In an effort to illuminate the historic and ongoing impacts of racial discrimination in land and property use laws in Hyattsville, MD, Mapping Racism Project, an initiative led by the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, Joe’s Movement Emporium, Prince George’s African-American Museum & Cultural Center, and Ally Theatre Company commissioned playwright Doug Robinson to script a 30-45 minute play drawing on local research and firsthand stories about the racist impact of “restrictive deed covenants” in the shared history of Hyattsville and surrounding communities.
Welcome to Sis’s is the play that evolved from this endeavor. Produced by Ally Theatre Company, it was originally performed at Joe’s Movement Emporium in May 2019. Ty Hallmark, Ally’s founding and producing artistic director, noted that during its first run, “the play brought in over 200 community members, including the mayors of Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, and North Brentwood.” Welcome to Sis’s will have a reprisal performance at Joe’s Movement Emporium from February 28 through March 1, in honor of Black History Month.
Director Angelisa Gillyard observes that Welcome to Sis’s has piqued the curiosity of many local residents about an often-overlooked piece of local history: “It has drawn out a lot of the people who live in the community, and the surrounding community, who did not know that Sis’s Tavern existed.”
The play is based on a small snapshot of the life of Marie “Sis” Walls, the owner of Sis’ Tavern. The play’s setting is the tavern, which was located at 4516 41st Avenue in North Brentwood. Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey patronized the place, often playing late-night shows there after performing at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC.
Sis’ Tavern provided the African American community with a safe spot away from white racism during a time of not only restrictive deed covenants but also social segregation during the 1950s.
Constructed in 1912, the structure first operated as a grocery store, and Maryland Historical Trust records note that “a covenant of the property banned the sale of ‘intoxicating liquors’ as long as the original principals of the sale and their descendants lived within a one-half mile radius of the property.” Marie Walls began leasing the property during the 1950s and 1960s and it became known as Sis’ Tavern and served alcoholic beverages. Walls purchased the property in 1966. Sis’ Tavern closed sometime during 1969 or 1970.
Tai Alexander, who plays Sis, stated that “Sis Walls was one of the trailblazers in the North Brentwood community in PG. She was a dreamer and entrepreneur. She opened up one of the first or most prominent businesses in the community.”
As a space for African Americans operated and owned by a local African American resident, Sis’ Tavern was both a social hub and a source of pride for its community.
The play engages not only the challenges African American residents of Prince George’s County encountered with restrictive covenants that dictated where they could and could not purchase homes, but also demonstrates the resiliency of Sis and other residents in the community.
Walls’ presence and success in the community “defies the stereotype of Black women being maids or working in service because of limited opportunities,” Gillyard reminds us. And Sis encouraged other community members to act on their dreams and not allow segregation, oppression, and racism to squash them.
While the play serves to examine the success and fortitude of one African American woman business owner, it also touches on the obstacles that can prevent others from turning dreams into reality. The character James faces a potentially life-threatening encounter with two white men when trying to obtain his business license. Without fortitude, mission, and a bit of luck, James’s goal may have been thwarted and his dream deferred.
Gillyard directs Robinson’s play to tease out the nuances and dichotomies of Black life during segregation that Robinson carefully crafts: limited economic opportunities within the dominant culture, but salient economic and social opportunities within the segregated Black community.
Both Alexander and Gillyard hope that the audience will connect with the rich history of the North Brentwood community presented in the play. They also want the audience to gain a better understanding of how restrictive deed covenants forced African Americans to make the best of where they were allowed to live.
Welcome to Sis’s shines a light on one piece of the continuum of limited property rights and discriminatory real estate practices as they affect African Americans. As the legacy of restrictive deed covenants undergirds the current onslaught of gentrification that African American communities are experiencing not only in Prince George’s County and metro DC, but also throughout the United States, the issues that the play raises are both timely and necessary.