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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
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
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.
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
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
student, a lovely young slave woman, Zena (Cherene Snow), and the
two share a bittersweet romance that is thwarted by the vicious
The first Catholic mass was celebrated in New Brunswick by Irish
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
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
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
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
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
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
it doesn’t work. And the play’s pervasive sentimentality descends
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
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. To Sunday, May 19.
$18 to $45.
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