By Ruth Ross
A well-wrought play—with a fully developed plot and three-dimensional, dynamic characters—is a wondrous thing. And if you’re a theatre junkie like me, you won’t want to miss Premiere Stages’ first full Equity production of Brick City by Nicole Pandolfo at Kean University in Union.
Developed over a two-year period in collaboration with NJPAC, the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and Premiere Stages, Brick City centers on three individuals in a struggling school district—in this case, Newark—who have been “sentenced” to an extended study hall for a variety of reasons: Teacher Veronica Vega because she’s a rookie, combative disabled senior Jessie McKenna because she’s been absent or late to school too many times, and basketball star Darnell King because he has to raise his grades so he can play on the school’s team. Added to the mix is thuggish ex-con Rogelio Alaya, whose relationship with Veronica and Darnell nearly derails their paths to success. Over the course of about three months in a generic high school classroom, designed with crushing blandness by Bethanie Wampol Watson, worlds collide, truths are exposed, problems are confronted head-on, and the three principals discover that things aren’t often as they appear.
Brick City playwright Pandolfo’s focus is the challenges inner city youth face when learning to navigate the real world, a weighty theme at which she succeeds admirably without being maudlin or eliciting pity for her characters’ plights. The natural dialogue, appropriate to each character; is delivered convincingly by the quartet of talented actors Director Jessi D. Hill has assembled for the cast.
Madison Ferris’s Jessie (right, with Chris Grant as Darnell) risks losing the audience’s sympathy, given her cynical, judgmental, incessant chatter. Seemingly delighted to make others feel uncomfortable, she delivers a snark opinion about everything, from candy to basketball to the school’s administration, as she rolls around the classroom nonstop on her mobile wheelchair. That she’s a talented photographer who has been kicked off the yearbook because of her absenteeism and tardiness makes her sardonic attitude even sadder. Ferris’s delivery of Jessie’s backstory is an acting wonder; she recounts what got her in a wheelchair almost dispassionately, as though she’s walled off all feeling, calling her accident a “boulder on [her] chest.” Her recitation of her living conditions is heartrendingly poignant.
Darnell, too, has an interesting story to tell. Despite being pushed to hone his basketball skills so he can get a scholarship to college, Darnell is a secret nerd who loves chess and dreams of one day having a rosewood chess set. Chris Grant’s winning performance invests his character with a youthful dignity; his description of the chores he has to accomplish before and after school make one’s hair stand on end. It’s no wonder he’s so willing to join his cousin Rogelio’s sports betting scheme. He knows it’s illegal, yet he’s vulnerable to the temptation of money to make life easier for his mother and little brother Kenny. Despite the ending (no spoilers), we have little doubt that he’ll make it out of his poverty to become somebody.
Teacher Veronica Vega, superbly portrayed by Jacqueline Correa (left, with Ferris), is an earnest young woman who understands the challenges these teenagers face. She too is a product of the Newark school system. Veronica’s story is heartbreaking, as well. Totally unprepared for college—swanky Bennington in rural Vermont—she flunks out because she never learned to ask for what she needed. Embarrassed and wiser, Veronica has gone on to attend Rutgers University, complete her student teaching and become a high school math teacher. Yet a previous relationship with Rogelio comes back to haunt her, almost derailing her future, too. Correa is totally convincing as a young, kind teacher who runs up against her students’ challenges; her infectious optimism and understanding provides the support these two lost teenagers need. Veronica Vega’s character is the exemplar for the effect a caring teacher can have on her students.
As Rogelio, Rafael Benoit (right, with Grant) endows the thuggish character with some dignity too. He’s proud he earned his Associate’s degree while in prison, and we get the sense that he wants to succeed on the outside too, but the pull of the streets is too strong and his character too weak. While he may mean well, he puts his cousin Darnell in physical, emotional and academic danger by involving him in illegal activities. He may be a slime ball, but Benoit movingly portrays him as a failure; perhaps, if he had had a teacher like Veronica Vega, he might have avoided prison and crime.
Solid production values provide Brick City with a time and place that, while specifically Newark (“Brick City” is its nickname), could just as easily be any inner city; of course, the specific New Jersey references really reinforce the setting. Matthew Fisher’s sound design includes music suitable to teenagers and bells to signal the beginning and end of extended study hall. Greg Solomon’s lighting is appropriately garish for a school classroom and murkily dark for the parking lot scenes. And Izzy Field’s costumes are spot on for both students, teacher and thug. Jessie’s colorful socks and sneakers telegraph a concern for the way she looks, despite her cynical attitude; Darnell is full-on basketball dude; Rogelio’s upturned collar speaks of his sneaky demeanor; and Veronica’s wardrobe of stylish dresses is entirely appropriate for someone who’s “made it” and wants to look professional despite her humble beginnings.
With some generous reworking, Brick City has been transformed from its initial reading to a dynamic exploration of the importance of a caring, nurturing teacher, the speed bumps encountered as teens make their way to adulthood and the need to look beyond a person’s façade a person to discover the human being inside. Timely and timeless, it is a worthy addition to the dramatic canon. Kudos to Nicole Pandolfo and Premiere Stages for bringing this important topic to life. Now, go buy tickets before it closes on September 23!
Brick City will be performed at Kean University’s Bauer Boucher Theatre Center, Vaughn Eames Hall, 1000 Morris Ave., Union, through September 23. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.737.7469 or visit www.premierestagesatkean.com online.