Review: ‘The Heroes’ Tale’ (DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival)

An electrifying work of theater about the daughter of a white single mother who goes in search of her black father.

This power plant of a play knocked me out two years ago during the Capital Fringe Festival and knocked me out all over again in the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival. The Heroes’ Tale debuted in 2011, and in the years since it has been touring with much of the original cast and creative team intact. That longevity and loyalty are a testament to the play’s power in performance.

The four Heroes of ‘A Heroes’ Tale.’ Photo by Kwesi.

Four black men in their forties sit around a chess game in Dupont Circle park in 1980. They open the show singing silky four-part harmony, an upbeat song about themselves: They are the 1342 Dupont Circle Heroes. (“White folks pretended we didn’t exist so we started calling ourselves Heroes.”) They’ve been friends for more than 20 years, since before the area was gentrified. Their elaborate handshake seals their longtime bond, and they enjoy their Boone’s Farm wine.

The story the play subsequently tells—of what happened between 1960 and 1980—is a stunner. In one brief hour, The Heroes’ Tale by Cheryl Butler-Poole weaves themes of race hate and sexual assault into a gripping narrative of love, betrayal, and the longing to know one’s roots. Directed by her husband, Gregory Poole, the show features character acting of an extraordinarily assured caliber.

The way the tale unfolds—its structure, moving back and forth between 1960 and 1980, revelation by revelation, from point of view to point of view—is an important reason the play has such power and suspense.

Twenty years ago, three of the Heroes were convicted of raping a white woman (“Black steet gang rapes white girl” said a headline at the time), and they spent ten years in prison for the crime. They didn’t do it. They don’t just say they didn’t; they really didn’t. But who did do it, and with what consequences for whom, left me breathless by the end.

Autumn Butler (Thyme) in “The Heroes’ Tale.’ Photo by Kwesi.

Thyme (Autumn Butler) is a young woman who is both a character in the story and a witness to it.  She observes everything, from a stool upstage. And just when the Heroes’ male-male banter gets to be too much, she steps through the fourth wall and lets us know what she’s feeling.

The four Heroes are Feets (Gregory Poole), TJ (Manuel A. McCoy Sr.), Black Jimmy (Steve Langley), and Suede (Terrance Hawkins). Their lives have changed but they still harmonize. In a nice touch, they let us know how during the sixties they helped keep the neighborhood safe for white hippies and gays: “If you hung out here, you had Heroes’ protection.”

Autumn Butler (Thyme) and Dena Colvin (Mother) in ‘The Heroes’ Tale.’ Photo by Kwesi.

There’s a white woman we first meet in a 1960 park scene as a hippie, singing “Scarborough Fair” (Dena Colvin). She and Suede meet and get it on. As Mother, she will name her daughter Thyme. “I’m brown,” Thyme tells her Mother years later. Kids at school tease her and call her “a dop head.” Thyme sets out to find her father. She does not know—nor do we—whether she will discover “the missing piece” of her life or “a wrecking ball.”

Pivotal to the story is an actual street gang, a racist one: White Boy 1 (Ben Church), White Boy 2 (Mark Mumm), and White Boy 3 (Todd Leatherbury). Their joking is coarse. Their penchant for violence is vicious.

It’s a crafty work of theater that can lead us from not knowing what to expect to being mind-blown by what we find out. But it’s a brilliant work of theater that can link such narrative suspense to high-tension powerlines of race, class, and sex. What results in The Heroes’ Tale is electrifying.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

A Heroes’ Tale played June 29 and 30, 2019, at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC, as part of the 2019 DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John 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, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had 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.