C. Ryanne Domingues, a longtime Philadelphia theater professional, had just started her new job in September 2017 as artistic director at Trenton’s Passage Theatre Co. when she heard a remarkable story at a meeting.
A few weeks earlier, a group of Black and brown teenagers at a Trenton summer camp had created a sculpture out of pots and pans in the shape of a hand making an OK sign, painting the fingernails red. They picked the OK hand gesture out of a hat. It was one of several suggestions written on slips of paper, including “thumbs up” or “peace”. They called the artwork Helping Hands.
The statue, sited for a vacant lot at the corner of Perry and Montgomery Streets in Trenton, went up on a Tuesday in August 2017, with an installation ceremony planned for Friday.
But by that Friday, the sculpture had been taken down amid police concerns reported in the media that the OK sign and the color red were symbols for the Blood gang on a street that had been known, a decade earlier, for its gang activity.
Hearing the story at the meeting, Domingues opened her mouth and uttered one sentence that would come to define Passage’s artistic direction for the next four years, involve dozens of interviews, capture a major grant , and engage Trenton’s arts community.
“Wow,” Domingues said. “That sounds like a play.”
And now it is.
The OK Trenton Project, opening this week, tells the story of the sculpture and efforts to unpack what societal forces were behind the removal of the campers’ art project. In the meantime, the pandemic began and the OK sign is now often interpreted as symbol of white supremacy.
“All of this stuff that was happening in the world was strangely linked to the sculpture,” Domingues said, who is directing the piece.
So, was the OK symbol a gang sign, and was Perry Street the right place for the sculpture? Depends on whom you ask (and the Passage folks, with the help of students from Princeton University, did a lot of asking).
One old-timer, a former longtime member of the Bloods who is also a well-known Trenton artist, insists it wasn’t, Domingues said, and made clear that the young sculptors were not gang members.
A younger Bloods ex-member, Domingues said argued the red fingernails were signal enough to keep that sculpture off that street.
All in all, Domingues said, it took 35 interviews of students, officials, camp directors, the artists, former gang members, and others to build a script crafted by former Passage associate artistic director David Lee White, playwright Richard Bradford and members of The OK Trenton Ensemble. Tracking down the students and getting permission to interview them was a challenge during the pandemic.
The sculpture has resided in the studio of Philadelphia sculptor Eric Schultz, who shepherded the project that summer.
“For me, the art piece is important, and what is important is the lessons we learn from it,” Domingues said. “That’s why it’s important that we continue to see art and we continue to have the conversations.”
When the sculpture was removed, the conversation was all about gangs and fear, she said, and not about the love and pride that went into its creation.
“The value of it is in the contradictory conversations — when someone sees something in one way and someone else sees it in another. Now we’re learning and now we’re talking to each other,” she said.
“When you remove a piece of art, you remove a conversation.”
Feb. 10-27, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front St., Trenton. 609-392-0766 or passagetheatre.org. Masks and vaccination-proof or recent negative test required.
‘Hadestown’ at the Academy
Two mythic tales — the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and Persephone — come alive on stage at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music in “Hadestown” with music by celebrated singer songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. Directed by Rachel Chavkin.
Feb. 9-20, Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. 215-893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org. Masks and vaccination proof required.
‘Cowboy Versus Samurai’
Cat Ramirez directs “Cowboy Versus Samurai” in this love triangle rom-com set in Breakneck, Wyo.,where Travis, a high school English teacher, and Chester, an emerging activist, constitute the entire Asian population. Then Veronica Lee, a Korean American biology teacher, shows up from New York and sparks fly. This regional premiere brings to life a reimagining of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Produced by Hedgerow Theatre Co. in partnership with Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists.
A relaxed performance, adapted for people with autism or sensory communication disorders, and an audio described performance, for visually impaired theatergoers, is set for Feb. 20.
Feb. 9-27, Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Rose Valley. 610-565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org. Masks and vaccination proof required.
When Eve moves to London, she’s hoping for an exciting life in a big city. Turns out she’s lonely, until she receives a letter mailed to her apartment’s former tenant, Hollywood actor Michael Fassbender. Of course(!) she needs to return this letter to its rightful owner and “Finding Fassbender” becomes an obsession. Inis Nua Theatre Co. stages the American premiere of this one-woman English play by Lydia Larson and directed by Tom Reing, Inis Nua’s founder and artistic director.
Feb. 9-27, Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia. 215-454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org. Masks and vaccination proof required.
Tiny Dynamite’s Valentine’s Day
Even if the weather outside is frightful, Tiny Dynamite’s outdoor Valentine’s Day offering will be delightful, in a heated tent in the historic Powel House garden in Society Hill. There will be hot cocoa and other hot and cold beverages (alcoholic and non), snacks, and a Valentine-themed theatrical show.
You won’t lose your head if you travel to Villanova University for “The Revolutionists” by Lauren Gunderson. You’ll meet fugitive queen Marie Antoinette, idealist assassin Charlotte Corday, Caribbean spy Marianne Angelle, and playwright Olympe de Gouges, all strong historic figures. Valerie Joyce directs this comedy.
Feb. 10-20, Villanova University’s John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts, Lancaster and Ithan Avenues, Villanova. 610-519-7474 or villanovatheatre.org Masks and vaccination proof required.