Young writers share a neighborhood's stories of change

Young playwrights: Alfonso Escobar, left, Siera Toney and Nanci Rivera.
Young playwrights: Alfonso Escobar, left, Siera Toney and Nanci Rivera. (Michael S. Williamson/washington Post)
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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gentrification was the subject the students in the Young Playwrights' Theater were assigned to tackle and make into a play. Some students had never heard of the word, although they were living in the midst of it, walking through it each school day in Columbia Heights where their after-school program on playwriting is located. Watching stores go up and trees come down, and neighbors disappearing and new people coming in and the bright lights of Target and Best Buy replacing dingy old buildings. At least some people thought they were dingy.

The students didn't know the word gentrification until their playwright teacher explained and wrote it on the board in the Young Playwrights' Theater, a nonprofit organization that runs in-school and after-school programs dedicated to helping District students express themselves through playwriting.

The students, ages 14 to 21 from high schools around the city, were told to collaborate and come up with plays that explain their worlds so that an audience walking into the GALA Hispanic Theatre might learn something from them.

Their teacher, professional playwright Elizabeth Andrews, commanded them to blow air into their characters, making them more than one-dimensional, stereotyped cutouts speaking in stilted dialogue. Write what you know, she told them. Infuse the plays with rising tension. Make somebody a hero and a villain.

When they finished the first drafts, Andrews would say: Go back and mess up those happy endings because gentrification is so much more complicated than that. It is too easy to say that this urban struggle falls along race lines. It doesn't always. It is too easy to say that it is determined by age -- the young in, the old out. It isn't. Too easy to say some people always win and some people always lose. Too easy to say people don't get along. Sometimes, they do.

Try it again.

"We are trying to provide a forum for people to come together and talk," Andrews, 34, said. A lot goes on in neighborhood blogs in gentrified neighborhoods, she says. "People insulting each other. If there is a crime, sometimes somebody will say there was a shooting on whatever street, and people will come back and be very dismissive of a certain population and say, 'That is just the kids hanging around the Metro. Or the people from Section 8 housing.' I don't know that they would say that to somebody's face. . . . I think it is very different if you actually get people in the same room. The play is a starting point."

Fourteen weeks later, the plays were finished.

On Monday night, people from the community streamed into the theater at 14th Street and Columbia Road NW. Outside, a winter rain fell. The bright yellow and orange lights of stores reflected in pools of rain glazing the sidewalk. Pedestrians strolled by with umbrellas. The signs from gourmet takeouts flashed, promising organic baked goods. The Target across the street beckoned. Fabulous condos with lofts and big glass windows towered above the street. Traffic swooshed by. Unless you knew, you would not have remembered what this street looked like less than 20 years ago, before gentrification. Drugs. Crime. Abandoned buildings. Darkness.

Inside the theater, ushers handed out programs, announcing: "The Heights of Change: How can theater help us bridge the gentrification gap?" The lights dimmed against a pale blue backdrop.

The students from the after-school program sat in the front row, watching professional actors read from the students' scripts.

Clare Rock, 14, a ninth-grade student at Woodrow Wilson Senior High, and Samantha Brew, 15, a 10th-grader at McKinley Technology High School, wrote "Take Away the Guilt," about trees having to be cut down for a new grocery store called the "Happy Tummy."

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