By: Willy Nichter, Staff Writer Photographer: Lynne DeLade
If you were to walk into the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater before spring break, you would have seen a sparsely decorated stage. Just a few wire tables, chairs and assorted objects along with three dividing screens strategically placed so that each location told a different story or scene. But what was truly eye-catching about the set was the giant projector screen in the back, a screen that flashed with dates and places as the play progressed and the dividing screens were moved around. After all, jumping from the present to the past and back again is one of Down Neck’s signature motifs.
The production, which ran from Feb. 21 to Feb. 24 and was dedicated to Professor Rodney Gilbert, focuses on Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood and those who live there. Specifically, it shows the lives of three families, jumping back and forth between the present of 1967 and the past of the 40s and 50s. Eventually, as the 1967 Newark Rebellions, or Riots, begin, the characters are forced to confront their perceptions of the world and their memories amidst the growing chaos.
Down Neck was written by Pia Wilson, who has written many films, stories and a variety of other plays, including The Flower Thief. The project was commissioned by Rodney Gilbert, Associate Professor of Theater and Dance and founder and CEO of Yendor Productions, which develops arts education programs and activities.
Professor Gilbert was heavily involved in the process of writing the play, which was performed at various locations throughout 2017, and was set to direct its Drew University premiere. “He wanted me to play the lead in the play, Sam, along with Maliik Hall as Michael,” said Alcides Costa (’19), who plays one of the show’s lead characters, Sam Winters.
However, Professor Gilbert’s death in late 2017 left the cast adrift as to what to do next. “[It] affected everyone very deeply, to the point where we were not going to put up this production at all in fear that we would not honor his name,” said Costa.
However, Meyung Kim, an adjunct faculty member in the Arts department, was brought on to continue directing the play. “They asked me to come in and direct the show,” Kim said of the situation.
The play is very historically based, not just in its subject but in its characters. The Newark Rebellions of ‘67, which began after a black taxi driver was arrested and brutally beaten by the police and lead to a peaceful protest that soon turned violent, are certainly very important to the play, but it does not focus exclusively on the Rebellions and their aftermath.
Instead, it shows how race in the Ironbound neighborhood evolved alongside the lives of its inhabitants. Specifically, it shows three families: the Winters, the Batittos, and the couple Sergio and Ines, played by Adam Valle (‘19) and Marley Mathias (‘21) respectively. The Winters are black, the Batittos are Italian and Sergio and his wife are Portuguese.
As the play jumps from the 60s to the 40s, we see how the racial politics of the day affect the lives of the families, such as Carmine Batitto, played by Michael Galioto (’20), getting fired from his job for defending John Winters, played by Shakur Tolliver (‘16), from a racial slur. It also shows Sergio’s initial arrival as a penniless immigrant and how it shifts into a prosperous life as a deli owner once the Portuguese take over the neighborhood, an act which drives the Batittos out of business and back to Italy.
The Winters are the focus of the story as a whole, with the play taking place on the birthday of youngest child Sam as he attempts to keep his optimism and spirit alive in the face of growing racial injustice and the exhortations of his activist brother, Michael, played by Maliik Hall (’19).
“I heavily disliked my character of Sam Winters. I disagree with him in multiple ways, from politics to ethics, and choices,” said Costa. However, over time he began to appreciate and grow more connected to the character, who “eventually became one of my favorite characters in the piece along with John and Effa Manley, mainly because he is honestly highly relatable and very flawed.”
Tiffany Thompson (’20), who plays Sam’s older sister Loretta, had a stronger and more instant connection to her character. “My character was so fearless and very bold and that was very interesting and challenging for me to play,” said Thompson.
All of the actors played their parts marvelously, with Costa, Hall and Thompson doing especially fantastic jobs as they switched from the 1967 versions of their characters to the 40s and 50s versions effortlessly. The Batittos were fantastically portrayed by Galioto and Nicolette Boillotat, Ti Leach (‘21) did a fabulous job as famed Newark Eagles co-owner Effa Manley, and Adam Valle showed Sergio’s evolution over time with incredible skill.
Despite the minimal staging, the actors were able to create a full landscape on stage, shifting in location as easily as the projector screen switched times, and everything worked together to create a truly spectacular play.
“If there is anything to take away from Down Neck, it is that the play is Rodney wholeheartedly,” said Costa. “There are so many moments of humanity in this play that Pia Wilson punctuates throughout the work that make you not only dig deep into what caused the Newark Riots of ‘67 but also make you reflect if there are any remnants of it still here. You laugh and cry but at the end you notice that these very well can be real people on that stage, being affected by the very issues and conflicts displayed in the show. We want you to take away that we wanted to feel at home and invested in these people’s lives because these are the very lives that Professor Rodney Gilbert cared so much about.”