In our current political and cultural stressful times, how can theater make a difference, not just to those who are in-person patrons but to a wider community in the DMV and into American hinterlands?
In a recent conversation with Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, the answer to the question I posed came quickly and passionately. Smith had been in downtown DC in June 2020 when there was forceful Federal intervention in peaceful protests in response to the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
“We are storytellers, there is a need to tell stories. I want to focus on these times. This is our lives.” She went on to say that even without live theater available for storytelling at the moment because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “I have an obsession to continue to communicate with our audiences. A film is the best way right now to tell a story.”
The clear-sighted, penetrating new film Arena Stage just released, The 51st State, takes on “a fight for racial justice that became a fight for statehood,” said Smith. It is a film she began to conceive after the June 2020 events she witnessed when the current Administration inundated Washington with military forces and Federal police units with military vehicles during local protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody. It was the time of an infamous Presidential photo op in front of a DC church with Bible in hand.
Smith described The 51st State as “about the real inequity in Washington, DC, not being a state,” given that Congress maintains much control over the District of Columbia’s finances and laws under the current limited home rule. She noted that there are 700,000 citizens of Washington, DC, more than in her previous home state of Alaska (or Wyoming for that matter).
In an open, frank conversation, Smith indicated that some reasons why DC is not a state are because “of race and the thought that DC is a Democrat city.” Noted in The 51st State film is Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States….”
While the vast Federal military and police forces may no longer be so visible, as I write this report there is this September 17, 2020, Washington Post headline, which depicts the power of the Federal government over the citizens of Washington: “Federal officials stockpiled munitions, sought ‘heat ray’ device before clearing Lafayette Square.”
To create the new 60-minute film, Smith gathered well-known actors and creative talents to craft her vision of a nuanced, hyper-local docudrama film. They all succeeded terrifically. From my viewing, it is no one-sided screed made with a pointed finger and delivered in a loud voice. It is instead an insightful, sharply pointed, quietly presented film to view and then ponder to start a lively conversation.
The 51st State is composed of 10 five-minute vignettes with a clear arc combining protests for racial justice with statehood for DC. The film is based upon interviews with 11 local residents by DMV-area playwrights, who then turned the interview material into vital monologues. The playwrights included Dane Figueroa Edidi, Farah Lawal Harris, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Teshonne Nicole Powell, Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe, Gregory Keng Strasser, Deb Sivigny, Mary Hall Surface, Aria Velz, and Karen Zacarías.
DC citizens interviewed and then portrayed in the film were a diverse group including first-time protestors, a Washington college professor whose family lived in DC for generations, artists trying to make a difference, an attorney originally from Arkansas, people of deep faith including a pastor and a mom of two young children as well as a retired couple and several folk searching within themselves how to take action even as they were stressed and fearful. Also portrayed were a social media underground activist, a young woman who brought her mother to the protests, a young man who made signs with QR codes to provide help, and someone who was in the infamous Swann Street police round-up and spoke about how that evening changed his life in an affirmative way.
Filmed in a number of different locations around DC, the characters were performed with fascinating deep purpose and conviction by Sherri L. Edelen, Michael Glenn, James J. Johnson, Joy Jones, Jason B. McIntosh, Gary L. Perkins III, Todd Scofield, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Dani Stoller, Justin Weaks, and Jacob Yeh.
The film’s overall director was Molly Smith along with Deputy Artistic Director Seema Sueko, Director of Community Engagement/Senior Artistic Advisor Anita Maynard-Losh, Everyman Theatre Artistic Associate and artist Paige Hernandez, and Arena’s Master Teaching Artist Psalmayene 24, who directed the monologues.
Let me well praise how the film scenes are connected by riveting original music, jazzy, hip-hop and funk, composed by DJ and sound designer Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez. When heard under news reel footage from actual events, the music became a living presence, like additional un-stealth actors.
The 51st State is not unlike an Arena Stage Power Play about power and politics and Washington, DC. But in this case it’s about everyday people living through unexpected events and voicing divergent points of view about how they feel and what can they do. Some are scared. Some are unsure. But they want to do something, to take some action. Molly Smith and The 51st State succeed with a vision and mission to be part of the life blood of the DC community. Pass it on.
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermision
The 51st State is available for streaming on the Arena Stage website and YouTube channel.