“Ghetto Gods in Divineland”:  Word is bond, word is life

Alicia Thomas is holding a microphone in front of Craig Storrod who is speaking. Davon Cochran has his left hand covering his eyes.
"Ghetto Gods in Divineland" Alicia Thomas, Craig Storrod, Davon Cochran. (Photo by Passage Theatre Company, Inc.)
Tasha Holmes, Carlo Campbell, and Davon Cochran are leaning on a balcony railing.
“Ghetto Gods in Divineland” Tasha Holmes, Carlo Campbell, Davon Cochran. (Photo by Passage Theatre Company, Inc.)

Passage Theatre Company, Trenton’s only professional theater company, now in its 39th season, presents us with a play that is a revelation: Ghetto Gods in Divineland by Richard Bradford and Anthony Martinez-Briggs, based on the rap music of the Poor Righteous Teachers. In its writing, its direction, and its acting, it is a powerful indictment of those who would look toward building the next big thing instead of taking care of the most vulnerable among us. It is a moving creative achievement, one that I urge you to see.

The story takes place in Trenton’s Divineland neighborhood, narrated by two radio personalities and self-proclaimed “ghetto gods”, DJ Gabba (Craig Storrod) and Fuego Fuego (Alicia Thomas). Miss Lynette, a beloved Devineland figure, has just passed, leaving behind a grieving community and her two adult children, the charismatic street activist Ameen (Davon Cochran) and the college-educated botanist Gekiyla (Tasha Holmes).

Divineland has developed a slowly-growing sinkhole which threatens the community. As the play starts, Ameen scatters his mother’s ashes into the sinkhole; later that night, Gekiyla explores the sinkhole, finding a strange plant root growing there which she names Zion Root. She finds it can not only provide nourishment but can generate electrical energy. Ameen accuses the recently returned Gekiyla of running away to college and abandoning her family and community. Ameen also belittles community elder Papi Shh (Carlo Campbell) as he tries to inspire Divineland’s people through music. When word gets out that the city plans to pour money into a tourist attraction instead of trying to erase the community’s problems, Ameen, following the peaceful protest tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., leads a takeover of the “Trenton Makes” bridge, which quickly turns into a standoff between community members and the police.

The show is an emotionally powerful blend of fact and fiction. Its views of topics such as ecological interdependence, governmental indifference to societal ills, media bias, and the tension between non-violent activism and armed militancy are blended into the story skillfully. By making these topics part of the larger story, their use feels less like preaching and more organic to the plot and the characters. This blend is personified by Storrod and Thomas being cast not only as the radio hosts but in a variety of small roles, including clueless local reporters trying to bend the reality of the situation to fit their own narratives, and jittery police officers all too eager to abandon reconnaissance in favor of armed action.

Cochran and Holmes embody their characters’ strong family bonds while simultaneously expressing their conflicting points of view. Looming above all the action, dispensing advice and calming tensions, is Campbell’s Papi Shh, a jester-mage of the community who wears his majesty lightly. Director Ozzie Jones allows his cast to fully explore their characters’ range of emotions without allowing anything too melodramatic or over-the-top.

The imaginative set by Marie Laster portrays the multiple physical levels of the story. It goes from the sinkhole at the front of the stage, strange mists rising from it, to the “Trenton Makes” bridge high above the rear of the stage, the radio studio from which the hosts can look out and down on Divineland, and the street corners and cramped squats where much of the action takes place. The reality of the set is enhanced by the lighting designs of Alyssandra Docherty and the sound designs of Larry Fowler.

Carlo Campbell has his arms around Tasha Holmes shoulders.
“Ghetto Gods in Divineland” Tasha Holmes, Carlo Campbell. (Photo by Passage Theatre Company, Inc.)

Ghetto Gods in Divineland shows us the beauty and the inner strength of the residents of Trenton without using any false sentimentality in their portrayal. It is a play of power and struggle, of neglect and respect, and of the strength of family and community. It is a gift of invaluable richness, one that I cannot more strongly urge audiences to accept. You should not miss seeing Ghetto Gods in Divineland before its all-too-short run ends.

Ghetto Gods in Divineland is presented by the Passage Theatre Company at the historic Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton through Feb. 25, 2024.  For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to passagetheatre.org or call 609-392-0766.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.