“Yeah, let’s do it,” she said, despite having already finished a high-octane scene in which her character, a teacher named Sharon Vance, stalks out of a conference room in a tearful fury.
The story of a Black student named T.K. Clark who is bullied by his peers and betrayed by the administration at a private school is loosely based on the director’s own high school experiences, and has acquired fresh urgency as America reckons with systemic racism.
“I’ve never done a project this personal,” Joseph said during a break in the Oct. 16 shoot at a Cherry Hill office park.
Said Regina, who grew up in Gloucester Township, Camden County: “It takes a lot of courage to do this work.”
The subject matter of Dismissal Time is emotional, topical, and close to the heart for both Joseph and Regina, two very different people who share a commitment to storytelling as an art as well as a tool to create change.
Directing a scene in which Clark, played by Delco’s own Oliver Feaster, is comforted by Regina’s character “was cathartic … but certain moments I had to relive hit me deep,” said Joseph, who directed the 2017 feature Vendetta Games, short films such as The Saxophonist, and music videos.
“When I learned what André had experienced in high school, it broke my heart that others wouldn’t stand up for him,” said Regina. She identifies as a domestic violence survivor and founded the nonprofit A Write to Heal to provide others with a way to express their own experiences with trauma.
Regina also is an advocate on behalf of veterans — she produced an online video series called Heroic Episodes based on interviews she conducted — as well as women and others who have been marginalized, or dismissed.
The 20-minute Dismissal Time was shot between Oct. 4 and 16 by a crew of young professionals and a largely local cast at locations in Philadelphia, South Jersey, and Delaware. Next year, the finished film will be submitted to festivals and will also be shown to industry professionals and funders as a pitch for a potential full-length feature.
Joseph, 38, lives on Staten Island and said he had long wanted to write a screenplay stemming from what happened to him as a 15-year-old freshman at a mostly white Catholic high school in 1990s New York City.
“I was one of five Black students in my class,” he said. “I was kind of introverted, and there were occasions when some white kids would look at me and talk to me about Black culture and casually use the N-word. I felt uncomfortable.
“Things sort of escalated when I liked a girl, a white girl, who seemed to be flirting with me, but then backed off. Her friends didn’t like me. Someone made it look like I had emailed a ‘hit list’ of students I wanted to kill, including kids who were my friends.”
School officials “flat-out thought I did it without any proof, and they called my parents in to school and told them I did it, with no proof, and when they decided maybe I didn’t do it, they didn’t bother to try to exonerate me,” Joseph said. “I transferred to a public high school.”
The murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests motivated Joseph to start writing the Dismissal Time script in July 2020, while staying at his mother’s home in Red Lion, Del. Ten months and six drafts later, he reached out to Regina.
The two had worked together in 2008 when she had a small role in Joseph’s debut film, Priceless. The director said he immediately thought of Regina for Dismissal Time because her public advocacy “made me believe she [could portray] a teacher who speaks out about injustice while everyone else is just a bystander.”
Utilizing his own money, technical and other support from Fractured Atlas — a New York nonprofit that assists artists and arts organizations — casting help from Regina, and eventually, a crowdsourcing platform, Joseph was able to put together about $15,000 to underwrite the cost of making Dismissal Time.
Regina studied acting in New York and became well-known for a small role on The Sopranos in the early 2000s. She also became engaged to one of the show’s stars, Vincent Pastore, who famously played a snitch nicknamed “Big Pussy.”
A public argument between the two in 2005 produced a viral video, tabloid headlines, and a criminal assault charge against Pastore, who denied striking Regina but later pleaded guilty to attempted assault. In 2009, he agreed to settle a civil lawsuit Regina filed against him, seeking compensation for damages suffered as a result of the incident. She has since written and presented a one-woman performance piece about being a domestic abuse survivor.
“Growing up, I was always the biggest mouth in the family, standing up for what’s right, and not being afraid to ask questions,” Regina said. “I love being involved in projects that have a message.”
Actor Oliver Feaster, who plays Dismissal Time’s student T.K. Clark, said the role was challenging not only because of the subject matter, but because the character is based at least in part on the director.
“It’s probably the most important role I’ve played and I’m honored to be part of the film,” said Feaster, a 30-year-old Glenolden, Delaware County, resident whose credits include the 2015 feature film LUV Don’t Live Here and a new reality TV series, Murder Nation.
“Being able to talk to André about his experience really helped me create this character. I wanted to make sure I was doing right by him,” he said. “I especially hope that young men and women of color see it and relate to it in some sort of way. I can’t wait for the world to experience it.”
New York actor Troy Sill plays the principal of the fictional high school in Dismissal Time. ”He thinks he’s a great guy,” said Sill, who when not acting is a teacher in the South Bronx. He said that when confronted about having failed T.K., his character won’t — or can’t — acknowledge the school’s attempt to promote itself as diverse is about public relations, not education.
“That is why this story [should] be told,” said Philadelphia actor Antonio Caraballo, who plays one the school’s many clueless educators facing off against T.K.’s sole defender in that claustrophobic conference room scene.
He and the rest of the cast reassembled around the table for the additional take.
Regina sat quietly, composing herself.
Action: Sill, as Thompson the principal, is briskly attempting to close the meeting, more concerned about getting to a Phillies game than listening to Vance, played by Regina.
She can’t believe in all the business-as-usual that is happening before her eyes in the wake of T.K.’s near death by suicide.
The tension escalates; Thompson threatens to fire Vance for daring to question the school’s diversity efforts.
“I guess I’m the only one around here who gives a damn,” she says.
Regina nails it.
Applause from the cast and crew.