In this groundbreaking play, Shelton expertly employs humor and hyper-theatricality to explore the complexities of single parenthood and financial responsibility within a broken system.
The play’s title, “Child Support,” accurately encapsulates its theme, offering a site-specific, immersive experience set within a typical Camden row house. Accompanied by compelling compositions of Jamal P. Dickerson and a live band under the guidance of musical director JoJo Streater, the narrative unfolds under the insightful direction of Barrymore Award-winner Ozzie Jones.
The play opened on October 13 with performances running until October 28 at Camden Repertory Theatre.
“Child Support” delves into the lives of a mother struggling to provide, a father striving to overcome statistical odds and a daughter yearning for love. The play outlines the unspoken rules of a game where everyone seems to lose. The audience, nestled within the living room of Camden Rep’s converted row house, becomes deeply immersed in the world of a single Black mother and her 17-year-old daughter, both reluctant participants in the disheartening “Child Support Game Show.”
Desi P. Shelton takes center stage as single mom Ajani, joined by the talented Chynah Michele, portraying Muff. Shelton, a theater artist and activist, founded Camden Rep in 2006, using the arts as a powerful tool to bridge the gap between the stage and communities seldom represented in mainstream productions.
In an intimate conversation, Shelton shared her insights about her play “Child Support” and the crucial role Camden Rep plays in the local community.
NJUN: What does it mean to be “using the arts as the hammer” in Camden, NJ — the poorest city in the state of New Jersey?
Shelton: For Camden Rep, the arts serve as a transformative tool, shaping healing, growth, and vitality within our community. We view the arts, including mainstage theater, rigorous arts training, and neighborhood engagement, as a process of community development. Through our work, we build voices, enhance people’s capacities, establish networks of human capital, and, most importantly, foster genuine and sustainable communities.
NJUN: Expand on Camden Rep attracting first-time theatergoers in the African American community and increasing audience attendance by 200%.
Shelton: Our annual children’s musicals, initiated in 2010, provide a platform for Black and Brown kids to see themselves represented on stage, in the pit, and even as producers of the art form. These experiences have left a lasting impact on our audience. I recall a keyboardist, Lawrence Curtis, sharing his journey from being an audience member to performing in our musical. His awe-filled realization exemplified the transformative power of live theater. Additionally, when I returned to Camden, the arts center WWAC struggled to draw an audience. However, my play, “I Killed My Baby’s Daddy,” significantly boosted attendance, filling every seat and leaving a profound impression. This success led to my employment offer from the center.
NJUN: How does theater help improve life and literature skills of at-risk children through the P.A.C.E. (Preparing Artists for College Entrance) program?
Shelton: Our P.A.C.E. program addresses the challenges faced by at-risk children, many of whom struggle with reading while desiring to perform. During table reads, we break the barrier of embarrassment related to reading levels. By using scripts, we teach fundamental phonics, fostering a positive atmosphere for learning. I’ve witnessed plays inspiring kids to pick up the corresponding books, enhancing their literary skills. Moreover, our summer program, Unplugged, encourages literacy during the summer months, a period when reading levels tend to decline. By actively participating in our community, we aim to combat illiteracy and create a love for reading.
NJUN: What is the national conversation you’re trying to start with the world premiere of “Child Support?”
Shelton: “Child Support” delves into the impact of poverty and single parenthood, particularly within Black and Brown communities. It questions the emotional and societal factors driving individuals into relationships that often lead to financial hardships. The play seeks to prompt reflection on the personal pain endured by parents and children, resonating on a deeply human level. By sharing this poignant story, we hope to spark conversations that challenge societal norms and inspire change, one narrative at a time.
NJUN: What is unique about this play?
Shelton: Director Ozzie Jones aptly captures the essence of this play, and its uniqueness lies in its seamless fusion of subject matter, style, emotional depth and environment, engaging the audience in a profoundly immersive experience. Unlike any other, “Child Support” transcends traditional boundaries, making it a deeply adventurous journey for both the cast and the spectators. The play not only touches hearts but also challenges perspectives, creating a lasting impact on those who witness its powerful narrative.
NJUN: How does live music fit into this and other Camden Rep productions?
Shelton: Live music serves as an essential element, enhancing the theatrical experience and adding depth to our productions. It acts as the heart of the performance, enriching the emotional tapestry of the narratives we bring to life. Live music transforms our productions, elevating them into immersive and unforgettable experiences, resonating deeply with our audiences.
For more information about “Child Support” and Camden Repertory Theatre, please visit Camden Rep’s official website (www.camdenrep.com) or contact them at (856) 438-8430.