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Squeezing JFK Airport on to the Small Stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Taxi Stands Included


By Bruce Chadwick

originally published: 10/21/2022

Squeezing JFK Airport on to the Small Stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Taxi Stands Included

The actress on stage in the play Her Portmanteau at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick picks up the telephone to discover that her sister, whom she has not seen in years, has arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, and is waiting for her to pick her up. The actress in the apartment hangs up the phone and walks upstairs on a hidden staircase. The lighting downstairs goes dark and the lighting upstairs is turned on to reveal, in all of its noisy glory, JFK Airport. She is suddenly in front of a set of airport elevators and the top half of the stage looks just like JFK Airport. I could not believe my eyes. The airport is nearly 5,000 acres in size and there it was in front of me, re-created on this tiny stage. I never saw anything like it. 

What’s next, the Empire State building? The entire White House?

The airport, the happy invention of scenic designer Shoko Kambara, has audiences’ heads spinning. It is the scenic coup de grace of the play. I say coup de grace because the rest of the stage is pretty standard. There is a bedroom on the far left, a living room with what becomes a well worn couch in the center and a kitchen to the far right. You do not see the airport at the start of the play, just a shadowy balcony of some kind.

Now, let’s be clear. You are not really at JFK, just a play set. No 747s are going to land in the aisle next to you, your luggage is not going to be lost, there are no 500 taxis lined up at the taxi stand, all over-priced, and your flight to Paris has not been cancelled.

You would think all of that might happen, though, because the set for the airport looks so real.



 
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Her Portmanteau, a play by Mfoniso Udofia, is a story about a conflicted immigrant family.  A mom brought one of her two daughters from Nigeria to the U.S. years ago, leaving the other behind. Now the second daughter has arrived and finds America very different than how it was described by her mother. She also has a lot of questions to ask about her mom and her sister. The second child wants to live in America, but at her age, somewhere in her thirties, she is still conflicted about the move. Their mother pours out a lot of information, but holds back some. It is a play that could be about any family of immigrants these days – full of hope and trying to win the struggle with a new life in a new country.

Shoko laughs. “I read about the airport in the script and said to myself, ‘Why do all these playwrights do this to me. Why me?’"

So how did she get the airport on to the stage?

“Carefully,” she said and laughed again.

“I have never built an airport on a stage before,” she said. “Do you put it on top of the couch? Next to the dining room table? The sink?”

She paused. “It  fits and fits well up on the balcony, better than anywhere else,” she said.

Shoko Kambara has been a scenic  designer for theaters and opera houses for twenty years and she has built sets for every king of play you can think of.



 
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“This one was something else, though,” she said.

A scenic designer does not just build sets. “You talk to the costume designer and lighting people to figure out how you can best get people in and out of an airport, or in and out of anywhere. A play is not the set; it is the people,” she said. “The characters are the centers of the play and I, all set designers, have to create a world in which the playwright’s characters can best act out the story. It isn’t just me. It’s a lot of people.”

Designing sets for plays is a step by step process.

“I sit down and read the script first to see how to best create a set that helps tell the story. I get vague ideas. I go through the script again and talk to the costume and lighting people. I try to ‘see’ the story unfold. That makes it easier to turn vagueness into the unreality of theater. By then, the set is forming in my mind.”

Ms.  Kambara is always careful not to let her sets overwhelm the story. “That happens. The designer creates this big, extravagant step and the audience goes home remembering the set and not the story. Can’t do that,” she said.

She craves authenticity. “We all know what New York City apartments look like, so I created one that looked just like that. You can’t have, well, magic. You just want an apartment that looks like all those we all have visited over the years. You want people in the audience to believe the set. If they believe the set, they believe the play,” she said. 

“Take the living room of this house that is my set. It looks very ‘lived in’ That’s good. Now, the airport needed a lot of work, so I have a guy on the theater staff serve as the elevator operator taking the elevator up and down. I threw a couple of mannequins on to the airport to make it look full of people. These little touches help you to achieve what you want, a good feeling of authenticity,” Kambara said.

Over the years, Kambara has designed sets for just about every kind of play in every kind of theater. As a matter of fact, this work in New Brunswick came about from a friendship she struck up with  Laiona Michelle, the play’s director, several years ago when Michelle starred in a play at George Street about singer Nina Simone.

“You just never know what’s going to happen in theater,” she said.. 

No, you don’t. When I interviewed her last week Kambara was working on a movie in Savannah, Georgia.



 
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Two weeks before that, the entire crew of the film was flown to Atlanta, Georgia, to get out if the way of Hurricane Ian, that was, at the time, headed straight for Savannah.

“Fortunately, we all made it out and the hurricane did little damage there. Thank God,” she said, “That would have been some play, the actors trying to flee from a savage hurricane. Imagine the set I’d have to build for that?”

Back to the airport. To tell you the truth, Kambara’s JFK airport looks much cleaner and friendlier than the real one.

PA System “Flight 567 from Los Angeles is arriving now………..”

Photo by T. Charles Erickson



Bruce Chadwick worked for 23 years as an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News. Later, he served as the arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a Ph. D in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on U.S. history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.

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