Retroactivist: The Black Power of Petey Greene

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

"Now, D.C. is Chocolate City, y'all know that, right?" booms the man in the navy blue leisure pants, long, belted vest and peach-toned long-sleeve shirt with the collar open wide. He's standing on the steps in front of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in yesterday's sweltering midday heat, holding court before a crowd sporting a similar look: lots of polyester and plenty of towering Afros.

"They want to keep us down because white folks are afraid of what's going to happen if we stand up!" he yells, using a bullhorn to whip up his audience. Cheers go up. Across the reflecting pool, a group of 20 antiwar protesters march in a circle, chanting, "We want peace! We want peace!" and waving posters in the air.

Another febrile Saturday afternoon in the nation's capital. Tourists with cameras gawk. Residents pass by with nary a second glance at what's second nature in this town.

"Why do you think they want us in jail?" the man hollers, and a cry goes up in response. "They know that if black folks stand tall, we're gonna have something called black power, y'all!"

And then someone calls, "Cut!"

And the man in the fake Afro and fake sideburns -- actor Don Cheadle -- applauds the extras for their performances and starts rapidly unbelting the taupe-and-blue-striped concoction he describes as a "a beautiful vest." Nearby, a gaggle of teenage girls allowed to get close to the set simultaneously snap photographs and call friends on their cellphones. "What's the movie? What's the movie?" they say back and forth to each other.

No one gives them an answer, and it's a pretty safe bet if they'd been told their faces would draw a blank.

Cheadle, star of "Hotel Rwanda" and "Crash," is portraying the legendary Washington television and radio talk show host Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, who stood on these very steps to protest poverty and racism 38 long years ago. Dead since 1984, Greene -- an ex-con and ex-drug addict who made his way from the Lorton penitentiary all the way to dinner at the White House -- is getting his story told, Hollywood-fashion, in a film called "Talk to Me." "Outside of Washington, D.C., I think very few people know of Petey Greene," said Cheadle in an interview Friday. Inside Washington, too, if they're not of a certain age or haven't had the stories passed down.

Described in an authorized biography by local author Lurma Rackley as a man "who conned, rhymed, 'speechified' and laughed his way to heights he hardly dared imagine," Greene was known for his outlandish humor and wardrobe and his outsize efforts to help the young, the old, the poor and the former cons like himself.

His youth in Washington was a blur of poverty, crime and addiction that landed him in Lorton in 1960, sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery. One day, he helped talk down a suicidal fellow inmate; that earned him an early parole. In a life turn that is legendary, he then became an activist, television personality ("Petey Green's Washington" aired on WDCA-TV) and radio talk show host (WOL's "Rapping With Petey Greene").

By the time of his death, he was so well-known and beloved that more than 8,000 people lined up outside Union Wesley AME Zion Church on Michigan Avenue NE to pay tribute.

"It's not necessarily a heroic depiction," said Cheadle, who feels the script captures Greene as honestly as it could. "I think that was his whole thing, being straight-up. He saw what he thought were injustices, what he thought was right or wrong. It's his own skewed vision, but he had really a kind of inarguable position about most things, I find.

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