By Ruth Ross
Losing one's home to a natural disaster is terrible, but losing a home you've lived in for over 20 years, a home you bought and paid for, merely because the city fathers want to build a park on it, well, that's tragic. The former was addressed in Premiere Stages' previous production On the Water; the latter is the focus of The People Before the Park, the play by Keith Josef Atkins that won the company's 2015 Play Festival. Selected from 440 submissions, the play received some reworking before its full-blown production on the stage of the Zella Fry Theatre on the campus of Kean University in Union. (Above: W. Tré Davis as Jonas and Billy Eugene Jones as Stephen; photo by Mike Peters)
Set in 1856, The People Before the Park, unfolds in 1856 Seneca Village, a small community of free African-Americans located in what is now Central Park. Despite the fact that these folks purchased their land from a family of farmers about 30 years before, corrupt New York City government officials have already co-opted part of the property to build a reservoir to provide water to the city and currently have their eye on the remainder for the grand park we have come to know so well.
While many of the settlers have accepted the paltry payout offered by the city fathers to "legally" purchase the land, oysterman Stephen Van Cleef continues to resist despite the reasoned pleas of his neighbors, shoemaker Marion Lewis and his wife Phoebe, who recognize a quixotic quest when they see one. Stephen's reasons for holding on in the face of possible violence are nebulous, overly optimistic, for they rely on preserving the memory of a loved one long gone. Matters are complicated by Stephen's talented son Jonas, a budding artist who years to leave Seneca Village to learn more about his craft, his friendship with German immigrant (and New York City policeman) Mathius Frackenhinger and his son's romantic involvement with Bridget Donnely, a young Irish immigrant who lives in a shanty near the local cemetery. (Above: Andy Truschinski as Mathius and Billy Eugene Jones as Stephen. Photo by Mike Peters)
For close to two hours (with an intermission), Stephen fights his friends, his son and the powers that be as they urge him to leave his home of 20 years. But while The People Before the Park provides a fascinating glimpse into a past most people know nothing about, it is strangely unaffecting, emotionally. Because Stephen holds fast to his decision set forth in the first scene, he remains a static character; there is no dramatic arc to his character development. The most interesting character is Jonas, his son, whose yearnings for a different life are palpable; when he cuts his ties to Seneca Village, we have hope that he will make something of himself. Because not much happens during the course of the play, the final scene lacks surprise and its impact is blunted.
This is not to say that the script is faulted by the acting. John Wooton directs skillfully and fluidly, and the cast he has chosen performs very well. Billy Eugene Jones is a crusty, stubborn Stephen, hard on everyone, even himself. He is clearly tormented by something in his past, and it affects his relationship with his son. Would that playwright Atkins had given him a softer side that would have made him more sympathetic; when we learn what's driving his obstinacy, it's a bit too late to change our opinion of the man. W.Tré Davis is exceptional as Jonas (Left, with Bridget Gabbe), a youth on the cusp of adulthood and all that entails. We root for him to make his way in the world, for he is unencumbered with memories that chain him to the place.
As the Lewises, Shane Taylor is an overbearing Marion, sure he is right and pompous to the core. Michelle Wilson's Phoebe (Right, with Davis) is a stiff-necked moralist, prone to breaking into Creole (Haitian) French for what I can discern is no reason at all. Atkins could have left out that piece of business. Nevertheless, the couple represents a more pragmatic approach to the city's offer, in contrast to Stephen's resistance.
Andy Truschinski is fine as Mathius, albeit his German accent was a tad thick at the beginning. Perhaps he softened it a bit as the evening wore on, or I may have gotten used to the cadence of his speech. Ditto Bridget Gabbe's Bridget (Above, with W. Tré Davis). These two characters remind us of the melting pot aspect of mid-19th century urban society and the fact that German and Irish immigrants were as maligned then as are Hispanic immigrants today (take note, Donald Trump—formerly Drumpf).
Kudos to Patrick Rizzotti's scenic design; his use of burlap and trees to line the walls of the entire little black box theater transport us to another world, the world of Seneca Village. Brant Thomas Murray's lighting is atmospheric; Karen Lee Hart's costumes telegraph each character's place in life; and Janie Bullard's sound enhances the entire production.
Despite its being strangely unaffecting in a dramatic sense, the subject of The People Before the Park will not fail to move you to the plight of a people who have played by the rules only to find them changed by a corrupt government. Although Central Park plays an important role in the quality of life for the city's citizens, those who see this play will never regard that great green space in the same way ever again. That's not a bad thing, for the good of the majority often comes at the expense of the few. And that's an important point to remember.
The People Before the Park will be performed at the Zella Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building, Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, through September 20. After the 3 PM matinee performance on Sunday, September 19, a docent for The New-York Historical Society will discuss the history of Seneca Village. For performance information and tickets, call 908.737.SHOW (7469) or visit www.kean.edu/premierestages online.