Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 8, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Public Ghosts, Private Stories’

Community" is a word that is cruelly overused these

days. Most conspicuously, it has become a euphemism for such old

unpleasant

realities as "ghetto" and "slum." Yet when 2,000 New

Brunswick residents all chip in to bring their own version of "Our

Town" to the stage of George Street Playhouse, the collaborative

effort rings with "community" in its truest sense.

Building on a three-years effort by the New Brunswick Community Bridge

Project teasing out hidden memories from all segments of the

community,

playwright Ain Gordon has brought the city’s story to the stage in

"Public Ghosts, Private Stories." On opening night at George

Street Playhouse, the 90-minute play (performed without intermission)

still felt a bit like a work in progress. For although Gordon has

done a touching job of weaving together four or five strands of this

not-so-integrated New Jersey "community," the show’s community

virtue is also its weakness. Art-making by committee is seldom art

at its best.

Ancestry and language define and separate the peoples who built, and

continue to build, the city of New Brunswick. The Dutch pioneers who

settled the town around 1700 do not make it into Gordon’s story.

Rather

it’s the Hungarian, African-American, Irish, and Hispanic residents

who are the warp and woof of the work.

Directed by Michael Rohd and Eric Ruffin, the play opens with the

ambitious Henry Hammond (Egan Paul Davson), whose ascends one of the

town’s many church steeples with his view camera, sometime in the

late 19th century, to try to capture a portrait of the city in a

single

frame. From here we ricochet through time and space, following the

human dramas of residents past and present.

African-Americans were among the first groups to join the Dutch in

New Brunswick, which was one of the first cities in New Jersey to

accept the abolition of slavery. The two individuals imagined here

are John Bartley (Victor Love), a free black man who arrives in 1822

to teach for the African Association of New Brunswick, an educational

system created by and for city blacks.

Love plays Bartley as a proud and thoughtful teacher. And this man,

who chose his own surname off the back of a passing merchant’s cart,

speaks some of the play’s wisest words. "Turn your back on the

past," he warns, "and it will bite you where you sit."

Bartley, destined to become an influential citizen, meets an

attractive

student, a lovely young slave woman, Zena (Cherene Snow), and the

two share a bittersweet romance that is thwarted by the vicious

reality

of slavery.

The first Catholic mass was celebrated in New Brunswick by Irish

immigrants

in 1825, but Irish immigration to the area became most intense with

the Potato Famine of 1845. Gordon creates a magnificent Irish maid,

Bridget Deergan, given a fiery performance by Mara Stephens, an angry

and unrepentant servant whose crime of passion is murder. Bridget

is irresistible in her insistence on fair treatment from her

employers.

She ends up on the gallows, but not before she has enjoyed with relish

the last — and best — breakfast of her young life.

As latter-day visitors to New Brunswick likely discover, more than

anything, New Brunswick became a magnet for Hungarians. Families first

settled there in the 1880s, and it became one of the largest Hungarian

communities outside Hungary. Gordon’s Hungarians are also two of the

play’s most dominant characters in the persons of Mrs. Kovash (Helen

Gallagher), who arrived as a child with her widowed mother, and her

American-born daughter Rose (Anne O’Sullivan).

Mrs. K’s mother "left the village where everything

made sense" with three silver spoons stitched into the lining

of her coat, a family legend she’s not about to let Rose forget. Mrs.

K. also shows us, however, how the immigrant "miracle" —

the marvel of reaching America’s shores — is also a tale of

dislocation

and disappointment. One of the play’s most touching moments is when

Rose’s mother chats freely with her from the grave. "Finally,"

she tells her frustrated daughter, "we’re talking to each

other."

The city’s burgeoning Latino population has been arriving steadily

over the past 50 years, initially from Puerto Rico, and more recently

from Mexico and Central America. Gordon imagines two Latino families

of two successive generations: one, an assimilated city cop, Robert

(Shawn Elliott), whom nobody calls Roberto any more, and his wife

Dolores (Socorro Santiago); the other, a newly arrived young Mexican

couple, touchingly portrayed by Maria Tola and Daniel Utset.

Is New Brunswick a stew pot, a melting pot, or just co-existing

communities?

What ever it is, Gordon captures the marvels of ethnic diversity in

one of his best scenes in which each group of characters instructs

us, the audience, on the best way to prepare a cut of lamb. Thyme,

rosemary, garlic, leg joint, or shoulder, no two cooks agree, yet

all are passionate about the splendor of their cuisine.

Similarly, we get another object lesson in memory and chauvinism when

residents start comparing notes about the city’s vaunted

"natatorium"

which opened in 1926. On matters of admission, lockers, diving boards

— each person has inherited different, immutable memories.

Community workshops and community-wide auditions were held to cast

14 roles performed alongside the show’s seven professional actors.

The seven non-Equity actors who appear in the current production are

more than capable — in fact the distinction between one group

and the other is all but invisible.

Gordon tries to work in one of the city’s favorite sons, Joyce Kilmer,

whose park and whose poem, "Trees" ("I think that I shall

never see / A poem lovely as a tree…") clearly loom large in

the memories of the citizenry. Though we want to be respectful to

the poet when he shows up in tweeds and starts scribbling in his

notebook,

it doesn’t work. And the play’s pervasive sentimentality descends

into sappiness.

Although some of this season’s George Street productions have been

enhanced by lavish theatrical settings ("Waiting for Tadashi"

and "Talley’s Folly" come immediately to mind), "Public

Ghosts, Private Stories" is a stripped-down show. The set, by

R. Michael Miller, is composed of a gathering of scrap-wood pedestals

standing in a bed of sand. At the center, an unremarkable tree stump

stands in place of the various magnificent spreading trees that grow

and disappear over the course of this 300-year story.

There is not quite enough stage magic here to support the motif of

the spreading tree, nor its complex web of individuals, families,

generations, and centuries.

— Nicole Plett

Public Ghosts, Private Stories, George Street

Playhouse ,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. To Sunday, May 19.

$18 to $45.


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