"There is an institutionalized racism in our country. An African-American woman that gets promoted: Was I promoted because of my race, because they’re trying to meet a certain quota? Or was it really, truly because of my own merits? A person who gets pulled over for a ticket: Am I being given a ticket because I was driving too fast? Or because I look Mexican? And again, it’s just something that, when we talk about the privilege of being white, or appearing white, well, they never have to ask those questions,” says an unidentified Trenton resident.
Those words as well as those of nearly 20 other Trenton residents will be heard in “Profiles: A Play and Symposium,” Passage Theater’s new project designed to “ask those questions” and explore the realities and ideas of race in the capital city. Presentations will be performed at the Mill Hill Playhouse from Thursday, February 13, to Sunday, February 23.
The project follows another Trenton-specific production presented in 2010, “Trenton Lights.” Passage Theater’s artistic director June Ballinger called that work “a play written by an entire city.” The company created the play around the lives of Trenton residents.
As Ballinger and associate artistic director David White say in a statement about “Profiles,” “We were itching for the theater to be more community-based. We realized that what was going to make Passage sustainable in the long run as a regional theater was obtaining a strong loyal bond with the community. Not just the patrons in the greater Trenton area but the Trenton residents, most of whom don’t know about the theater. It took us awhile to figure it out.”
Although Ballinger and White are experienced in using real voices and stories to create a stage work, “Profiles” is taking them into uncharted territory. “I have worked in Trenton 18 years and lived here in the city for 11 years, and it’s simply the inevitable conversation,” says Ballinger. “David and I — with great humility as neither of us is a race expert or sociologist — learned from our ‘Trenton Lights’ collaboration that race was the elephant in the room, and we wanted to tackle it next. The choice for this also says something about the direction I think the theater in our society is moving in order to remain essential. People want stories, but they also like to work out and get clarity on their own stories. This piece is composed strictly from the voices of this community and performed by actors from this community. This is where the ritual of theater becomes particularly meaningful.”
White agrees. “The biggest realization I’ve had while working on this project is that there are deep, meaningful, and profoundly human experiences taking place in Trenton,” he says. “They’re happening despite the bad headlines, the crime rate, the jokes, the scandals, and the mockery. One of Passage Theater’s jobs is making sure that these stories and conversations are being heard above the din. There is a lot of thought and discussion about race in America right now. But it’s happening on the news shows and talk radio and in our Facebook feeds. It’s not taking place in the way it needs to take place — between people that are sharing the same space with one another. Theater provides the best conduit that we have to help facilitate these conversations, experiences, and stories.”
Ballinger, who was born in Camden but raised in Connecticut, has been a part of Passage for 17 years. She initially came to Trenton to start a local replication of the 52nd Street Project, a New York-based theater-making initiative. For the project the English-trained theater artist created and produced new plays for and by youth between the ages of 9 and 18 who resided in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, near where her father worked as an editor for Better Home and Garden magazine.
As guest artistic director for the project and leader of her own company Word for Word, Ballinger specialized in the creation of works of theater developed through extensive interviews. It was a “baptism by fire,” she says.
Passage’s incarnation of the 52nd Street Project became the State Street Project, now directed by White, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, who joined the company in 2001. The State Street Project incorporates several programs that interact with Trenton-area youth, including Playmaking, which links young people with playwrights to create new plays that are then directed and performed by professionals.
“Some of the kids I worked with when they were in grade school are in college now, and we really shared some special projects together,” says White, whose father was a psychologist and his mother an English teacher. “The play we created about gang violence, ‘If I Could, In My Hood, I Would . . .,’ has continued to be produced by other theaters and schools, and that’s incredibly gratifying.”
On a recent afternoon, White and “Profiles” actor Alex Hernandez took a break while working on a scene to talk about the project and race. The setting is the Mill Hill Playhouse, the old church that was converted into the theater that the professional non-profit company calls home.
“I get to perform real people in the city. People I may never meet,” says the 23-year-old Hernandez, a Trenton native (and now Hamilton resident) who recently earned a BFA in acting from Montclair State University.
“My father — Robert Hernandez, director of El Centro social agency in Trenton — is friends with June Ballinger, and she needed a bilingual speaker for the summer program,” Hernandez says about his introduction to Passage and the project.
Hernandez believes that media and website discussions about race are usually guarded, but the performances of actual words from the interviews is different. “All those suppressed things are not being said. There’s a visceral quality when talking face to face. When you stop thinking about words, you have an actual conversation.”
“Racism is very subtle, and it is often not intentional. It’s a product of where you came from,” says Hernandez.
White notes that to get people to talk about the issue he asked them to talk about themselves. “While they’re talking I try to latch onto a story. I try to get a story, not an opinion.”
The stories also touch other social topics, including class. “It is amazing how quickly that while talking about race (the people interviewed) will bring up poor neighborhoods. That’s a huge issue, particularly in Trenton.” It’s a point brought up in the production when a character says, “It’s not just a race thing. People don’t view success as being here. The issue is that white people don’t want to live with black people, right? And nobody wants to live among poor people.”
Another point is the racism that appears in groups that seem homogenized. Just as white Europeans have a history of social tensions (the conflicts between the Irish and the English easily come to mind), so are there tensions in other groups. White points out the tensions between African-Americans and Africans and Caribbeans. Hernandez notes social tensions between Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, and Cubans and says “My dad deals with lots of Latino immigrants. There’s this Latino hierarchy. There’s this idea of who’s more American.”
Ballinger and White know that this work and any work to create a meaningful artistic environment in Trenton is tough going. As White has said in a past interview, “Trenton’s got a bad rep. You see it on those huge newspaper headlines, you see us being ridiculed on the national news. It’s a challenge. Trenton is not nearly as good a city as it should be. But it’s also not nearly as bad as people think it is. It’s somewhere in the middle, and every time something modestly wonderful happens or something horribly tragic happens, it momentarily tips over to one side or the other.”
“We operate on a tiny budget, and things just get leaner,” says Ballinger. “Trenton is loaded with its own challenges, and they impact us considerably. But I am proud of our adventurous loyal and generous audience. They stick with us and encourage us to keep the faith.”
They also encourage the company to take a chance, evidenced by the non-traditional work in front of them. Attempting to explain the shape of the production, White muses, “Is it documentary theater? Is it communication theater? It’s non-fictional obviously. The words that you hear are the words out of people’s mouths. Maybe journalistic theater? It’s theater, but it is not a story. People are telling stories, but (the production) is not a story.”
A moment later he says, “The goal is to take the private conversation and make them public. It’s only in privacy where you have the safety to be honest. But theater is a place to be honest too.”
Especially a theater that was once a place where the word was sacred.
Profiles: A Play and Symposium, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Thursday, February 13, through Sunday, February 23, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. $25. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheater.org.