Ghetto Babylon takes place in 1982 in the South Bronx just before the crack epidemic which set the New York City murder rate soaring to its peak by 1990. When the play begins, 14-year-old Charlie Rosa (Alejandro Rodriguez) is standing on the pitcher’s mound. It’s his favorite place in the world. He is surrounded by his favorite people in the world, his teammates. As he is egged on by his jiving, wise-mouthed homie Spec (Sean Carvajal) and his gentler but equally hyped up cousin Felix Peralta (Malik Ali), Charlie explains how this is a pivotal moment for him and his team. They have to win this game to qualify in the playoffs, a first. By doing this they will begin to carve out a little piece of heaven for themselves in a place that is as far from heaven as it gets.
Alejandro Rodriguez’s Charlie takes us through the wind-up and suspenseful play-by-play to throw the batter out, and we are hooked. Playwright Michael Mejias’s snappy dialogue is peppered with cultural riffs and jokes. Director Gregory Simmons’ excellent staging and use of the small theater space make it easy to imagine the pitcher’s mound, batter, and outfield action. The vitality and enthusiasm of the three actors disarm us while they pantomime the triumphant last out of the ninth inning. When the underdog Bronx team wins, we are thrilled. Carried by their ebullience, we’ve suspended our disbelief. These fine actors, all of them past 25, have become 14-year-olds with the brashness and courage of the age when anything is possible, even “representing” that a once loser neighborhood team can compete with the best from exclusive Bronx neighborhoods.
In this first scene playwright Michael Mejias establishes the metaphor that carries his hero, Charlie Rosa, through the rest of the play. It is a version of the American dream: The underdogs, the cultural lower classes can succeed and “represent” that success is possible for minorities as long as they put in the effort. Along with this metaphor, the playwright aptly uses baseball as the backdrop for the themes and conflicts that drive the plot and keep it hopping.
In the next scene, Spec, Charlie and Felix celebrate their success. We watch the dynamic that has brought this triumvirate together and note the differences that can split them apart. During the course of their interactions, we understand that Charlie has distinguished himself not only on the baseball field but in the classroom. Moderating his bookish brilliance with humor and physical skill on the playing field, Charlie has the makings of a Renaissance man and he keeps this secret close to his chest until he is found out by his hot neighbor and dangerous love interest, Sarafina Santos (Talia Marerro), who delivers his mistakenly routed mail. It is a letter from the elite Phillips Exeter Academy.
Charlie’s acceptance into the elite prep school is a reward for his great intellectual efforts in a culture that little understands the power of knowledge and education and the goodness required to apply it to help others. Mejias portrays his protagonist as one who is capable of this understanding and he brings us the reasons why. Charlie Rosa and his mother used to plan their educational goals together. Hers ended with her death. In memoriam, Charlie intends to persevere despite his circumstances. He has determined to be accepted to a high school that will give him a privileged education and be the gateway to the Ivy League, insuring a successful future far away from devolving Ghetto Babylon.
Mejias has stacked the deck in favor of his main character, contriving every pat detail so we cannot help but respect Charlie for his achievements. It doesn’t hurt that he is cute, funny, sensitive, endearing, charismatic and beloved. With skill he has seemed to maintain his bookish identity in a tough neighborhood without creating resentment or alienating himself from others. He is very nearly walking on water. Good thing Mejias gives him clay feet which crumble after he receives the acceptance letter.
The letter becomes the turning point after which Charlie’s uncomplicated life becomes one knotted with anxiety. Not even baseball or his mates can help him. In fact they are a hindrance. They weigh him down and remind him that unless he leaves, he will miss a great opportunity and increase the likelihood that the neighborhood will destroy him and his dream. But who is Charlie Rosa?
In confusion Charlie turns to Sarafina and a fictional friend for help, “The Catcher in the Rye.” The character of “The Catcher” is a clever device and the irony fits well with Charlie’s angst. Both Sarafina and The Catcher counsel him. He avoids their truths and lets down himself and those he loves out of cowardice and the fear of losing Spec’s and Felix’s respect. As the team climbs toward the championship, Charlie hides his plans to go to Exeter, and lies about his relationship with Sarafina. His covert actions are discovered and seen as betrayal in this “in your face” culture where authenticity is prized. Finally, he must choose between staying to pitch a championship game to elevate his team and neighborhood to glory, or leaving to enroll at Exeter, abandoning his teammates who will have to win without him.
Mejias adds humor and pathos to the character complications. Charlie’s deepening relationship with Sarafina wounds Felix who adores her. He is emotionally abandoned by Felix and Spec who rage at him for his duplicity. Then Sarafina’s former boyfriend, TheBobby, gives Charlie an ultimatum: Leave Sarafina or catch the heat of physical brutality. The latter result turns humorous as TheBobby shows up at one of the playoff games and gestures that he will slit Charlie’s throat. They fight after the game. TheBobby (Rodney Roldan) is a scary combination of bully and nasty punk. Roldan portrays him with just enough muscle to springboard Rodriquez’s responses and make them funny.
Mejias has created an uplifting, clever play with humor and truth. Some sections are too long and need editing. Though the dialogue is refreshing and the characters dynamic, the plot is predictable even if the actors make it fun. For example, after the thrilling opening scene, the second baseball game ending lacks the risability of the first. By the time we get to the third game’s ninth inning, the suspense has been dulled. Shortening or tweaking the second game would have spurred our interest toward the outcome of the third. We would have been kept guessing throughout the play-by-play: Will Charlie throw the game to avoid having to make the decision to abandon his teammates?
Likewise, other scenes need tightening: the “getting to know you” scene between Sarafina and Charlie, and the scene where TheBobby threatens Charlie one-on-one. Whether the direction or dialogue was slack, in these scenes the firepower lagged. The dialogue didn’t resonate.
The ensemble of actors are authentic and hold together through insightful, sustained direction by Gregory Simmons. Rodriguez’s portrayal of Charlie, Sean Carvajal’s Spec, and Malik Ali’s Felix are solid performances that make Ghetto Babylon enjoyable and inspiring. It’s great to see the “little people” win for a change.
Ghetto Babylon presented by Dramatic Question Theatre and Andrew Frank will be at 59E59 Theaters until the 18th of August.