Magic Time!: ‘East of the River’ at Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab

A case study in how theater can open community conversation artfully and authentically.

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Community engagement is a noble aspiration for a lot of theaters around town. The challenge is to make theater matter to folks who live in the nabe. To connect the institution to the community, to be responsive to their needs, not just the theater’s. To figure out how to build audiences through show-related local partnerships and such.

All sorts of community-engagement initiatives get tried. Some theaters’ efforts fare okay, some not so much. It’s a big deal and a thorny problem, especially in DC, where income inequality is worse than anywhere else in the U.S. And truth be told, most DC theater caters to those who have—even on those occasions when the show being produced is about those who have not.

Often overlooked is perhaps the most obvious community-engagement tactic: Find out what matters to the community already and then make theater out of it.

The cast of ‘East of the River’ in rehearsal. Photo by Star Johnson.

I witnessed an extraordinary instance of success at this: a one-night-only workshop of an original musical called East of the River, based on interviews with residents of Anacostia and presented to a capacity crowd in the black box at the Anacostia Arts Center by a fledgling project called the Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab. The talk-back/community conversation that followed was on fire. I cannot recall seeing a post-show audience as roused and revved up.

The idea began with Star Johnson, who’s a talent to watch. Upon learning about the Anacostia Arts Center Residency Incubator program, she put in an application to work with the local community to devise an original musical about Anacostia, which she would direct. The result was a one-act musical so alive with relatable characters, emotional specificity, musical integrity, lyrical felicity, and social-justice urgency that it felt like a mini Rent.

It was not a reviewable performance. Everyone was on book. But I can report that the material, the method of its creation, and the performers’ conviction made the evening galvanizing.

‘East of the River’ Writer/Director Star Johnson.

Johnson wrote the book and collaborated with others on lyrics and music (see credits below). The premise of the storyline is brilliant: It supposes that Whole Foods is going to open a store in Anacostia, which is one of DC’s largest food deserts (so-called because residents have no nearby access to healthy food). In fact, Whole Foods has no reported plans to do so, but that only makes the setup all the more a provocation.

And what’s remarkable is how many divergent community perspectives the musical represented. This was no one-note agitprop for or against gentrification.

A character named Alvin comes on like a hotshot in favor of the new store. He’s got an urban planning degree and he advocates zealously for the city’s plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

ALVIN: Look around, the city is evolving
Things are changing
People moving
Has to be a way to mix new with old

A character named Chris sees the downside:

CHRIS: Yeah, Al, well a Whole Foods opening means I need to get the hell out of Anacostia because that’s not what I value in my neighborhood. It’s gonna bring the kind of people that are afraid of the type of people who live here. And this doesn’t need to be a neighborhood based on fear.

Variations on that debate run throughout. In addition, there is some wonderfully sharp humor. For instance, a musical number based on “the oft-forgotten August Wilson play… Two Negros and a Big Box Store,” sung by Dee and Tam,

Keep your head down low
No eye contact
Be unassuming
Blend in…

They deliberate whether to wear their hoodies up or down. Knowing full well the risk, they decide to wear them up.

There are eloquent choral refrains, such as “When will the broken be whole again,” and anecdotes that ring painfully true, such as:

DEE: First time I ever went into a Starbucks alone, I was 14, in Dupont Circle and….my friends and I were accused of plotting to steal the tip jar. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. That shit stuck with me.

and:

ALVIN: There’s nothing more hurtful than walking on MLK past a liquor store and the homeless man sitting there asking for change is the same kid you used to sit next to in class and you wonder – what happened?

In the all-company Finale, a character named Wanda solos on an anthem of resilience:

WANDA: Rivers form a barrier
No one’s gonna bury us
This is our city
Born and raised never went away
This is our city
No one’s gonna bury us
No one’s gonna take away
The beauty, the spirit
The grit, the soul, the roots, oh
No one’s gonna bury us
No one’s gonna bury us

East of the River was of the audience, by the audience, and for the audience. It was a case study in how theater can open community conversation artfully and authentically. All of DC theater—and all of DC for that matter—would do well to take note.

See NPR’s story on the production,
“Musical ‘East Of The River’ Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia”

Running Time: 35 minutes

A concert staging of East of the River played June 29, 2018, presented by The Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab performing at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC.

The Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab has announced a second performance of East of the River July 25 at 8 pm at Anacostia Arts Center. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and seating is limited. Tickets are available online. For inquiries, contact anacostiamusical@gmail.com.

Cast
Alvin: LJ Moses
Dee: Karen Elle
Yvonne: Patricia Williams Dugueye
Nikki: Brittney Sankofa
Wanda: Miriam Bowden
Tam: Preshona Ambri
Jazz: Alesia Ashley
Kel: Amber Waltz
Chris: Nicole Summons

Band
Julian Johnson, Keyboard
Amber Waltz, Guitar
Boom Washington, Percussion
____
Musical Numbers
Introduction (Company)
Manchego Cheese (Nikki)
Becky and Bryce (Chris & Kel)
How Do You Get to Anacostia? (Tam & Jazz)
We Can’t Stop (Alvin)
Two Negros and a Big Box Store (Dee & Tam)
Out With the Old (Company)
Back At Me (Jazz)
Finale (Wanda)

Talk-back/community conversation moderated by Harvey Fitz
___
Book by Star Johnson
Lyrics by Star Johnson, Preshona Ambri, Alesia Ashley, with contributions from Sisi Reid
Music by Julian Johnson, Amber Waltz, Boom Washington, Star Johnson, and Preshona Ambri
Arrangements by Julian Johnson, Boom Washington, and Amber Waltz

Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab is a part of the Residency Incubator program at Anacostia Arts Center and sponsored by ARCH Development.

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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.