“The OK Trenton Project” brings a sculpture to life on stage

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Wendi Smith, Carmen Castillo, Kevin Bergen, Richard Bradford, Molly Casey Chapman on stage
The OK Trenton Project: Left to right: Wendi Smith, Carmen Castillo, Kevin Bergen, Richard Bradford, Molly Casey Chapman

A group of Trenton students spent their summer creating a sculpture entitled “Helping Hands”

The OK Trenton Project: Actor Carmen Castillo
The OK Trenton Project: Actor Carmen Castillo

Once upon a time in Trenton, a group of young teens created a sculpture of hope for their city under the direction of a local sculptor. When completed, the sculpture was installed on a vacant lot in the city. Three days later, the blind led the blind, and, among much turmoil, the sculpture was removed.

This is the true story behind The OK Trenton Project, now brought to life by the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Theatre in Trenton. Created over hours of research and over 35 interviews with the teens, sculptor Eric Schultz, and a host of community residents, politicians, artists, and others involved in the 2017 incident tell the story. The OK Trenton Project emerges as a moving cautionary tale of how perception—and the need to shape that perception into a narrative—warp reality and overwhelm good intentions.

We see how the sculpture, “Helping Hands,” made of old pots and pans by the teens under the tutelage of Schultz, is classified as a gang symbol before a plaque naming and explaining the work could be installed. The story is blown up by local Fox news station and articles in The Trentonian. No one seems to know just who was responsible for the removal of the piece, even though everyone “supports” art in the community, nor does anyone know just how many complaints were received and from whom. And until The OK Trenton Project was in its formative stages, it seems no one actually asked the creators—the teens—themselves about their message and what the work meant to them.

The five-person cast, under the direction of Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, shines in a multitude of roles (including cops, trolls, resident city artists, gang members, and community residents) as well as playing themselves as actors/investigators of the story.

Kevin Bergen brings to life sculptor Eric Schultz, Mayor Reed Gusciora, and a Fox 29 TV newsman. Rich Bradford lends his talents to become James Peeples, artist Sam Kanig, Mayor Eric Jackson, and Earlie “Messiah” Harrell. Carmen Castillo shines as 17-year-old Blessed Olando and artist/activists Leon Rainbow and Tamara Torres. Molly Casey Chapman transforms into Julia Taylor, Marisa Benson, and Councilwoman Marge Caldwell Wilson. Wendi Smith is outstanding as Favourlynn Olando (Blessed’s younger sister) and Jessica Maldonado. An interesting dramatic device is the use of the character “Joe Nonymous,” the personification of those who speak only from the safety of anonymity, portrayed by Bergen, Bradford, and Castillo, sharing use of the same hat.

Passage’s production team has created a flexible two-level space of wooden walls and doors with staircases both movable and fixed, able to become in an instant whatever place suits each scene. Matched with vibrant lighting, sound, and projections, with the cast in utilitarian clothes that transform via the use of hats, jackets, scarves, and dark glasses, Trenton comes to messy, glorious life on stage—a sixth player on stage, so to speak. Kudos to Yoshinori Tanokura (sets), Jane Cox (lighting), Robin Shane (costumes), and Damien Figueras (sound and projections) for their inventive efforts.

In their pre-curtain remarks, Artistic Director Domingues and Managing Director Brishen Miller remarked on Passage Theatre Company’s mission to produce new, socially relevant theatrical works that reflect and speak to the Trenton community. With a play like The OK Trenton Project, one can see just how well the company is succeeding in its mission.

The OK Trenton Project is a work about the discouraging results of one artistic effort that, strangely enough, gives hope and encouragement to those who see it. And if you want to see what all the fuss was about, the original sculpture is on display in the playhouse’s lobby after the show. I strongly urge those looking for new works tackling current social issues to head to the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton to view The OK Trenton Project.

The OK Trenton Project is presented by the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton through February 27th. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 609-392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org. The theatre requires proof of vaccination to enter the building, and masks must be worn at all times while inside the building.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. 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.