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Ghetto Babylon: Coming of age in the South Bronx

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The three boys are the best of friends in the South Bronx, two cousins and their buddy. They’re all on the little league team the “Warriors”, it’s their last eligible season, and it’s high school, come fall. Now, it’s mid-summer.

This is the core of the Michael Mejias’ play “Ghetto Babylon” running until Aug. 18 at 59E59 Theater, 59 E. 59th St. in Manhattan.

The theater’s intimate performing space, only twenty-three seats on each side of the room, becomes the baseball mound and ballfields where hold-your-breath game-action takes place.

Desperate to win the championship and they never have, it’s the last chance for a title for these homies. Their dream is to enter high school wearing black satin championship jackets with “Warriors” emblazoned. They’d be hot.

The minimalist set is also the rooftop of West Farms Housing Project where the cousins, Felix and Charlie, live together and where, along with Spec (short for spectacular), they hangout, endlessly talking life.

The roof also serves brainiac Charlie as a retreat with lawn chair, his substantial stash of books and even a typewriter tucked away.

“It took 27 years to write this,” says 47-year-old playwright Mejias, who suggests that about 50 percent of the play is autobiographical from his and people he has known experiences.

Charlie gets an acceptance letter with a full scholarship from the New Hampshire prep school Philips Exeter Academy, where he has applied. Thus, the conflict: if and how to tell his friends. If their team gets to it, he, as pitcher, must leave before the championship game. Does he accept admittance or not?

Mejias grew up in the housing project where the play takes place and while he didn’t go to Exeter, he knew boys who did. Growing up, he’d watch as boys in their prep school uniforms trotting off to school and he’d wonder about them. For the record, Mejias went to (private/Catholic) Cardinal Spelling High School, the same school as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“Getting-out” is one of the main themes of the play, getting out from the confines of the environment, getting away from where opportunities are not accessible.

It is part of why Charlie applied to Exeter. But, if he leaves, he abandons his friends who do not have options. Deeply troubled, Charlie grapples with: how do you leave things you know and love?

Babylon Ghetto frames a coming of age piece that can definitely resonate for adolescent and high school students.

Flirtations (and jealousies, and bullying) are part of the story, too, as is a cameo appearance (and conversations with Charlie) in the character of Holden Caulfield from one of Charlie’s favorite books, Catcher in the Rye.

Author Mejias was also deeply influenced by the 1985 shooting death by a plain clothes cop in Morningside Park of Edmund Perry, a Harlem resident, fresh grad of Exeter, about to go to Stanford. [The 1988 book “The Best Intentions” provides background and details.]

Mejies also knows that schools like Exeter are grooming academies for people who run the world and that this highly elite prep school is a chance to enter the corridor of power, (begging the question: when and how do minorities become part of the exclusive American conversation?)

“This is an American narrative,” he says. Diversity is a relevant contemporary issue. “Do they (minorities) stay on the outside looking in or are they part of decision making.”

The author has 26 plays written prior to this, which was six years in development.

Updated 3:05 am, July 10, 2018:
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