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BACK TO SCHOOL • Brooklyn Paper

BACK TO SCHOOL

Paulanne Simmons' "Basketball Lessons" has been brought to the stage at the Theater for the New City.
The Brooklyn Papers / Tom Callan

Each year, for more than 20 years, a group of friends reunites
to shoot some hoop and remember the good ol’ days back in Brooklyn
Heights.

The longevity of the friendships of these middle-aged men
who return from as far away as California to assemble at PS 8
on Hicks Street year after year is true – and made for a nostalgic
feature story in The Brooklyn Papers by freelance reporter Paulanne
Simmons in 1998. The story was so brimming with color and nostalgia,
in fact, it inspired Simmons to use the material to write an
entire play inspired by the enduring friendship of the men once
known as "Killer," "Freddie P" and "Whitey."

"I’m glad I wrote the article and got the opportunity
to write this play. Reporting opens you up to so many experiences,"
said Simmons. "It’s a constant source of ideas and opinions."

Simmons’ play, "Basketball Lessons," on stage now
at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan, is cleverly produced.
The action flip-flops between the friends in their varied present
day careers and family situations – at their investment offices,
with their children and wives – and flashbacks to their Heights
childhood with younger versions of the characters played by a
remarkably capable team of teen actors. (It should be noted,
this play is not a true story, and the characters’ names have
been changed to protect both the innocent and not so innocent.)

Interestingly, a number of real Brooklyn teens make up the
cast of basketball playing kids: Gary Pierre, Nathaniel Barr,
Malcolm Spruiell, Christopher Velazquez, and Alex Simmons, the
playwright’s 13-year-old son, plays the role of Young Eddie.

"It was different then," Simmons said of Brooklyn
Heights. "It wasn’t so much Wall Street and co-ops. It was
more people who were lower middle class rather than upper, upper
class."

The playwright found the real-life basketball enthusiasts
who annually meet at PS 8 to be similar to the kids she grew
up with in East New York.

"I did meet them, when they came to Brooklyn Heights
[in 1998]," Simmons, 51, recalled. "I felt I knew them
all my life. They were very nice and very eloquent. Some of the
quotes they said are lines I used in the play. Even they were
very aware of the uniqueness of [their tradition]. They had ways
of talking about it that were very inspiring.

"I have also been seeing the same friends in New Jersey
for over 20 years on New Year’s Eve," she said, explaining
that keeping this tradition among friends is appealing and moving
to others she tells it to.

"The idea of them coming back to the schoolyard year
after year, that kind of device has been used many times, it’s
not original, but it’s fascinating," said Simmons. "It’s
a framework that you can hang a lot on."

In "Basketball Lessons," the Brooklyn Heights of
the mid-20th century is evoked by the diversity of the cast and
close-knit neighborhood feeling that Mrs. Rivera (Debora Balardini)
fosters while managing her grocery store.

The character Manny (Jimmy Dellavalle) says with a glint of
humor in his eye, "Every boy either worked for or stole
from my mother at one point in their childhood." Simmons’
adult characters, particularly Mrs. Rivera, toss around humorous
quips even while tackling dilemmas.

"It’s funny and it’s sad," explains Simmons. "I
don’t think I’m capable of writing a play that’s totally sad.
I’ll be joking on my death bed."

After Simmons wrote "Basketball Lessons" in 1999
she looked around for a party interested in staging the production,
but Brooklyn venues were limited, as the Heights Players of Brooklyn
Heights and the Gallery Players of Park Slope generally stage
revivals of well-known Broadway productions.

Simmons found a backer when she passed a copy of her play
to Crystal Field, executive director and founder of Theater for
the New City.

"I am very grateful that Theater for New City and people
like Crystal are around or emerging writers wouldn’t have an
opportunity," said Simmons.

"Basketball Lessons" is directed by Lee Peters,
a Brownsville resident who has worked with the Gallery Players
and attended Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene, said
he was attracted to the play, "partly because it was a story
that took place in Brooklyn."

"At one point one of the actors said this isn’t realistic,
no one is cursing. I said to him, ’There are a lot of stories
about Brooklyn,’" recalled Peters. "There are many
stories about Brooklyn on TV and in movies, that portray Brooklyn
with not-too-intelligent guys who talk a certain way. I was very
delighted that Paulanne could show another side of Brooklyn.
Just like any place, it’s eclectic."

The real-life group of basketball playing buddies came to
the play’s opening on March 10.

"They were very pleased with the play," said Peters.
"They were excited to see their story come to life. A few
of them noted things that were slightly different. The actual
son of Mrs. Rivera noted that the real Mrs. Rivera was a much
heavier woman, but still enjoyed the portrayal. There were a
lot of inside jokes, that they got – they laughed at, things
they knew to be true to their story," said Peters.

"One thing I say to my friends who are too busy to get
together, ’People drift apart if they choose to.’ This play says
a lot about that," said Peters. "They choose to stay
in touch though their schedules are different and they live in
different parts of the country. They choose to relive their friendship
and their youth and how important they are to each other."

 

Performances of "Basketball Lessons" continue
now through March 25 at Theater for the New City [155 First Ave.
at 10th Street, Manhattan, (212) 254-1109]. Performances are
Thursday-Sunday at 6:45 pm and Sunday, March 25 at 3 pm. Tickets
are $10. For additional information call (718) 346-4805.


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