Post-Play Palaver: ‘Silence Is Violence: Whose Earth Is This, DC?’ at Young Playwrights’ Theater

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Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Reviewers Sherrita Wilkins and John Stoltenberg attended a one-night-only program on the theme of gentrification and environmental change in Washington, DC, presented by Young Playwrights’ Theater as part of its annual social-justice performance series, Silence Is Violence.

John: Sherrita, your wonderful preview about this program said the evening would be

 a “multi-sensory” experience featuring original one-minute plays, spoken word, interactive exercises with the audience, and musical performances

and that it was. For about 15 minutes, three guest artists performed impassioned poetry on the theme. Then for about half an hour, a nimble ensemble of five actors performed 26 one-minute plays on the theme, most by novice young playwrights. And it was interesting to hear their insta-takes on the topic—including sharp observations about the food desert (there’s only one supermarket in all of Ward 8) and uprooted neighborhoods (“all the poor people and people who look like us are gone,” “white people are taking Chocolate City and turning it into Oreo City”).

Dior Ashley Brown, Zipporah Brown, and Diana Lee Arnold in Silence Is Violence: Whose Earth Is This, DC? Photo by Teshonne Powell.

During all of this—even though the performance by design had a very entry-level esthetic—I was in engaged witness mode, the way I am whenever I go to see theater.  But it was what happened next that altered me.

Everyone in the audience was given a slip of paper and asked to write a letter addressed to “Dear DC.” We were encouraged to think of DC as a person, as someone we might actually communicate with. After about five minutes, the slips of paper were collected and each was read aloud by a member of the acting ensemble. And that’s when something shifted for me, not only in how I thought about DC but in how I felt about DC. Listening to the 50 or so missives, each coming from an individual’s very specific emotional connection to this town, I got a completely new sense of where I live—because I was briefly put in personal touch with a roomful of others’ sense of where they live. Somehow hearing these multiple personal points of view on this place transformed my own. Does that make sense? And did you feel anything similar?

Sherrita: Yes, I was also deeply moved by the “Dear DC” letters, written by the audience and performed in real-time, with no prep, by the ensemble cast of actors. Beyond impressive, the experience was raw, reflective and eye-opening. I’ve always known that DC was a city with soul, but that night I could feel its heartbeat. That night, DC had flesh and bones. The mixture of emotions that bubbled to the surface forced me to confront my own set of very complex feelings towards DC.

Gary-Kayi Fletcher and Vaughn Ryan Midder in Silence Is Violence: Whose Earth Is This, DC? Photo by Teshonne Powell.

While I’m not a native of this area, I’ve lived here for the majority of my adult life. DC has nurtured me both personally and professionally. I’ve come into my own here and I’ve met some truly remarkable people. On the other hand, I’ve also seen the levels of homelessness, poverty, and disparity worsen. Housing prices in this area are quite literally insane. And I’ve witnessed police officers recklessly dole out tickets as if they were free food samples at Whole Foods. For me, the biggest question that came to mind was, are all the people who deserve a seat at the table able to weigh in and shape the changes that are taking place in DC? From both the letters and the one-minute plays, the answer I got was a resounding “NO.”

Young Playwrights’ Theater Artistic Director Farah Lawal Harris. Photo by Teshonne Powell.

Also embedded in the “Dear DC” exercise was a sneaky call to action. Did you notice that? We were asked to leave a comment about what “DC will be.” This was a chance to envision the future, a chance to use our words to perhaps bring something new into existence. As I wrote my “DC will be” statement, I wondered about the students who had written the one-minute plays we watched. “How do they feel now that they’ve spoken up?” I thought. Unfortunately, most of the playwrights were not in attendance at the event and I longed for the opportunity to see if and how they planned to turn their words into concrete action steps. More than that I simply wanted to say, “Thank you. I heard you and your perspective is valid.”

The value of uplifting voices that are often marginalized or outright silenced can’t be overstated. Young Playwrights’ Theater’s work in this arena is vital. I left the event reaffirmed in my belief that the arts are a powerful gateway to activism.

CREDITS

Guest Performances
jay sun, Tre’ Elliot, Brandon Douglas

Silence Is Violence Acting Ensemble
Diana Lee Arnold, Dior Ashley Brown, Zipporah Brown, Gary-Kayi Fietcher, Vaughn Ryan Midder

The One-Minute Play Collection
Jimmy and Ryan Journey to DC by Douglas Loraan (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Untitled by Dachauna Johnson (Student, Young Playwrights’ Workshop)
Dumb President by Hailegebrael Zeleke (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Untitled by Eyersalem Assefa (Student, Qty Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Cool Disco Land by J. J. Johnson (Adult Playwright)
Changing the Game by Niree Turner (Adult Playwright)
Making a Pizza from the Garden by Jacqueline Guevara (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Food Apartheid by Sisi Reid (Adult Playwright)

City Blossoms Might Greens Student/Playwright Suleiman Juma chatting with his teacher Mary Ball about his play Making Hibiscus Juice.

Hibiscus Juice (Real Story) by Suleiman Juma (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Untitled by Brianna Shaffer (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Untitled by Micah Brown (Student SEED Sctiool of Washington, DC)
“Hmm, I Never Thought of It That Way Before” by Xavier Beairs (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Untitled by Edwyn Johnson (Student, SEED School of Wastiington, DC)
Caring About Earth by Nidia Aleinan (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Education Campus)
Untitled by Horns riazd (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Changing Mind by Adonis Pcrdomo (Student, City Blossoms at Cardozo Hjgh School)
The Interview by Avery Collins (Adult Playwright)
Coming Back to My Hometown, 10 Years Later by Aniya Riggins (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Untitled by Malik Fuell (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Untitled by Cameron Vines (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
A Whole New Place by Jeffrey Moore, IV (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Untitled by Taylor Bryan (Student, Young Playwrights’ Workshop)
Our DC Downfall by Kenneth N. Bethea (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Chocolate’s Dead by Farah Lawal Harris (Adult Playwright)
Untitled by Faith M. (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Untitled by Mercedes Todd (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)
Untitled by Kyree Crosland (Student, SEED School of Washington, DC)

Production Personnel
Farah Lawal Harris, Director and Producer
Louis E. Davis, Stage Manager and Sound Designer

Writing Workshop and Teaching Artists
YPT Program Director Jared Shamberger (City Blossoms’ Mighty Greens Youth Entrepreneurship Program and SEED School of Washington, DC) and YPT Program Associate Claudia Resales Waters (Young Playwrights’ Workshop)

Running Time: About two hours.

Silence Is Violence took place Monday, March 5, 2018, at the Josephine Butler Parks Center – 2437 15th Street NW, in Washington, DC.

LINK:
What to See This Week: Young Playwrights’ Theater Presents ‘Silence Is Violence: Whose Earth Is This, DC?’ by Sherrita Wilkins

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John Stoltenberg and Sherrita Wilkins
John Stoltenberg Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Sherrita Wilkins Sherrita Wilkins is a writer, storyteller, encourager, and joy-seeker. Since 2012, she’s been an active force in the DC arts scene through musical and long-form improv, dance and theater. Born and raised in Rochester, NY, Sherrita received a B.A. in Political Science with concentrations in International Relations, Spanish, and Philosophy from Nazareth College. She worked for six years in international development before founding Journey Bound, LLC where she serves as Chief Creativity Officer. Sherrita is also a licensed Realtor in Maryland and enjoys playing tennis.