Back in August of 2017, a sculpture titled “Helping Hands” was installed by Isles Inc. on a vacant city-owned lot at the corner of Montgomery and Perry streets. The piece of art was constructed by a group of 16 children, ages ranging from 12 through 15, who were attending a summer camp through the non-profit organization HomeFront.
Resembling an OK hand sign, the piece was designed to stand out from the overused peace sign hand gesture. However, after multiple complaints stating the artwork portrayed a gang symbol, the sculpture was quickly removed from site.
It’s been over three years since that controversy, and instead of forgetting the past, Passage Theatre Company has decided to turn that misunderstanding into an artistic lesson through The OK Trenton Project.
The OK Trenton Project has been in the works since the highlight of the incident in 2017. Over the years, Passage Theatre’s PlayLab Program met up with different members of the Trenton community, whom both created the sculpture and witnesses its removal, to document the story through those who lived it. Told through the words of Trenton’s law enforcement, city officials, artists, residents and students, this documentary-style play tells the story of what one piece of art can mean to a community.
“The theme of the play is around art and how art is subjective,” said Ryan Hennessey, Administrative Associate for Passage Theatre Company. “It’s about the statue being misconstrued by the audience.”
When word of the removal and controversy spread, discussions about artistic censorship arose in the city; and like all intuitive artists, the company drew inspiration from the conflict.
Back in 2019, Passage Theatre Company received a 2019 MAP Fund project grant, part of a program that “awards $1 million annually in support of original live performance projects that embody a spirit of deep inquiry, particularly works created by artists who question, disrupt, complicate and challenge inherited notions of social and cultural hierarchy across the United States” for the development of the OK Trenton Project. The grant application was one of 42 selected out of more than a thousand other proposals from organizations across the United States.
Initially, the project was set to premier this year in 2021. However, with setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Passage Theatre Company has moved its full production to 2022.
According to Hennessey, the delay in production has allowed the OK Trenton Project team (Writers David Lee White and Richard Bradford, Director C. Ryanne Domingues, Associate Writers Ryanne Domingues Victoria Davidjohn, Dramaturgs Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo, Jonathan Conner, Jane Cox, Stacey Derosier, Kara Jonsson, Alexandra Kostis, Dara Lewis, Bruce Lindsay, Robin Shane, Wendi Smith, and Yoshinori Tanokura) to alter the piece to fit the changes of time. “It just just kind of keeps changing and evolving,” said Hennessey.
He continued, “I think the the idea for the main production is kind of two things – to have the most up-to-date kind of references; I’m sure that between now and 2022, a lot of things, politically and in the arts, all those things will be happening; the other thing is to connect to the Trenton community, more so for this production and get a lot of people from the community out to see the show. We think that this piece is going to be really special to the community since the play is about the community. Not a lot of plays, or our pieces, are centered around the Trenton community as much as this one is.”
Last Saturday night, June 12, Passage held a read-through of the most up-to-date script. After working out kinks and finalizing the show, Passage Theatre Company hopes to bring the recaptured true story of the Helping Hands controversy to the Trentonians that lived it.