When opportunity knocks, a young man is presented with what seems like a simple decision to attend one of the best schools in the country. He finds, however, that the opportunity for a better life will challenge everything he knows about the world, his community and himself.
Ghetto Babylon tells the story of Charlie Rosa, a 14-year-old boy growing up in the South Bronx in the early 1980s. When Charlie is offered admission to one of the country’s most elite private schools, he’s faced with making a choice that may change his life forever.
The play was inspired by the real-life story of Edmund “Eddie” Perry, a Harlem native and student at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, who was shot and killed by a plainclothes policeman during the summer of 1985. Witnesses claimed Perry and his brother attempted to mug the officer. His killing was ruled justifiable, but the events caused outrage and debate as the country tried to make sense of two narratives: Perry as a petty criminal versus the honor student who was expecting to attend Stanford in the fall.
Playwright Michael Mejias was awarded the 2012 National Latino Playwriting Award for Ghetto Babylon after its limited performance in 2011 at the Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse for the Dramatic Question Theatre. Directed by Gregory Simmons, Ghetto Babylon can currently be seen at Manhattan’s 59E59 Theaters through August 18.
Mejias pulls from Eddie Perry’s story, but also his own. Growing up in the Bronx’s West Farms housing projects in the ’70s, Mejias says he wrote Ghetto Babylon from a very personal place, exploring ideas of community, identity and the struggles that come with opportunity.
“It’s about a Puerto Rican kid growing up in the South Bronx, having the Little League season of his life. Finally, when the team is winning, when they can’t lose, he receives an admittance letter to the Phillips Exeter Academy,” Mejias says. “He has to go on the day he’s supposed to play the big game. To stay or to go and what it means are really central to the story.”
Mejias, who’s penned 26 plays, says Ghetto Babylon was nearly 30 years in the making but couldn’t come at a better time. Originally sparked by the death of Eddie Perry, the recent case of Trayvon Martin reignited Mejias’s thinking around the choices young people of color must make in navigating a complex, often hostile, society.
All throughout the play, there’s a conversation going on: Am I in step with the collective? What’s my responsibility to the collective? Who am I?
“I went to Catholic school. I had buddies that went through prestigious prep schools in New York and we often had to live duel lives,” Mejias says. “The same things you’d get praised for at Collegiate might get you beat up on 179th Street. And the things that get you praised up there might get you expelled at Dalton. In many ways, you’re asking both communities to accept you, and the normal issues of growing up—how you see yourself and how others perceive you—are compounded.”
The play, however, is about more than challenges presented by society to young Black and brown people. Mejias takes care to explore the internal conflict within individuals and communities when one is marked for success.
In a critical scene of the Ghetto Babylon, Charlie and his best friend Spec discuss the implications of a choice to leave his community for a prominent boarding school. They reflect on how the world opens up for some, leaving the rest behind, and are suddenly gifted with insight into how the world works and their respective futures in it.
“All throughout the play, there’s a conversation going on,” Mejias says. “Sometimes it’s Charlie having the debate internally, other times it’s with friends. It’s that thing always debated amongst us: Am I in step with the collective? What’s my responsibility to the collective? Who am I?”
Mejias says that ultimately there’s no one message he wants the audience to take away from his play. “I hope it provokes something personal,” he says. “I hope everyone that walks in walks out having felt something and having thought about how the questions in the play belong to them too. The story is about a very specific experience, but that’s what makes it universal. Ultimately, we all have to make choices and pay a price. Hopefully that’s what they’ll connect to.”
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist who writes about all things social, political, cultural, financial and whimsical. Follow him on Twitter @iDXR, or DonovanXRamsey.com.