THEATRE & ANTHROPOLOGY: THE O.K. TRENTON PROJECT
Collective creation is at the root of both anthropology and theater, both require reflexivity in telling meaningful stories about who we are and why we do what we do, and both can be an avenue for activation, political or otherwise. The collaboration of the two offer new and interesting ways to dissect and reflect on current as well as historical events. An ongoing project in that space, The OK Trenton Project, attempts to tell the story of a piece of public art, it’s misinterpreted meaning, and eventual removal in the form of a documentary-style play told through the words of artists, city officials, and residents. Through the course of researching the play, ensemble members made connections to other events related to public art before and after, providing additional context to how art can uncover power dynamics and ultimately effect a community. In my opinion, this sort of performative presentation of research has value and potential in creating dialogs and conversations around sensitive topics and is a powerful option as a way to present anthropological research. I had an opportunity to sit down with members of the play’s creative team and discuss the idea of “ethnodrama,” defined for this purpose as an adaptation of ethnographic research data (interviews, surveys, statistics, etc.) into a theater piece or performed production, the process of turning interviews into dialogue, and the theater’s importance as a place to open dialogues and create a safe space to have difficult conversations.
As a contributing member, privy to the email list, I reached out to the group and asked all available to join me for a Zoom conversation. Five members of the team, representing all aspects of the production with backgrounds in theater and academia were game to join me and provided valuable perspectives on the OK Trenton Project itself and others plays in a similar vein. After explaining my research and the concept of an ethnodrama, we discussed the long process of researching and writing the script, a draft of which was to be read in a few weeks. The arc of the play follows the story of a sculpture created by a diverse group of teens, led by a professional sculptor, and it’s prompt removal when a member of the police department complained to the media that it looked like a gang sign. The assemblage of pots and pans, welded and screwed together by the students formed the traditional OK hand sign (fig. 1), with fingernails painted red. The police, seeing a “gang neighborhood” rather than a neighborhood filled with everyday citizens that is effected by gang activity, saw a “gang symbol” rather than a work of art. Approximately six months after the removal and subsequent media flare up (fig. 2), Passage Theater was awarded a grant to research and produce a documentary style play that told the story of public art gone wrong. All interview participants agreed that there was an excellent opportunity to create new art from this public project that had gone awry. The power structures of police and city government placed the context on this work of art, and that disregard for the community and lack of trust could be countered and recontextualized by the support of a theater like Passage creating a story that would resonate outside of Trenton.
Next we discussed the difficult task of interviewing all parties connected in an attempt to accurately present all sides, and keep personal commentary out. That proved to be particularly difficult when it came to accessing the story of the folks in power who had the sculpture removed. The tip came into the newspaper from an anonymous source, which was pretty much a dead end, and members of the city government were hesitant to be interviewed. It was also difficult to contact the students who created the artwork, but some headway may have recently been made, and the hope is to be able to share their voices in the play. I hope that works out because as an artist, the most disappointing part of the entire saga is that these kids spent weeks creating something, and were never able to properly enjoy their work or celebrate it with family and friends. Having interviews with their thoughts and opinions could add vital information and context to the story. For the actors, these interviews provide valuable opportunity for character study, and for the writers (excited by the richness of theater based in real people), they provide what would be the source of the dialogue. To that end, every effort is being made to keep quotes verbatim, so that the interviewees’ statements feel conversational for the play but are rooted in their personal truths. The dramaturgs wanted this play to not just be a series of talking heads, so another element of the creation and production is what is called “moment work”, a form of visual storytelling that can provide action instead of words for various scenes throughout the play. In-person workshops (pre-pandemic) and virtual workshops provided collaborators opportunities to explore these visual touches, and add movement and drama to the story.
With funding, research, and pre-production taking more than a year, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic adding an additional year to the timeline, the available content to include in the story has grown. COVID itself became a character as it has played such a part in our lives, particularly in the context of live theater. Similarly, the demand for racial justice following police murders of black citizens during the summer of 2020 plays a key role, in not just the play, but in the overall environment of the historically underserved community of Trenton, a community populated by artists and activists who will see the connection to uneven power dynamics in the city. Passage Theatre and members of the production are familiar with theater as a vehicle for social change and an avenue that can lead viewers toward civic interest or action. When the question of “theater as social change” came up, the overarching consensus was that theater should not “have the answers”, but provide a space for an audience to see and absorb artwork with a message in a way that they will want to ask more questions. One member made the salient point that we as human beings are wired to tell and listen to stories, and that is the opportunity that is provided when presenting research through a visual mode. This idea led us into the value of saving time and space for a question and answer period after a production. Everyone agreed that the quality of a Q&A conversation is dependent on the audience, but there is value in providing a comfortable environment, and everyone is best served when the art director is on hand to teach an audience how to question a play, and to encourage deep thought.
Several weeks later the entire production team met for a read through of the script and a discussion about where we were and where we needed to go with the play. We were joined by a Princeton University anthropology class titled “Arts in the Invisible City: Race, Policy, Performance,” who is looking at the events depicted in the play through the lens of the historical and contemporary racism that plagues the city. Their feedback was thoughtful and worthwhile, and despite the difficulties of presenting a work of drama via Zoom, I think all parties were pleased with the read through. Many of the sticking points in the way the play is performed should be ironed out easily once the cast and writers can get together in person and be immersed in set and sound design, but there were a few areas everyone felt some additional work was to be done. With the extended story of current events, political climates, and pandemics, some felt we were in danger of losing connection to the original story of the sculpture’s removal, and what that meant to the people involved and the city as a whole. Trimming things down to the essentials, but keeping the very meaningful and connected events, as well as adding some important voices are the next challenges for the team. With a first production quickly approaching, I’m confident it will be a rewarding result, that shares an important story, and entertains while opening minds.
To conclude, I feel that the OK Trenton Project is going to make an excellent case study for theater as an outlet for ethnographic research. In my opinion, academic endeavors too often stay in academic circles and docutheater or ethnodramas could be an outlet to reach more people. Can this marriage of research and presentation allow situations where stories are told to a team of researchers/performers and immediately presented, almost in an improv fashion? Can the plight of a neighborhood be presented in a guerrilla production on City Hall’s steps? The goal of the research is to provide data that persuades those in power to make changes for the better, and there is power in providing the underserved a platform to share their stories and have those stories heard. I’m interested in making that connection. As Maya Stoval notes1, anthropology can collect personal philosophy, subjectivity, and physical environment, and use that to mediate the complexities of place and space. This is the search for how the anthropology of a city can be enriched and connected through performative intervention.
1. Stovall, Maya. “Liquor Store Theater: Dancing with Gentrification in post-Bankruptcy Detroit” detroitresearch.org. https://www.detroitresearch.org/liquor-store-theater/ (accessed November 2020).