Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Trenton Lights Illuminates Urban America

Also see Bob's reviews of Porgy and Bess and Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Ross Beschler, June Ballinger, Kala Moses Baxter, Rodney Gilbert and Devon Jordan
It is very hard to get one's mind around the fact that in the pre-Civil Rights era most cities outside of the South provided better environments for both white and black Americans than they have since. How this era of de facto segregation could have done so must appear to those born during the last forty years or more nothing more than racist longing for the old days of white privilege. More than anything else, it is the illumination of this subject that enables Passage Theatre Company's remarkable Trenton Lights to transcend its hometown origins to become a unique theatrical treasure which can speak to, enlighten and movingly entertain all of America.

Conceived and created by Passage Theatre artistic directors June Ballinger and David Lee White, Trenton Lights has been artfully assembled from interviews which they have conducted with Trenton, New Jersey, residents over the period of about a year. Italians recall their forebears who came to Trenton as early as the late 1800s and Jews recall their people establishing a presence there in the early 1900s. Each remember the rich, elite families who lived in the mansions on West 8th Street while their own families struggled to raise their status within the confines of poorer neighborhoods in the area of Market Street. Eventually, many of these families made their way to the tonier areas of the small city.

Later, American blacks came to Trenton in search of jobs and better opportunities than were available to them in the Jim Crow south. Some of their memories are bitter. One woman recalls that, while still a teenager, she came to Trenton from Maryland to continue working in the home of white folks. She was led to regard them as family, but then unfairly fired after a heartbreaking incident brought about by the acquisition of racism in a child whom she had loved. Other stories recall a time in America when discrimination against women was an encumbrance to opportunity and advancement. Still, there were more educational and job opportunities than black Trentonians had known elsewhere, and, while the races largely lived and socialized each among themselves, the prevailing tone appears to have been harmonious. The elderly remember with pride a city with bustling activity and a prosperity which included jobs in large retail stores. One black woman proudly recalls going to work as a salesperson for W.T. Grant, where, because of her recommendation, the store began to sell black mesh stockings in order to earn the patronage of black women.

With the tragic assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, race riots erupted in Trenton as they did in Newark and many other American cities. In Trenton, there was one death, a black youth who was shot by a police officer as he attempted to dissuade other youths from looting.

In this well-constructed work, the largely chronological first act ends with the 1968 riot. However, we have already learned that, after the riots, people stopped shopping and attending the movies there because of fear of crime. The stores also suffered losses because of theft. And that "after (the riots), nothing was the same".

Act two has a structure all its own. At the top, it throws out a question and statement, each of which is sadly central to all blighted American cities and neighborhoods. "Is Trenton safe? So many people are afraid to come here." Creators June Ballinger (played by herself) and David Lee White are meeting with elderly black people who are in a talk circle. They are bemoaning the intimidating behavior of some of Trenton's youth. One makes a statement that, to say the least, is quite controversial. However, you might want to give it a listen:

I wasn't afraid of children; today, it's different. When did kids change? We used to have God in the schools  ... (Second person interjects, Some lady sued and the Supreme Court threw God out of the schools) ... and parents don't discipline children, we called teachers mister and missus, not by their first names. Kids don't learn respect. Beating kids shouldn't be, but a spanking never did anyone any harm.

Although I love the history lessons that are imparted through the rich personal histories expounded upon in the first act, one voice now sums up the task at hand: "All this nostalgia for what Trenton was, it does no good. Let's deal with what we have today." As always, new people are bringing new cultures to the city. People from Poland, Ecuador, Santa Domingo, Costa Rica and all over Latin America are here trying to make the American Dream come true for themselves. They discuss efforts that they are making in concert with one another to revive the small city. After all, despite all the problems and odds against it, Trenton is their home and the home of their friends and neighbors.

Under the direction of Adam Immerwahr, Jane Ballinger, Kala Moses Baxter, Ross Beschler, Rodney Gilbert and Devon Jordan give individual life and color to dozens of roles.

There are a few songs, but the fine actors who sing them are not singers, and the songs make little impression. I could also do without much of the extended dialogue by a police officer of his remembered conversations with his K-9 patrol partner. There must be more substantive stories gathered. The more relevant material on stage is so compelling that lightweight distraction is not needed.

While it certainly spotlights efforts that Trentonians are making to help their fellow townsfolk, Trenton Lights laudably and, in my opinion, correctly stresses stories which demonstrate that individual effort and determination is the most crucial element in achieving a better life. One woman expresses this with poetic resonance: "There are three realities: the life that you have; the life that you want; and the life that you earn."

Trenton Lights sidesteps the pitfalls of boosterism and bromides to deliver a rich tapestry of American life.

Trenton Lights continues performances (Evenings Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through June 6, 2006 at the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton, NJ 08605. Box Office: 609-392-0766; online:

Trenton Lights Conceived and created by Jane Ballinger and David Lee White; directed by Adam Immerwahr

Jane Ballinger, Kala Moses Baxter, Ross Beschler, Rodney Gilbert, Devon Jordan

Photo: Michael Goldstein

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

- Bob Rendell

Privacy Policy