within selective colleges and universities.

“I got in my freshman year,” she said. “We had classes in the summer at Princeton, and they exposed us to the arts all year. They paid for everything, and helped us prepare for college and other options I had. So, I was a lot more informed when it came to application season. When I got into Princeton, it was a big achievement for me. They covered my tuition. I majored in African American studies and received certificates in theater and music theater. I was able to join the dance group, engage in the arts, and get performance experience.”

TYT is designed for students from Trenton High and the Trenton Ninth Grade Academy. “Inspired by Princeton’s holistic approach to theater, TYT exposes Trenton students to all aspects of theater-making,” reads its website. “During weekly rehearsals, TYT members work with their Princeton student coaches on developing specific skills related to theater, such as directing, acting, and lighting design. Members then create their own works of theater.”

During her senior year at Princeton, Iloka was one of two inaugural student leaders with TYT. Alongside then-director Victoria Davidjohn and co-student leader Tanaka Dunbar Ngwara ’24, she designed an instructional model for TYT that allowed a variety of theatrical skills to be taught over Zoom.

“We prioritized making it a collaborative experience,” she said. “It was during the pandemic, and it forced us to think of different ways to do things. We put on a big Zoom showcase at the end.”

Her appointment as artistic director of TYT “feels very full circle,” Iloka said. “A big part of my goal is to give back to the communities that helped me as a person. It’s about more than getting a job and earning the money. I want to motivate them.”