UNION, N.J.: A stroll through Central Park can inspire anyone. For playwright Keith Josef Adkins, it sparked thoughts about what was there before the trees and gardens.
Seneca Village was there, for one. This predominantly black and immigrant neighborhood, Adkins discovered in his research, was razed to make room for the New York City park in 1857. In The People Before the Park, running Sept. 3–20 at Premiere Stages, Adkins tells the story.
“I’m always carrying around that radar,” Adkins said of the play’s origin. “I am looking for the marginalized stories that no one has heard about.”
When Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York approached him to write a new play on anything he wanted, he drew on his Seneca Village research to write a short piece that would serve as a prompt for high school audiences. Students would hear his 60-minute play about Seneca Village, then write their own five-minute scenes based on what they had learned.
Adkins knew he wanted to “blow up the play” into a full-length work, so he dived deeper into research, from the New York Historical Society to Google Books. He found resonance between the debates then and current concerns about gentrification.
“We often move through the city so fast that it is easy to lose history and people, and forget that they were there,” Adkins said. “This is history that belongs to the city.”
The play, this year’s winner in Premiere Stages’ annual play festival, follows a father and son forced out of the neighborhood to make way for the park. It’s based on actual history, including some real people, such as Andrew Williams, who, Adkins said, had an especially “New York audacity” in his unrelenting resilience against being moved from his home.
“It’s important that I balance historical information with character authenticity,” Adkins noted, “so that it’s not bloated with history.”
His own roots go deep. He grew up in Ohio and can trace his ancestors in Appalachia back to the late 1700s. A family heritage of activism might have given Adkins his ear for the voice of the marginal: He recounted that a family member desegregated a community pool by pushing a younger cousin in.
“I was always surrounded by social justice, even without knowing I was a part of it.”