The set is under construction. There are grids and lights and the smell of fresh paint on the stage, all of which announces, in any theater, that a new production is under way.
But for Passage Theater in the Mill Hill section of Trenton, there is a lot more, onstage and off, going on. “Trenton Lights,” which has its world premiere on Thursday, May 20, is, as Passage’s producing artistic director June Ballinger says, “a play written by an entire city.”
Directed by Adam Immerwahr, with music by Vince di Mura, the show is based on many of hours of interviews with Trenton residents of all ages and all walks of life. What sets it apart from other plays of this ilk, says Ballinger, is that, “my collaborator, David Lee White, is a real playwright, not just an earnest chronicler. It’s got all of the verbatim conversations, but in a frame that’s going to be highly theatrical.”
For more than three years, the pair talked and taped Trentonians from all over the city: older African-Americans, Latinos, the returning middle classes, and former city residents. Some of the conversations involved life before and after the riots that raged in the city following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Accurately or not, many people both in and out of Trenton feel that the riots were a turning point in the city’s decline. The authors want to tell a story that is far more complex, and show the city in a more positive, albeit realistic light. This isn’t just a play; it’s a shout-out to the community. Both Ballinger and White feel there’s more at stake here than just a good show.
Ballinger, who continues a busy acting career (she appears in “Trenton Lights”), has been the producing artistic director of Passage since 1996. White, the associate artistic director, joined Passage in 2003. In addition to his playwriting activities, he worked on Passage’s State Street Project, which matched Trentonians aged from 8 to 22 with professional artists to create plays and performances.
Seated in the intimate theater’s tiny production office, Ballinger and White discuss how the project came to fruition. In the spirit of their project, we turned on the tape recorder and let it roll. This, then, is an oral history of how an oral history project came to be.
U.S. 1: How did the idea for the show first come about?
David Lee White: June and I have both been involved in other projects that involve interviewing Trenton residents, but they were fictional plays based on real events. June had been working on a piece called “Trenton Takes,” and in the process had interviewed a lot of elderly Trenton residents.
June Ballinger: With “Trenton Takes,” our events were readings and Heritage Days presentations. We had a vague idea: wouldn’t it be nice to do something more in a production mode?
Four years later, 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. How do we win them over? It’s not that big a house — if we could get just twice as many Trenton residents to feel that this is their theater, that they have a stake in it, we would have to expand, instead of holding steady in a 100-seat house as we have for 25 years, and getting most of our audiences from the suburbs.
White: People responded extremely positively to the State Street Project and “Trenton Takes.” But none of that told a big enough story to put on the main stage for a more general audience. It took us awhile to figure out a way to do that. And it involved interviewing a lot more people, which we started doing towards the end of the summer in 2009.
U.S. 1: How did you take on the monumental task of finding your subjects?
White: We have met a lot of people over the years just from being associated with the theater. Trenton is not a really large city, so you have a lot of people who are still here, have been here their entire lives, and love to talk about Trenton in its heyday. And through them, we met other people.
Ballinger: Last year we started making connections with the churches here in Trenton. One woman, Toni Isreal, from the Shiloh Baptist Church, is sort of our ambassador. She has taken the message about Passage to black churches in the city. So when we told her about this she said, “Oh, you have to talk to Miss Elizabeth Lacy. She knows everything there is to know about Trenton.”
White: Liz Lacy has a very good sense of history. The people whom we talked to, the people who had kind of a lifetime experience in Trenton, really see how they fit into history — as Trentonians, but also in the history of the civil rights movement, and the post-riots, and I think that’s possible because they were in a small city. They could really see how they fit into the scheme of things.
Ballinger: Some of Miss Lacy’s interview opens the play. The actor playing her says — and this is word for word — “I started getting interested in Trenton’s history, and I started collecting things. And it’s amazing the people that helped me find things. The way things just come to you. I go down to the resale store on Tuesdays, because of the senior discount, and this woman comes up to me and says, ‘Hi! Are you Betty? I have so many things for you about the schools in Trenton.’ So, she’s going to send them to me. I wait one week, two weeks, I never hear from her. Then just yesterday, I go back to the resale store — senior discount — and she says, ‘Hi, Betty! I was hoping you’d come in here.’ And she reaches down in her bag; she’s got everything with her — letters and pictures and everything. And I thought, ‘I can’t believe it. How history just comes to you, from one person to another.’”
And that’s sort of the whole theme of this play — how history just comes to you from one person to another. It’s kind of the whole show in that first speech, and it came from that first interview with Miss Lacy.
White: If we hadn’t been from the community, we would have been up against a brick wall. For instance, I got a bunch of stories from residents of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. One woman was 92 years old and came to Trenton when she was 14 as a maid. I got that story because a young woman who volunteers at the theater also works at the Kitchen. We got a lot from the network of people who work for non-profits in the area. That was a big asset. And because of the education programs, I knew people in the school system. And June knew people through her church and this neighborhood. So we drew on connections we already had. June is a big networker; she knows everybody, and their names.
U.S. 1: So now you had hours and hours of tapes. What next?
White: Eventually, we had so much material. We went through and crossed stuff out until we had narrowed 50 or 60-page interviews down to about 12 to 15 pages. We started putting them all together and editing them even further and further.
Ballinger: As we starting getting a sense of what the point of view was, we put together a first draft. And then we read it aloud for the first time — just David; myself; the director, Adam Immerwahr, and the producer. We had a conversation about what we missed, what needed to be there.
White: One thing that everyone told us was that the riots in 1968 were the turning point for Trenton. And whether or not they actually were, whether or not you can trace socio-economic factors before that, and the national cultural influences, that’s the moment that everyone perceives as having been the turning point. That’s how the play is divided.
We realized we had told the story up until the riots, and then suddenly, in the second act, post-riots, we had no stories from the African-American community of today. So we started to realize that the big story was not complete. And back we went to talk to young African-American business people, entrepreneurs, city workers, and residents.
Ballinger: We also brought Adam, our director, in fairly early. He’s a Trenton resident and has directed a lot here. He came in with a very clear idea of how to do it. We knew that we wanted it to be physical, not literally with props and places, but with actors who could create illusions and space. And he and David work incredibly well together.
And we knew we wanted music; we had worked with Vince before.
White: When you are telling dozens of different stories that take place over almost a 100-year time span, you need something that’s going to set time and place. The music is another story-telling technique.
Ballinger: And there is singing. We knew we had two particularly strong voices in the cast.
Originally, we were thinking of four actors. Economically, we thought four is what we can afford. Then when we started putting it together, we thought we really can’t do this without a fifth actor. We needed to broaden the load.
White: There are 50 to 60 characters of diverse ages and races and of both sexes. And you had to have the right ensemble balance to be able to play all the roles.
Ballinger: So we literally called donors who we knew to raise the money to hire the fifth actor.
U.S. 1: You’ve said that you have wanted to use more local actors in your shows. How did you move towards that goal with this production?
Ballinger: We aspire to some kind of repertory company, but we haven’t figured that out yet. All we did this year was make a decision that if we could cast from the Philadelphia/South Jersey/Princeton/Trenton area, that would trump someone of equal talent who came from New York. And I’m happy to say that when we cast the show, two people are from Philly, two are from Trenton/Princeton, and one person is from Newark.
U.S. 1: When people talk about the city, the elephant in the room is always Trenton’s reputation as a high crime area.
White: There is kind of a narrative of Trenton that is unhealthy and unnecessarily negative and pervades all discussion of Trenton as a city. And it’s not that we wanted to ignore that or contradict it, but we also didn’t feel that it was putting put into its proper context. It was a story that was being told at the expense of everything else. If you drive through Trenton long enough, you see the newspaper boxes, and it’s there, like a director’s commentary — “Gang Shootings,” just flies by your face every mile.
So you tread on tricky ground because you don’t want to say Trenton’s perfect. But I do think it is held to a standard that might be impossible to live up to. As long as there’s one crime in Trenton, people will think of it as a crime-ridden city. Our job as a theater is to tell some of the other stories.
We’re not done in Trenton yet. And I think we came to that conclusion when we started talking to Guatemalans in Trenton and realizing they’re not all that different from the immigrants when the Italians came over in the 1930s. They have similar values: family, education, religion, giving kids what they couldn’t have, more work than in the old country.
Ballinger: It’s not shading or spinning the truth. It’s really just a variety of views. The singular thing that did come to us in putting together the script, the thing that attracted us to using the point of view of every single one of our characters, is that they all seem to have a moment in their lives where they said, “I have a choice.” And that choice was the decision to reach for the light, the positive.
So it’s not Pollyanna-ish, but when you choose to emphasize those (positive) moments in a person’s story, it moves the whole story towards a certain point of view. Hence it’s called “Trenton Lights.” As one of my interviewees said, “Stop talking about the glory days! No one cares! It’s over! Gone! Forget it! Go talk to the new people, the new immigrant population, the people who are making Trenton what it is now!” That was a very important message to get early on.
I don’t know if we knew in the beginning that we were going to include some of that. We found ourselves wanting to spend the precious time onstage less and less on the good old days — we pay homage to that and have some background stories on that, colorful stuff — but really concentrate on the people who are here now; the questions that people are asking now; the hopes and the dreams for the people. The whole end of the play is sort of a dinner where people are celebrating. “Trenton Lights” is a toast to Trenton; it’s a prayer for Trenton.
“Trenton Lights,” Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Through Sunday, June 6. World premier of a play with music that celebrates the city’s past, present, and future. Conceived and created by David Lee White and June Ballinger. $25. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.