The mission of Passage Theatre in Trenton is to present plays that are socially relevant and examine our culture, diversity, and the issues we face. The first play of Passage's new season certainly does all of that.
Laura Maria Censabella's “Paradise,” is a two-character play about Yasmeen (Lily Balsen) a Muslim student at a Bronx school taking a science class taught by Dr. Royston (Grant Shaud). Royston used to teach at Columbia, but his career was derailed and he has found himself teaching at a bad school in front of mostly uninterested students.
Yasmeen is not uninterested. She is an excellent student but has failed one of Royston's tests. She was distracted by something that led to the bad grade, but won't say by what, and she's desperate to take it again.
Their relationship gets off to a rocky start. There is a bitterness in Royston. When Yasmeen tells him she needs to keep her perfect score, he replies, “We would all like to keep our perfect scores,” then comments that he won't bargain with her like they're haggling in over lentils at an Arabian souk. Yasmeen accuses Royston of being racist and threatens to report him.
Royston says they can figure something out, and soon they're talking about the science of love, Royston's specialty. Yasmeen tells him she needs a perfect grade for a science scholarhip to Columbia. It will be a challenge, she's a senior just taking her first year of biology, but Royston agrees to help her.
“Paradise,” which Passage is staging through Oct. 22, covers cultural differences, education, and science. And writing it took some studying.
“I spent two years researching the science," Censabella says. “I had a vague idea of what the story would be but I didn't know entirely. I needed as much science as possible so I could choose what I might need once the story took shape.”
She started with the idea of a disgraced teacher working at a bad school, and a collaboration with a student. She also knew the play would examine the science of romantic love, which was included in her proposal for the commission from Ensemble Studio Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan.
“As part of it, I knew his specialty was the science of romantic love,” Censabella says. “So then I knew that in some way this play was always going to be about romantic love — who doesn't have questions about how to make love last and why does love die?”
Another theme she wanted to explore was the idea of living communally or individually.
“A lot of that came from my own family,” Censabella says. “My mother came from Italy and I have a very communal family culture, but how do you then become an individual in this society? That is a conflict that I actually lived myself.”
Censabella taught in New York City public schools, and had students who were facing arranged marriages, which partly inspired her decision to make her student character Muslim. Her personal life also influenced that choice, as she his half Sicilian and because she was once in a relationship with someone who is Arab-American.
“His family basically adopted me and I feel like I'm still part of the family in many ways,” she says. “I learned about Arab-American culture from a very emotional entry, so I felt I had that kind of emotional understanding of it, as well as the prejudice that is attached to being Arab-American. I felt I understood that on some level. I did have to do a lot of research on, specifically, Yemeni culture."
“Paradise” made its premiere at Central Square Theater in Boston. Before that, Ensemble Studio Theater held a reading of the play, which featured Shaud as Royston. Shaud, best-known for his role on the '80s sitcom "Murphy Brown," has performed at Passage and helped bring the play to Trenton. Following its run at Passage, the production will move on to Luna Stage in West Orange.
This will mark the first time Passage will present a play by Censabella, but the writer has known about the theater because June Ballinger, who recently stepped down as artistic director, is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. Censabella also says she's been given a lot of positive feedback about the theater.
“I think the highest compliment I've heard about Passage was from an Arab-American director who said to me, 'You've never been in a theater that had a more diverse audience than Passage,” Censabella says.
Ballinger scheduled this season and selected “Paradise” to open the season, and new Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues says she’s thrilled Passage is presenting the play.
“I was really, really excited that this was going to be our first play of the season,” Domingues says. “I went in, they had the initial read-through, (and saw) two unbelievably strong actors are working on the piece and everybody is just really high-caliber artists.”
Domingues is one of the founders of Simpatico Theater in Philadelphia, and was the artistic director there for five years. She left Simpatico and went to California to get her graduate degree in directing. She back to Philly, and worked with the Wilma Theater for two years, and directed on a freelance basis. The opportunity to run Passage appealed to her for several reasons, including that its mission is similar to Simpatico’s
“We worked with other non-profit organizations and we about enacting social change through theater,” Domingues says.
She adds that one of the reasons she came to Passage is the theater’s commitment to plays that address social issues, which has been part of her work.
“It’s difficult,” Domingues says. “When it comes to science and religion, there’s always questions but then I also think, We have all these pre-conceived notions about other people’s belief systems, and what they can what they can’t do and what that means to them. I think this play really breaks that down and reveals a lot.”
“Paradise” is being performed at Passage Theatre, 205 E. Front St., Trenton, through Oct. 22. For tickets and information, go to www.passagetheatre.org or call 609-392-0766.