It was meant to be an educational summer camp project: The creation of a piece of public art, to be displayed in Trenton. And it ended up teaching the 17 kids who took part in it more about the world than anyone could have imagined.
The sculpture, titled “Helping Hands” — a giant hand made out of pots and pan, giving the “okay” sign — was taken down four days after being installed in 2017, after some complaints that it could be interpreted as a gang symbol. “The Ok Trenton Project” — a play about the incident currently being premiered by the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton — shows just how quickly a small bit of controversy can turn into a major pain in the neck for all involved.
David Lee White and Richard Bradford co-wrote the play, relying on extensive interviews with people who played a part in the real-life drama. Passage’s artistic director, C. Ryanne Domingues, directed.
The five actors in “The Ok Trenton Project” (Bradford, along with Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo, Molly Casey Chapman and Wendi Smith) play, literally, dozens of characters, including some of the kids who created the sculpture, camp administrators, the sculptor Eric Schultz (who supervised the project), politicians, journalists, cops, gang members, local residents, local artists, local activists, Internet trolls, and even “Joe Nonymous,” who represents people who became involved anonymously.
That a lot of people, and the five actors do a good job at giving many of them distinct personalities. It is a bit dizzying — so many different people, so many different agendas, so many different perspectives — but that’s part of the point.
Also, parallels with other Trenton public art controversies are explored. And it is wryly noted that the OK symbol took on additional negative meaning, nationally, soon after “Helping Hands” was taken down, being used to signify white supremacy.
As three of the actors discuss:
“The alt-right? Who saw that coming?”
“Now there’s a twist.”
“It’s a sad world when we can’t keep up with the symbols for hate.”
Smith creates the character who sticks with you the most: Favourlynn, one of the young artists who is interviewed. She is bewildered by what has happened but is straightforward and honest, and eager to help. You can tell that the incident has changed her way of looking at the world, but she still retains a bit of wide-eyed optimism.
What exactly happened in regard to “Helping Hands,” and why, remains a bit murky, but basically comes down to this: Journalists, looking for a story, created the illusion of a genuine controversy. Trenton government officials, though stopping short of condemning the sculpture, expressed concern. Someone in a leadership position at the camp, fearful of potential damage to its relationship with the city, made the call to take it down. The artists themselves had no say.
As an artist who appears as a character in “The OK Trenton Project” says, “Perception is more important in art. That’s really hard for artists.”
It feels a bit strange that the artwork itself is nowhere to be seen, during the play, or shown in the program. But when you are leaving the theater, you can finally see what all the fuss is about, as “Helping Hands” is displayed in the lobby.
This is, obviously, a different kind of “play” than we are used to experiencing. It does have characters, and something resembling a plot. But its primary purpose is to document something that really happened, and provoke discussion, and act as a kind of up-to-the-minute, cautionary Cancel Culture tale, with no easy answers. In promotional material, the Passage Theatre Company calls it a documentary-style play, which is a good way to put it.
The Passage Theatre Company will present “The OK Trenton Project” at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton through Feb. 27. Visit passagetheatre.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.