Passage Theatre to present “Profiles: A Play and Symposium” in February

“You know, racism is everywhere, and most people assume that if you’re black you have problems, or you have issues or you’re not educated—you know, the whole world begins to think like this. It’s like a cancer. So you do have to deal with it. But you know, race is a funny thing. Sometimes you feel like it’s in the air; it’s in the water,” says an unidentified Trenton woman.

Her words as well as those of other Trenton residents will be heard in “Profiles: A Play and Symposium,” Passage Theater’s new project designed to explore the realities and ideas of race in the capital city. Presentations will be performed at the Mill Hill Playhouse from Thursday, Feb. 13 to Sunday, Feb. 23.

The project follows another Trenton-specific production presented in 2010, “Trenton Lights.” Passage Theater’s artistic director June Ballinger called that work “a play written by an entire city.” The company created the play around the lives of Trenton residents.

As Ballinger and associate artistic director David White note in a statement, “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. It took us awhile to figure it out.”

Although Ballinger and White are experienced in using real voices and stories to create a stagework, “Profiles” is taking them into the uncharted territory.

“I have worked in Trenton 18 years and lived here in the city for 11 years, and it’s simply the inevitable conversation. David and I — with great humility as neither of us is a race expert or sociologist — learned from our ‘Trenton Lights’ collaboration that race was the elephant in the room, and we wanted to tackle it next,” Ballinger said. “The choice for this also says something about the direction I think the theater in our society is moving in order to remain essential.”

People want stories, but they also like to work out and get clarity on their own stories, she said. “This piece is composed strictly from the voices of this community…and performed by actors from this community. This is where the ritual of theater becomes particularly meaningful.”

White agrees. “The biggest realization I’ve had while working this project is that there are deep, meaningful, and profoundly human experiences taking place in Trenton,” he said.

“They’re happening despite the bad headlines, the crime rate, the jokes, the scandals, and the mockery.”

One of Passage Theater’s jobs, he said, is making sure that these stores and conversations are being heard above the din. “There is a lot of thought and discussion about race in America right now. But it’s happening on the news shows and talk radio and in our Facebook feeds. It’s not taking place in the way it needs to take place – between people that are sharing the same space with one another,” he said. “Theater provides the best conduit that we have to help facilitate these conversations, experiences, and stories.”

Ballinger, who was born in Camden but raised in Connecticut, has been a part of Passage for 17 years. She initially came to Trenton to start a local replication of the 52nd Street, a New York-based theater-making initiative. For the project, the English-trained theater artist created and produced new plays for and by youth between the ages of nine and 18 who resided in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, near where her father worked as an editor for Better Home and Garden magazine.

As guest artistic director for the project and leader of her own company Word for Word, Ballinger specialized in the creation of works of theater developed through extensive interviews. “[It was a] baptism by fire,” she said.

Passage’s incarnation of the 52nd Street Project became the State Street Project, now directed by White, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, who joined the company in 2001. The State Street Project incorporates several programs that interact with Trenton-area youth, including Playmaking, which links young people with playwrights to create new plays that are then directed and performed by professionals.

“Some of the kids I worked with when they were in grade school are in college now, and we really shared some special projects together,” said White, whose father was a psychologist and his mother an English teacher. “The play we created about gang violence, ‘If I Could, In My Hood, I Would …,’ has continued to be produced by other theaters and schools, and that’s incredibly gratifying.”

Both Ballinger and White have acknowledged the challenges of fostering an artistic environment in Trenton.

“Trenton’s got a bad rep. You see it on those huge newspaper headlines, you see us being ridiculed on the national news. It’s a challenge,” White has said in a past interview. “Trenton is not nearly as good a city as it should be. But it’s also not nearly as bad as people think it is. It’s somewhere in the middle, and every time something modestly wonderful happens or something horribly tragic happens, it momentarily tips over to one side or the other.”

“We operate on a tiny budget, and things just get leaner,” Ballinger said. “Trenton is loaded with its own challenges, and they impact us considerably. But I am proud of our adventurous loyal and generous audience. They stick with us and encourage us to keep the faith.”

“Profiles: A Play and Symposium,” Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton, Feb. 13 through Feb. 23, Shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets $25. Phone: (609) 392-0766. Web: passagetheater.org.

–Dan Aubrey

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