For Center Stage artistic director, a big debut online with ‘My America’


Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage in Baltimore. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
July 1

Kwame Kwei-Armah could use being English as his excuse for not spending July 4 celebrating America’s independence. He’s not. In fact, he plans to watch the fireworks at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. But before he cracks open a Natty Boh, lights a sparkler or cooks hot dogs on a grill, he plans to sit in front of his computer and watch the new streaming theatrical documentary he brought to fruition as artistic director of Center Stage.

“My America” will begin streaming Friday on Fandor, a by-subscription film Web site that’s an art-house rival to Netflix. Directed by Hal Hartley, the film compiles 21 of the best monologues commissioned by Center Stage for its 2012 “My America” project. That effort solicited 10-minute contributions from 50 playwrights living in the United States. Center Stage then hired actors, who learned the monologues in a day and recited them for Hartley’s cameras in a New York studio.

All the monologues are posted on the Center Stage’s Web site. This new film version is a more streamlined series of ruminations on race, religion and the American Dream. A few come off as liberal rants. But other playwrights eschew politics to tell poignant tales; for example, Melanie Marnich’s account of her Serbian grandparents’ emigration story.

Four regional playwrights have monologues included in the film: James Magruder, Gwydion Suilebhan, David “Native Son” Ross and Femi “The Dri Fish” Lawal. Ross and Lawal are prose poets who perform under the moniker, the 5th L. In a sunny, well-light studio looking out over a city street, the camera cuts back and forth as they rap about “cops cruising on MLK” and “Kardashian-sized thighs.” It’s an edgy cultural commentary, delivered by writers who aren’t camera shy. Theirs is a staged performance, and that’s intentional, even though Kwei-Armah said he gave Hartley little direction about what the final version of “My America” should look like.

“The only thing I wanted was to feel like [the monologues] sit in this world between theater and film,” he said. “I think [Hartley] did that brilliantly.”


Johnny Wu in FLATLAND by Lauren Yee, as part of MY AMERICA. (Courtesy Center Stage)

There are no local public showings planned for “My America,” but Kwei-Armah will head to New York on July 9 for a screening at the IFC Center, which will be followed by a Q&A. Beyond that, he’s not sure what life “My America” will have. He hasn’t thought about packaging the monologues for social studies classes, or audition rooms.

“I find it very difficult to work out who the audience is. Who isn’t this for?” Kwei-Armah said. “I hope that many people download and stream it and take a look. It was never meant to be a movie, and now it is.”

Gala to get more grand

Gala Hispanic Theatre will soon put its name in lights, thanks to donors and a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The theater had until June 30 — the close of its fiscal year — to match a $50,000 grant from the commission. As of last week, Gala still had $30,000 to go, but on Monday, an anonymous donor put Gala over the top. Two other donors each pledged $5,000, and the theater was able to secure the city funding. The money will be used to remodel the theater’s 14th Street NW entrance and install an LED marquee displaying information about events.

“We are really excited, because it is going to change the whole facade,” said Rebecca Medrano, Gala’s executive director. “It will look not like an office building entrance but an entrance to a real theater.”

Since 2005, Gala has been presenting Spanish-language programming in the historic Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights. But the cinema’s original entrance, at the corner of 14th Street and Park Road, is used by Z Burger restaurant. Gala’s nondescript door is up the block.

“People were forever getting confused and trying to go in the corner of the building,” Medrano said. “This will be a huge help for street traffic.”

The new marquee will be framed by new construction that is in keeping with the Art Deco building. City officials have approved the design, Medrano said, and construction will begin soon.

In addition to securing the matching grant, Gala’s fiscal-year accomplishments include paying off its $840,000 construction loan from the renovation.

“We finally got rid of that debt, so that’s exciting,” Medrano said. But audience numbers were lower for Gala this year, and she expects the theater to end the year with between $20,000 and $50,000 shortfall on its $1.6 million operating budget.

Car crashes at Arena

District police are still unsure what caused a car to crash into Arena Stage on Saturday night. According to a report released Tuesday, a vehicle carrying four passengers hit the theater around 10:20 p.m. Both the side and front air bags deployed on impact, and the car sustained significant front bumper and hood damage. One passenger was able to get out of the car on his own. The fire department had to extricate two passengers from the back seat. The driver complained of neck and hand injuries and abdominal pain.

Arena Stage general manager Ian Pool’s initial assessment was that the building was not damaged. A theater spokeswoman said the vehicle struck a concrete wall directly under the terrace. That wall is not load bearing, and it did not sustain any internal or external damage, she said.

Patrons had already left Arena when the crash occurred, and Sunday’s final performance of “Healing Wars” went on as scheduled.

Ritzel is a freelance writer. Washington Post staff writers Martin Weil and Peter Hermann contributed additional reporting.

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