March 2018 – For Drew University’s Olivia Winters, the chance to work with playwright Pia Wilson “was like a dream come true.”
Winters C’19, a theatre arts major, was a dramaturg, assisting with a host of tasks for the recent production of Wilson’s Down Neck at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on Drew’s campus.
The drama chronicles the lives of three families in Newark’s Ironbound section from after World War II through the racial upheaval of the late 1960s. For the production, Winters did research, provided historical materials, worked with a designer and developed an accompanying study guide.
“It was so incredible to be working with Pia,” said Winters, who’s from Providence, R.I. “This has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”
After the final performance of Down Neck, Winters moderated a talkback between Wilson and students that was sponsored by the Dramatists Guild Foundation.
Wilson, who grew up in Hillside, wrote the Down Neck as part of a celebration of Newark’s 350th Anniversary in 2016. It debuted in Newark last summer, directed by Drew Assistant Professor Rodney Gilbert, a beloved mentor to many undergraduates who died in November.
“It’s a privilege to be able to do this in his honor,” said Maliik Hall C’19, who’s from Montclair. In the latest production, Hall played Michael, the eldest son in an African American family that interacts with Italian and Portuguese families during that turbulent time in Newark.
Down Neck touches on a range of city history, including immigration, race relations, jazz and the Negro baseball leagues. At its heart, however, are the families. “Every play to me is a family play,” said Wilson, during the talkback. “Families are the cradles of our lives. And families intermingling in a neighborhood is what happens naturally.”
The personality of the father in the African American family was inspired by Wilson’s dad, a preacher and business owner in Newark in the 1970s. He never gave up on the city even in the aftermath of the disruptive 1967 uprising, Wilson said, and the name of his business reflected that optimism: Ernie’s Model City Driving School.
At Drew, Down Neck was produced by nationally ranked Department of Theatre and Dance and directed by Adjunct Professor Meyung Kim. Based on feedback, Wilson plans to rewrite some scenes to allow the audience “more time to breathe” as the play seesaws between three decades. She also wants to further develop the storylines of some characters. “Seeing this production gave me ideas for other iterations of the play,” she said, adding, “Theater is collaborative.”