February 14, 2024

Passage Honors Hip-hop with the Premiere of “Ghetto Gods in Divineland”; A Family’s Conflicts Unfold Via a Powerful Fusion of Drama, Music, and Dance

“GHETTO GODS IN DIVINELAND”: Performances are underway for “Ghetto Gods in Divineland.” Written by Richard Bradford and Anthony Martinez-Briggs, and directed by Ozzie Jones, the play with music runs through February 25 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left, Gekiyla (Tasha Holmes), Papi Shh (Carlo Campbell), and Ameen (Davon Cochran) meet on the Lower Trenton Bridge — a tableau that recalls the Poor Righteous Teachers’ 1990 video for their song “Rock Dis Funky Joint.” (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Passage Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Ghetto Gods in Divineland. The play — a vibrant and poignant blend of drama, music, and dance — is a salute to the Poor Righteous Teachers (PRT), a hip-hop group whose members — Wise Intelligent, Culture Freedom, and the late Father Shaheed — were from Trenton.

A press release describes the show as an “experimental Afrofuturism play” that portrays “Trenton’s political and social issues through the lens of the ‘Divineland’ neighborhood — also known as the Mayor Donnelly Project Homes, where the members of PRT met and grew up. The play dramatizes the social trauma of Trenton’s Divineland using progressiveness, modern science, technology, and wisdom from the ancestors.”

Ghetto Gods in Divineland borrows from PRT’s music, lyrics, and imagery to tell its central story: a Divineland family’s conflicts with external events — and each other.

The theme of the play is revealed right at the beginning. Behind us, the cast moves in rhythm. The sequence is the first example of Sanchel Brown’s choreography, which is smooth, expressive, and evocative of ritual. As the cast proceeds to the stage, they repeatedly chant one word: “power.”

This makes clear that Ghetto Gods in Divineland is a meditation on the concept of power. The show contemplates multiple aspects of power — types and sources of it, legitimate (or not) uses of it, and who should have the right to wield it.

Written by Richard Bradford and Anthony Martinez-Briggs, the play received a developmental workshop at Passage last October. Ozzie Jones, the workshop’s director and dramaturg, also directs the fully staged premiere.

The titular Ghetto Gods (flamboyantly portrayed by Craig Storrod and Alicia Thomas) function as a contemporary Greek Chorus, though at times they directly affect the action as well as comment on it. As commentators they fill multiple roles, most notably as DJs and news media personalities. Sound Designer Larry Fowler adeptly manages the playback of musical excerpts and the simulated media segments, often giving the latter the audio polish of a real broadcast.

In body language as well as line deliveries, Tasha Holmes brings the right mixture of restless drive and reserved studiousness to the role of Gekiyla, a horticulturalist. Having completed her studies, she has returned to Divineland.

Gekiyla makes a discovery: a special root (represented by Alyssandra Docherty’s lighting) that has, among other mysterious properties, a connection with music. Gekiyla believes that this root can be used to benefit her community, but other characters feel that the time she gives to her research would be better spent interacting with, and more immediately aiding, the people she aims to serve.

Her harshest critic in this regard is her brother, Ameen (infused with steadily simmering, impassioned anger by Davon Cochran). Ameen’s militancy — his determination to rally those around him to fight injustice by any means necessary — causes him to have little patience with Gekilya’s discovery, the benefits of which he doubts. Both Ameen and Gekilya want to help their community; they just have sharply differing ideas about how best to do so.

There are multiple sources of tension between the siblings. One is the recent death of their mother, whose care Ameen accuses Gekiyla of leaving to others.

Other stressors are connected with external events that affect the entire neighborhood: a sinkhole (a plot point that echoes several actual headlines over recent years) that is interfering with residents’ power supply; and a roller coaster that a major corporation wants to install on the Lower Trenton Bridge. The amusement park ride obviously is irrelevant to what the neighborhood actually needs, and exemplifies — especially to Ameen — the apathy of the greedy powers that be toward the community’s plight.

Carlo Campbell adeptly balances exuberance and contemplativeness in portraying Papi Shh, a music lover who is lifelong friend and mentor to Gekilya and Ameen. Papi Shh embodies the community, and consensus building; during a particularly tense confrontation between other characters, he attempts to drown them out by leading the audience in a chant.

Arguably, the Poor Righteous Teachers are represented onstage by the Ghetto Gods and Papi Shh, who bring music to the community; and by Ameen, who agitates for social justice.

Tiffany Bacon’s costumes reinforce the concept of supporting the same community and identity in differing ways. The wardrobe shares common elements and motifs while keeping the characters distinctive. Papi Shh, Ameen, and Gekiyla all wear African patterns on at least one article of clothing. Ameen’s outfit evokes a military uniform; his hat includes a badge that contains the colors (red, black, and green) of the Pan-African flag (though the outer colors are in the reverse order).

In having the Ghetto Gods (and, at crucial times, other characters) deliver lines from the Lower Trenton Bridge, Jones lets the play share imagery with the Poor Righteous Teachers’ 1990 video of their song “Rock Dis Funky Joint.” The video contains several shots of the trio looking down at the viewer as they perform from the bridge. (The camera periodically turns away from the performers to capture the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” slogan, which is quoted in the show’s dialogue.)

For the play, this use of vertical levels astutely develops the theme of power. In this, Jones is aided by Marie Laster’s gritty set. Under the bridge (which connects two brick walls, one of which has been painted with graffiti) is a cramped room with a whiteboard, on which Gekiyla studiously writes her research notes.

Characters who speak from the bridge — looking down at both the audience and at other characters — either hold power or seek it.

A corporate executive (Storrod), who trumpets the plans for the roller coaster project, already holds power. The Ghetto Gods hold influence over their listeners. Ameen speaks from the bridge in an effort to influence the community to take power away from greedy establishment figures such as the executive.  (In a moving juxtaposition, brief footage of Martin Luther King Jr. is projected while Ameen speaks.)

By contrast, Gekiyla, in her efforts to make discoveries that will benefit her community, spends a lot of time digging in the sinkhole — the vertically lowest space. It is in the middle space (the living area under the bridge) that Papa Shh talks to Gekilya about the importance of interacting with the community. The playwrights and director appear to be emphasizing that, in order to hold power that is genuine and legitimate, one must be equally comfortable occupying all levels.

Audience members do not need to be familiar with hip-hop to find Ghetto Gods in Divineland meaningful (though those that are immersed in the genre and its history obviously will find heightened resonance — and, at the performance attended by this writer, palpably did).  The show can be a bridge that not only connects art forms, but hopefully, empowers audiences by leading them to deeper levels of understanding of fundamentally universal issues.

“Ghetto Gods in Divineland” will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through February 25. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.