The name of the place was Seneca Village. And chances are you have been there, even if you have never heard of it. That’s because Seneca Village was located in what is now New York’s Central Park. And in the middle of the 19th century, its residents — mostly African-Americans — were asked or, in some cases, forced to move away, to make way for the future.
“The People Before the Park,” a new drama (written by Keith Josef Adkins) that is at Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union through Sept. 20 (for information, visit kean.edu/premierestages), focuses on the story of one resister, an oysterman named Stephen Van Cleef (played by Billy Eugene Jones). Stephen seems stubborn and willful at first, so that you think he’s fighting out of habit; you don’t learn his real reason for wanting to stay until later, and when you do, the play immediately becomes more poignant. Jones gives a memorable portrayal of a complex man: hard-working but irreverent, fiercely protective of those he loves yet prone to angry outbursts. As brutish as he can be, he sings sweetly, to himself, when he’s working alone. Anytime he’s onstage, your attention immediately goes to him.
He’s got no real allies in his fight against the system. His son Jonas (W. Tré Davis) is a talented artist who yearns to get away from the run-down neighborhood, perhaps with Bridget (Bridget Gabbe), who hails from the Irish part of Seneca Village, and has family problems of her own. Stephen’s friends Marion (Shane Taylor) and Phoebe (Michelle Wilson), who are sensible but also self-righteous, urge him to stop rocking the boat. Policeman Mathius, a German immigrant, seems friendly enough at first, but does he have an ulterior motive?
Adkins — who got this play produced by beating out more than 400 other submissions in the 2015 Premiere Stages Play Festival — resists the urge to be preachy about the injustices in Stephen’s story; he just lets the action unfold. And he gives the secondary characters complexities of their own. The priggish Phoebe can be tender; the sweet Bridget, reckless.
Director John J. Wooten does a good job of underscoring Stephen’s physical prowess; he’s always lugging something around, or working on his house, and in the scenes of physical confrontation, he’s truly imposing. Scenic designer Patrick Rizzotti creates an appropriate rustic setting, with tree stumps, an old, beat-up rocking chair and a wood cabin that’s weathered but sturdy, just like Stephen. Birds chirps can occasionally be heard, reminding us that even though the action takes place in the middle of a bustling city, Seneca Village has a quasi-rural charm of its own.
Though “The People Before the Park” is set in 1856, you won’t have to work hard to find parallels to the politics of today. Seneca Village residents are being forced to sell their homes for little money, and won’t get any benefit from the creation of Central Park; the rich, meanwhile, only stand to get richer, and will do anything, however inhuman, to make that happen. (Eerily, some of the play’s themes echo similar themes in Premiere Stages’ last play, “By the Water,” which was about a family trying to decide if they should stay in their close-to-the-ocean home, or move, after Hurricane Sandy.)
Yet “The People in the Park” is not really a political play. It’s a portrait of a man who’s trying to do his best, but finding that society at large is indifferent to him, at best, menacing at worst. A man who, despite his flaws, really deserves better.
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