“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.”
Theater bug returns
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.