NY Culture Examiner speaks with playwright Michael Mejias about Ghetto Babylon, a work opening at 59E59 Theaters August 1st, and the inspiration that motivated him to tell this story.
Ghetto Babylon is a play about a boy making a big decision that could change his life. Set in the South Bronx in 1982, lead character Charlie receives a letter of acceptance from an elite boarding school. Should he stay or should he go? Playwright Michael Mejias strives to show Charlie’s dilemma in a warm and compelling way. What goes deeper are the experiences that influenced Mejias’ thinking and desire to write Ghetto Babylon, starting with the death of Edmund Perry in 1985.
Perry was a 17 year old from Harlem who had graduated from Exeter and was set to attend Stanford University in the fall. On June 12, 1985, he was shot and killed by a plainclothes police officer. While the focus was placed on the incident itself, many began to discover the darker challenges Perry faced as both a prep student and a resident of a neighborhood far away from Exeter’s expansive campus grounds.
Mejias recalled growing up in the Bronx in the 80’s, attending Catholic high school and having friends who were part of education programs such as A Better Chance and Prep for Prep. These programs helped urban students get accepted into private schools and provided support. While the programs opened doors for those who may not have had any another opportunity for educational privilege, it occasionally came with the price of living a double life.
“There are repercussions for the breaking the spoken and unspoken rules on either side,” Mejias explained. “The values of the prep school don’t mean much on 139th and East Tremont.”
Ghetto Babylon attempts to show a glimpse of the expectations placed on a fourteen-year-old boy who receives the coveted and feared letter of acceptance. The demands for success are high, as are the implications for staying ‘true’ to his background. Going away means figuring out who Charlie is surrounded by people who do not look like him or understand his history; staying home means being an exceptionally bright student struggling with the inequalities of public education and the hardships of simply being a Latino boy in New York.
Mejias says it took him years to complete the play, finishing at least 25 others before finally finding the right blend of personal insight and cultural context. “I wrote thousands of pages from 1986 to now. All of these characters have part of me- flatteringly and unflatteringly. There is a little bit of truth about me in all of them- although I may not be as talented as the protagonist!”
Ghetto Babylon starts its run at 59E59 Theaters August 1st, in association with Dramatic Question Theatre. Mejias would love to see the play graduate to the next phase and move into regional theatres. He hopes there may be life on the west coast for this personal work.
“My hope is for more people to see the play and arrive at community.”
Ghetto Babylon- written by Michael Mejias, directed by Gregory Simmons, at 59E59 Theaters from August 1st to August 18th.
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Street, New York, NY 10022; Tickets: $18, $12.60 (members); Purchase online at www.ticketcentral.com, or call 212-279-4200.