A twenty-something claimed to be sixty-nine at the start of “Into the Past with the Bethany Seniors of Newark.” Then, a man came up saying his name was Betty. Person after person came onstage, one at a time, to read a monologue in the voice of different women from the Bethany Seniors Center, all of whom were in the audience watching. When the student-actors introduced themselves and said hello, the audience would nod or say hello back. If they said something very on-brand for the person they were playing, people would mumble, yea that’s her… Barriers between the players and the audience were completely deconstructed.
“Into the Past” consisted of fourteen monologues written and developed between actor-students from the Rutgers/NJIT theater program “From Page to Stage” and members of the Bethany Senior Center. Lillian Ribeiro led the project as a part of a semester-long class. Students were guided through theoretical components before spending the final weeks of the course interviewing, editing, and rehearing for this performance reading. Ribeiro said that the Monday morning reading wasn’t a play but rather a showcase for the students to formally present their work. Watching student-actors read from their scripts, however, made it seem like in-progress embodiment. It was as if they were working through a temporary personality rather than having already perfected it.
Identity was an important aspect of this production. Ludwin Moz, playing Betty Risher, dug into this theme when he explained how Betty got her name. It was a white woman who encouraged her mother to name her Betty Jean, but her mother said “ain’t no Betty Jean” and named her Betty Anne. Other stories confronted racism and sexism with a similar kind of buoyancy. Jackie Johnson, performed by Christopher Gardner, remembered a professor stealing her master’s thesis for his doctoral work. Everyone laughed when she called him “the bastard.” But she looks back at that moment simply as proof of her good ideas.
Everyday reality of oppression was often grimmer. While visiting South Carolina from New York City, Osama Rehman, who performed Vivian Dumashie, was told by a porter that she couldn’t drink from the white’s only water fountain. This encounter stuck with her—she even a children’s book about it called The Colored Water Fountain. While Fabrizio Torres, who performed as Barbara Clark, was in college, she “got so mad at them talking about black people, so I got up and talked about white people.” And she ended up losing her scholarship because her teachers all started failing her. But that was just a temporary setback because she went back for her master’s in criminology anyway.
Newark’s geography was another entrance into these stories, as the city served as a symbolic representation of the self. Abhinav Dani, who performed Joyce Reed using American Sign Language, said that she had no one favorite place in Newark because of how often it changes. She remembered all the jazz clubs and, like many others, the segregated downtown. She mentioned the ways that the highways were designed so that “white people didn’t have to touch the ground… they were built to avoid people.” She also suggested people think deeply about the above-ground tunnel at Penn Station as further evidence of architectural separations. The audience agreed.
Stories of life in Newark also showed how the body was a site of personal and public conflict. Constance Steele, performed by Iona Smith, recalled living in Baxter Projects and feeling depressed. She couldn’t afford anything and even had fallen arches. It was clear that her misery wasn’t just her own—broke-ness and brokenness were attributed to her location too. Similarly, Barbara recalled living in the number blocks during the Newark rebellion and seeing police shooting at store windows that read, “we are black.” But she has also found a lot of comfort in local food. She spoke passionately about growing up on Boston cream donuts from a Jewish bakery and recommended everyone go get a pastrami sandwich from Bragman’s Delicatessen & Restaurant, a deli on Hawthorne.
There is something unique about archiving stories through drama because scripts like “Into the Past” can be brought back to life every time it gets performed. The transformational nature of the stage allows for the individual experiences of women from the Bethany Senior Center to turn into historical ones.
Spring 2019 students will perform “Legacies of the Past” at the Bethany Senior Center in Newark, NJ on Thursday, May 2nd, 2019. Doors open at 9:30am, performance starts at 10am.