Acting Out Gentrification: Theater as Community Engagement

Acting Out Gentrification: Theater as Community Engagement

Communities undergoing gentrification often fail to find ways to talk across the fault lines running among newcomers and old-timers. Neither group shares the reference points that are necessary to engage in shared conversation.  At best they talk past one another – each side claiming to speak for the community’s best interests; at worst, exchange becomes a shouting match – each side blaming the other for destroying all that makes a community harmonious.  Performing arts can provide the context for meaningful dialogue to begin as it gives expression to hidden passions in ways that can be understood and cannot be denied. A new play about young professionals moving into once working-class “Mid-City” Washington neighborhoods, Districtland, by Wilson Center scholar Cristina Bejan, demonstrates how powerfully theater can bring a community’s most aching trials into view.

The premier performances of Bejan’s Districtland at the Capital Fringe Festival (July 11, 13, 16, 19, 23, and 27) by the Bucharest Inside the Beltway Art Culture and Arts Cooperative signifies something of a coming-of-age in Washington theatrical life for the city’s “Millennial bulge.” According to some counts, Washington theaters attract a larger audience than any other American city outside of New York.  Those ticket holders tend to be older and prone to watch dramatic classics, musical theater, as well as some edgy contemporary American plays largely written elsewhere about someplace else.  For all the fine performers and companies in the Washington metropolitan area, homegrown plays looking at local stories – which abound with the major themes of human existence – remain strikingly rare.  Bejan’s cutting examination of the intersection among a dozen twenty-somethings in gentrifying mid-city Washington deserves a look from all of us who care about the fate of our city.

Bejan, an American of Romanian descent, is a widely recognized specialist on intolerance in inter-war Romania.  A Rhodes Scholar, she holds a Ph.D. from Oxford and has held appointments at several major U.S. universities, including Duke and Georgetown.  More relevantly, she is an actress, director and playwright who connected with the Bucharest theatrical scene while conducting her doctoral dissertation research as a Fulbright Scholar.  Importantly for Districtland, she brings an East European sensibility to the absurdities of life in contemporary D.C.

Bejan’s play is about “types” – “Afghani cabbie” (Russell Max Simon), “random sleepover girl” (Kathleen Mason), “waiter”(Carson Gregory), rather than fully developed characters – even when they have names such as sleaze ball Congressman Richard (Peter Orvetti), Rhodes-soon-to-be-Yale-trained lawyer Maria (Aaren Keith) and the once-idealistic-now-disillusioned-Hill-intern Frank (Andrew Quilpa). Indeed, one of the most telling aspects of Districtland is that the play is inhabited by people who never really connect with anyone, including themselves.  They are all much more interested in enhancing their “D.C.-CV” as Congressman Richard declares while trying to hit on “Rhodie” Maria.

As is great East European satire, pathos constantly bubbles up amidst knowing snarks and chuckles.  Director John Dellaporta builds off of a good satire’s reliance on familiar categories by drawing the performance to a close with a real conversation between Hipster Peace Corps volunteer Charity (Ruthie Rado) and intern Frank on the back porch of their shared house.  Charity and Frank are more than their resumes.  They become human beings, alone in an alien and alienating world, hiding behind the masks of enforced stereotypes, disillusioned and fearful of their own failures.  Millennial Washington has become something of a caricature of itself except that, as Bejan and Dellaporta remind us, Millennials are real people too.

D.C. is inhabited by tens of thousands of real people and has been ever since its founding.  The Millennials – and their forefathers and foremothers such as the New Dealers, the Kennedy people, and the Reagan wavers – have always ignored hometown D.C.  One recurring comment heard over and over in fancy cafes and in cozy coffee shops has always been, “no one is really from D.C.”  But thousands of multi-generation Washington families live here.  All too often, they are African American and thus invisible to whatever new wave of hot shots comes to town in search of fame and power.

Bejan is smart enough to include those who were here before her Millennial Columbuses ever even knew Washington existed.  They appear in the person of A’isha (Robyn Freeman).  A smart, young D.C.-born African American poet, A’isha dominates one of the city’s famous poetry slams (in this case the knowingly titled “Sparkle,” a name always pronounced together with a cynical snapping of the fingers).  Why does gentrification so consistently cause deep bitterness?  Just listen to A’isha’s poem:

Waiting for Shawn on 9th and V to go to an indie music festival.

My great-grandfather’s name is on the African-American Civil War Memorial two blocks away

which was meant to be “in the community”

but I don’t see any black people at the festival.

Just white kids in t-shirts and dreadlocks….

In less than a minute Bejan and Freeman capture the deepest tensions dominating D.C. life today.

The play seizes on other classic moments of contemporary Washington such as: the lecherous member of Congress hitting on a young staffer at an upscale downtown restaurant; the furtive “my boss is an idiot” gripe session at a Starbucks near the World Bank; and, the “Progressive Leadership Network Happy Hour” filled with young D.C.-CVs on the prowl for career-making connections, meaningless hook-ups, and free grub.  In the best tradition of eighteenth century English social satire, Districtland casts an ever more caustic eye at local life by putting many of its most prototypical moments on stage.

Audiences across time and place are always looking to see and hear themselves. A rising wealthy-but-crude Neapolitan merchant class streamed into eighteenth century theaters to hear a new form of Opera buffo often sung in their own dialect by characters every bit as stereotypical as those in Districtland.  Similarly Kabuki and its parallel puppet theater gained great popularity among Osaka’s Tokugawa nouveau riche because they saw their own lives being played back to them.  If Washington theater is going to build audiences that will fill seats long after current occupants have moved on, Districtland is precisely the sort of play the city needs.

Any city as divided by class, race and ethnicity as Washington desperately requires the shared conversations that the arts can provoke.  Districtland tells us a lot about who we Washingtonians are.  By doing so it has the power to open up the sort of dialogue we all need to have if our city is to continue to grow and thrive in the years ahead.


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