“Brick City”: students at the crossroads

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"Brick City" photos by Mike Peters
Premiere Stages at Kean University features a strong new work

The paths of two high school seniors intersect in Nicole Pandolfo’s Brick City, being presented by Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union. The playwright, drawing on her own experiences in New Jersey schools and her work teaching a playwriting residency at a public high school, has created a strong piece that could take place in schoolrooms across the country.

"Brick City" writer Nicole Pandolfo
“Brick City” writer Nicole Pandolfo

Brick City takes place mostly in a dingy high school classroom where two senior students meet for a study hall. Darnell (Chris Grant) is a star player for the high school basketball team. Jessie (Madison Ferris) gets around in a motorized wheelchair, her paralysis the result of an accident. They are instantly at odds, his need to pull up his grades so he can play clashing with her bitter cynicism. The teacher assigned to this two-person study hall, Veronica Vega (Jacqueline Correa), tries her best to further Darnell’s goal to continue playing until he is seen by college recruiters. She also sees the raw talent in Jessie’s photography, sending her portfolio to UCLA’s school of the arts and getting her an invitation to apply.

"Brick City" photos by Mike Peters.
“Brick City” photos by Mike Peters.

Trouble lurks in the person of Darnell’s cousin Rogelio (Rafael Benoit), a former boyfriend of Veronica’s who has been released from prison for credit card fraud. Rogelio reminds Darrell he has been generous with money and gifts to the boy’s family. He also tries to reignite the relationship with Veronica, reminding her that he helped her financially also. Rogelio’s guilt-trip insistence that Darrell help him in his latest “enterprise” and his reminders that family trumps everything else are a recipe for disaster. In the end, Darrell and Jessie face their futures with clear vision while not knowing where their paths will lead.

"Brick City" photos by Mike Peters.
“Brick City” photos by Mike Peters.

This play invites you to see past surface impressions to a deeper understanding of the “other”. While all four actors respond well to the direction of Jessi D. Hill, the strongest performance is that of Madison Ferris, an actress with muscular dystrophy. The power of her talent makes you see past her electric wheelchair and her cynicism, discovering the emotionally scarred girl who fears life has nothing to offer. Matching Ms. Ferris’ performance is that of Chris Grant, whose character’s self-worth is tied up in his basketball skills. A young man whose sense of loyalty and responsibility are unexpectedly strong shines in Mr. Grant’s performance.

Praise also goes to the design team. Set designer Bethanie Wampol Watson, aided by the picture-perfect lighting of Greg Solomon and Matthew Fischer’s sound design, creates a down-at-the-heels classroom of such realism that you almost forget you’re in a theatre and not in a Newark high school.

Watching Darnell and Jesse go from mutual dislike to mutual respect, each challenging the other, expressing themselves through playwright Pandolfo’s strong and mutually revealing lines. Brick City, though not perfect, is a solid work for the theatre and one worth seeing. I suggest you do so before its run comes to an end.

Brick City is presented by Premiere Stages at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center on the campus of Kean University in Union through September 23, 2018. For tickets and information, visit premierestagesatkean.com.