This is the 10th season for South Camden Theatre Company and they call it "A Season of Faith." The neighborhood around the theater has improved dramatically over the years and the company has played a major role in the revitalization. Each of the productions this season has dealt with faith in a unique way. In Fortune Cookies, the company looks at how the audience has kept its faith in the theater. The play, written by Joseph M. Paprzycki, was first performed in 2007 back when the company's home was the basement of Sacred Heart Church. In the years that followed, the play was always the most requested work by the audience. To thank the people who have kept coming back year after year, the theatre decided to bring the production back and give it the type of production that wasn't possible the first time around.
The play is set in a Chinese restaurant in Camden in 1997. Four friends who used to work together have kept their friendship alive by returning to this restaurant one Monday night a month. Tonight happens to be the 10th anniversary of the first night they started this tradition. Although the four friends are not aware of the night's significance, Mr. Wong, the owner of the restaurant does and he's prepared a special evening for them. It's a gift that he says is "the thing that dreams are made of."
This production runs from February 27 through March 15 and stars Amiee Theresa, Megan Pisors, Nicole DeRosa Lukaitis, Christopher 'Jumbo' Schimpf, and Dan Kim — the last three were all part of the original production in 2007. Christopher 'Jumbo' Schimpf will also direct the production.
"It is wonderful to see these old friends back on stage again," said Paprzycki. "Remembering the looks on people's faces when they left the first time was so gratifying and to have so many people want to see it again is very gratifying as a playwright. When people walked out of the show, they were laughing and crying at the same time.
"I've made a couple of little changes to the play," noted the playwright. "I think being a playwright who's 9 years older and having written another 10 plays or so since we've produced this one, I'm a better writer now. You learn to hear more. I think part of it is you hear things more as a more experienced writer and part of it is you hear things as a much older person."
Fortune Cookies is not just a snapshot in time for the characters in the play; it's a reminder of just how far the theatre and Camden has come since the first production. A few blocks from the theater in 2007 one could still see crime on a regular basis, but today the neighborhood is much nicer and a safe place to go. Back in the basement, the audience sat on plastic chairs on a concrete floor, while today's audience is in nice seats in a state-of-the-art theater. Not only will this production have professional sound and lighting that greatly exceeds that of the original, but the stage will truly resemble a Chinese restaurant and audience members will even smell the food coming from the kitchen.
"This is a play about real spirituality and friendship and the whole issue of faith," explains Paprzycki. "What is faith? Can magic change faith? Is magic real? And the basic question of what do you really want? What if the dream that you're dreaming might not be the dream that's being dreamt for you? That's what the play is all about. Is there another force out there? You might think your whole life that you want something and then something happens one day and it all gets twisted around and you're like 'I never knew I wanted this in the first place.'"
Paprzycki says that's exactly what happened with him. He never planned on being a playwright and didn't even write his first play until he was 37 years old. Well into his thirties, despite having good jobs and earning a nice income, he had no answer when people asked him what he wanted to do. Then one day he saw an ad for Angels in America in the newspaper and went to New York to see the production and it suddenly made sense to him.
"I had no idea that this is what I would be doing," he recalled. "So, I think the play sort of ties into my own personal journey. I was confused and saw that picture of the angel and something just snapped, but I didn't quite know what it meant yet."
The play is loosely based on a bunch of friends that Paprzycki had at the time. He said he was working at a horrible job, but had a couple friends he hung around with to get lunch and drinks. This is the third of five plays he's written based in Camden. All are different stories with different characters, but the characters here are more or less composites of people he knew. Looking back, the playwright says he sees some parallels with what was happening to him during the period in which he wrote the play.
"Could I write this play today?" asked Paprzycki. "I don't know. I don't know if I would have the same inspiration or if the people around me are the same… What makes me so happy is I don't feel like I'm watching a play, I feel like I'm sitting next to people in a Chinese restaurant. They're just gathered and talking and having fun. There's crazy stuff and some serious stuff, but it's quickly covered in comedy. It's just the way it is when you're out with your friends. All kinds of stuff come up during the course of a two hour dinner. I think people can identify with that. They can see their friends at the table and can feel their lives in this play.
"I guess we all secretly inside would love to have somebody look out for us," he continued. "Someone to point us in the right direction. I think the City of Camden, being in such bad shape at the time, these four friends just for the sake of keeping their friendship alive kept coming back. There's a line like 'So many work friendships are like vacation ones — we'll stay in touch, we'll talk, but you always disappear from each other.' Yet, these people have stuck it out. They've stuck it out by going back to Camden just to keep that friendship alive because they know that Monday night each month is their night — no spouses, no boyfriends, no girlfriends — it's just for them."
As we're talking, Paprzycki suddenly makes the connection that it's not just the characters who are returning for the 10th year, it's his audience. They've been coming back to the same spot in Camden for each show over the past ten years just to keep the dream of live theater and a revitalized Camden alive. Maybe there is a little magic in those fortune cookies after all.
Fortune Cookies is running February 27 through March 15 at the South Camden Theatre, located at 400 Jasper Street in Camden, NJ. For more information visit www.southcamdentheatre.org
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.