Adele Robey took one look at the 5,000 square feet of possibility in Anacostia and decided it had to be hers. “They took me down here and I said: ‘This is it,’ ” she recounted, as the sounds of drills and saws whirred and wheezed in the former warehouse on Shannon Place SE. “I immediately fell in love with it. I just loved the feeling.”
And quick as you can say, “Where do I sign?” Robey was back in the business of defying expectations, of taking a grimy space in an unlikely part of town and turning it into a home for the making of plays. The last time she did this, with her husband, Bruce, at her side on a blighted block of H Street NE back in 2002, the space became the H Street Playhouse. Cafes, clubs and other theaters followed, and the neighborhood became resurgent.
Now, an industrial side street on the edge of Anacostia’s historic district is getting the Robey touch, and many people are waiting to see whether once again it proves to be magic.
This week marks the opening of the Anacostia Playhouse, an impressively flexible, high-ceilinged theater with room for 150 patrons and the dreams of playmakers and musicians who want to help a performing arts culture take root in an overlooked part of town ripe for a renaissance.
Theater builders in Washington have time and again shown themselves to be harbingers — even catalysts — for the rejuvenation of beleaguered parts of the city on which others gave up. Joy Zinoman transformed an old auto showroom on the needle-strewn corner of 14th and P streets NW into the award-winning Studio Theatre and ignited a decades-long makeover of the now-chichi Logan Circle. After the Robeys ventured onto H Street, just down the block, lawyer-philanthropists Paul Sprenger and Jane Lang rescued the Atlas movie house from decrepitude; it is now a bustling performing arts center.
Slowly, Anacostia, one of the city’s poorest communities, has taken steps toward building an infrastructure for the arts as a way of providing opportunities for residents and developing an environment to lure visitors and dollars. The question is whether Robey’s gamble on Shannon Place — backed by substantial grants from the city — is a symbolic turning point for a geographically remote part of town that wants to grow culturally and economically but that also wants to hold onto its character.
“I just think it’s an exciting time to be east of the river,” said Edmund Fleet, executive director of THEARC, a nonprofit arts and education organization that opened eight years ago on a campus on Mississippi Avenue SE. Fleet views the Playhouse as an advancement for an idea of Anacostia as a community of artists. “I really feel like it’s an opportunity for artists and arts groups to define this niche, because unlike U Street and H Street, we’re not just a neat little block. The arts and the creative economy can lead the revival east of the river.”
Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration also sees Robey’s project as an important step in what might be described as a soft new footprint of redevelopment: The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities awarded Robey $200,000, half the cost of renovating the space.
“Studies have shown the impact of the arts in revitalizing neighborhoods and the quality of life for residents,” said Lionell Thomas, the commission’s executive director. “That’s why 1,100 new people are arriving in the city each month, partly because of the role of the arts and what the arts mean to this city.”
The location in which Robey is investing — linked to the rest of the city by the rebuilt 11th Street bridges, yet at a huge distance psychologically for many Washingtonians — remains a formidable challenge. How the new Playhouse will draw on an essential resource, regular theatergoers from other parts of town, remains uncertain. So far, a couple of companies, the young Pinky Swear Productions and the more established Theater Alliance, have committed to renting the space for a single production and will see whether their audiences follow them to Anacostia. Theater Alliance christens the space with the official opening this weekend of “Broke-ology” by Nathan Louis Jackson.
“It would have been a lot more difficult decision if they weren’t so close to the Metro,” Pinky Swear’s co-artistic director, Karen Lange, said, referring to the nearby Anacostia station, the next outbound stop on the Green Line after the burgeoning Navy Yard-Ballpark station. “It’s only about a four blocks’ walk, and it’s through a part of Anacostia that doesn’t look scary, and there’s some street parking. The other concerns are that it’s new and people may not have heard of it yet. But if somebody doesn’t rent it, then it’s never going to become a known place.”
The issues Lange brings up are reminiscent of concerns that were expressed a decade ago about H Street, which is soon to get a significant transit boost in the form of its long-awaited streetcar service.
Of course, the worries of outsiders are only half the equation: Some residents of Anacostia wonder whether a theater-for-rent such as the Playhouse is going to accommodate their interests and tastes, or whether it is merely an early-warning sign of disruptive gentrification.
John Johnson, a playwright-director who lives in Anacostia, is already booked into the Playhouse for two nights in late September with a piece he’s written, “I Am Anacostia,” that channels voices from the community. He is excited by Robey’s venture. But he says he’s also heard the “small-talk conversations” in this overwhelmingly black neighborhood that naturally arise “when you see a white lady doing this, you wonder how these relationships were built.”
“Those are still some of the questions, how folks are tied to resources, why do some things come easier to some people than others,” observed Johnson, who produced several of his own works at H Street Playhouse. “I would be just as skeptical if I didn’t have a relationship with her before.”
Robey, who lives on Capitol Hill and is developing the space with her daughter Julia Robey Christian, says that in her many meetings in the community, “we’ve had nothing but offers of support.”
Still, she had not been sure she was ever going back into the theater business after Bruce’s death, in 2009. “I sold the building when my husband died,” she said of the H Street Playhouse. The new owner leased the space back to her for three years. When that lease ran out, the playhouse closed, and the city’s theater community, starved for usable small spaces, lost a valuable property.
Ultimately, though, the bug bit again, and she began a search for a space. Her eye was drawn for emotional reasons east of the Anacostia River. “Coming over the bridge did it for me,” she said, sitting in the Playhouse’s spacious, nearly completed lobby. “My husband was born in Anacostia.”
Development fever is such these days in this city, Robey said, that nothing suitable was for sale. But the nondescript brick warehouse on Shannon was available for lease, and the landlords were willing to grant generous terms, with a five-year agreement and an option for five years more. Robey and her daughter enlisted a D.C. architectural firm, PGN Architects, to design the property as a black-box theater with seating for up to 150 people. More than half of the $400,000 renovation costs were paid for through grants, including the $200,000 from the D.C. arts commission.
“This seems to be an acknowledgment that what we’re trying to do here has validity,” said Duane Gautier, chief executive of Arch Development, a nonprofit organization that has operated in Anacostia since 1986 and over the past few years has been focusing its efforts on the arts. Among other things, Arch Development operates the Anacostia Arts Center on Good Hope Road SE, which has six gallery spaces for artists and entrepreneurs seeking to start up micro businesses.
Gautier says the emphasis on bringing in the arts has come from residents themselves. “We met with the community, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t want any more social services, we want things we can do,’ ” he said. “Our goal is to bring in a diverse number of venues that ensure things are open three or four nights a week, to generate the kind of retail or restaurants the residents want.”
You can, in fact, sense a certain excitement in the air at the arrival of this unlikely new neighbor.
On the street outside the theater on a recent afternoon, a local real estate investor poked his head into the Playhouse construction when a taxi pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. “What is this? A theater?” the driver asked, his eyes widening in amazement. Told that a new play would soon be staged there, he drove away, beaming.
Robey is hoping word spreads quickly — and not just in Anacostia — about the amenities of her space, which is two or three cuts above her former, not always user-friendly place on H Street. “We wanted bathrooms in the front,” she said, an allusion to the awkward configuration of her old theater, in which actors and patrons shared those facilities. On Shannon, she has built offices, dressing rooms and a technical booth on a new floor above the theater, as well as that small-theater luxury item: a rehearsal room.
One thorn that is giving Robey misery: the endlessly delayed Internal Revenue Service process to grant her theater nonprofit status so that she can apply for support from foundations and others.
But even as the red tape unspools, the Playhouse is stirring to life. “I’m honored to be the first,” said Candace L. Feldman, director of Theater Alliance’s “Broke-ology,” an African American family drama that began performances Wednesday. To her and the company’s artistic director, Colin Hovde, the play seems in sync with its new digs.
“Since I’ve been in Anacostia, I’ve had an opportunity to meet the locals, listen to them talking about the neighborhood changing. The way it parallels the way characters talk in ‘Broke-ology’ is kind of eerie,” she added.
The test of any theater is in the magnitude of delight it gives to audiences and the imaginative power it unleashes in artists. Johnson, the Anacostia playwright, says he hopes the community will see it as the local asset it can be.
“All those lobbyists and think tanks on Capitol Hill predict the future, but on the corners where I live there’s a think tank, too,” he said. “I do want to take those stories and put them on a stage.”