“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.
In sync with community
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.”