The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings






Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
Writing for Us

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The People Before the Park

I told you before, Mathius shout your name before you walk up. I don't like surprises or visitors. You walk up without warning, you might get knived by Stephen Van Cleef. — Stephen
The People Before The Park
Photo: Bridget Gabbe and W. Tre Davis (Photo credit: Mike Peters)
The people and the park referred to in the title of Keith Josef Adkins' informative and absorbing play are a collective of sixth generation African-Americans who settled and built ramshackle homes in the area of New York City we now know as Central Park. This well intentioned, historically accurate play with fictional characters, is set in the summer of 1856 and known for the past thirty years as Seneca Village, or euphemistically as "Nigger Village" by other New Yorkers.

Living under the imminent threat of eminent domain but determined to remain in the modest dwelling he built twenty years ago, 42 year old Stephen Van Cleef (Billy Eugene Jones) makes a living as an oysterman. He lives with his talented 22 year-old son Jonas (W. Tre Davis) who wants to venture beyond his home to pursue his dream to be an artist.

Despite threats and increasing acts of vandalism in the community, Steve remains steadfast in his belief that his wife who he suspects was stolen into slavery twenty years ago would return and that sheer defiance and undaunted willfulness would enable him to remain on the land he owns.

With most of his neighbors pulling up stakes and accepting the modest remunerations being offered by New York's Mayor Woods and the city council Steve is resolved to stay. When given five days to vacate, he refuses to join a community plan to stand up and fight the city's decision to demolish their property and create a central park.

As you may surmise, there is no surprise to the inevitable course taken by the city. Though the play substantiates itself with more historical exposition than dramatic invention, it nevertheless brings into relief a segment of history and a schism in our path to equal rights.

The play would probably be more powerful with some unexpected reversals of a family's fortunes or its fate. What nevertheless provides grace and gravity, is the strength of spirit and the claim for dignity and self-worth in the faces and the dialogue of the play's impassioned characters.

With no need to consider the oft used "spoiler alert" the audience is able to feel deeply for the fiercely emboldened Steve, as acted with an expressive fervor by Jones. He wistfully sings of his lost wife and also displays his character's volatile nature when dealing with his son's restlessness. He is downright antagonistic in confrontation with the blustery yet conciliatory shoe merchant Marion Lewis (Shane Taylor) and his priggish and also practical Haitian-born wife Phoebe (Michelle Wilson who try to coax him to be the leader he was once. Taylor and Wilson are excellent and add a clear resonance of the era (aided by Karen Lee Hart's fine period costumes)

Essential romantic yearnings are supplied by Davis as the devoted but restless Jonas and by Bridget Gabbe as the pretty abused 18 year-old Irish-born girl who hankers to escape with Jonas but who cannot leave her mother alone with her brutal husband. While their innocent moonlit trysts are sweetly engaging, a darker and more tenuous relationship exists between Steve and Mathius, a young German immigrant police officer who visits him while on patrol, yet harbors conflicted feelings. The vandalizing and the violence described (not depicted) is not far removed from we have heard of the Russian pogroms and the activities of the Cossacks.

Despite the overriding predictability, Adkins gives us a tough yet tender depiction of these hard scrabble black characters who are decidedly not Southern but are specifically New Yorkers. Bravo to Adkins and esp ecially director John J. Wooten for giving emphasis to the mid 19th century dialect of New Yorkers. Impressive as the acting is the set design by Patrick Rizzotti that providesthe home and the surrounding ground with its stumps and rocks and evidence of Steve's oyster shucking and cooking business. There is also evidence here of more story than actually reaches our eyes and ears.

The People Before The Park by Keith Josef Adkins Directed by John J. Wooten
Cast: Billy Eugene Jones (Stephen Van Cleef), Andy Truschinski (Mathius Frakenhinger), W. Tre Davis (Jonas Van Cleef), Bridget Gabbe (Bridget Donnely) Shane Taylor (Marion Lewis), Michelle Wilson (Phoebe Fernandes Lewis)
Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood
Scenic Design: Patrick Rizzotti
Lighting Design: Brant Thomas Murray
Costume Design: Karen Lee Hart
Sound Design: Janie Bullard
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Zella Fry Theatre, Vaughn Eames Hall, on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ
(908) 737-7469 or
Tickets: $30.00; $20.00 (seniors); $15.00 (students)
Performances: Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday & Sunday at 3 pm.
From 09/03/15 Opened 09/04/15 Ends 09/20/15
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/04/15
The New Similes Dictionary
New Similes Dictionary

Book Of Mormon MP4 Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show

Slings & Arrows  cover of  new Blu-Ray cover
Slings & Arrows-the complete set

You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company


©Copyright 2015, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from