D.C. students recast 'Our Town' for the big city

'R Town' is an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town,' re-imagined by the young writers of the DC Creative Writing Workshop, based at Hart Middle School. The screenplay and film reflect life, love and death in the Congress Heights neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mortality casts long shadows over Grover's Corners, the setting for "Our Town," Thornton Wilder's 1938 stage classic about life and love in a New Hampshire village. In the last act, the narrator, known only as the "Stage Manager," lists the newest occupants of the cemetery, some buried before their time: Mrs. Gibbs, swept away by pneumonia; Mr. Stimson, a suicide; and Wally Webb, the child whose appendix burst on a Boy Scout trip.

In "R Town," adapted to Southeast Washington by students and alumni of Hart Middle School, the cemetery scene includes a real and much longer list of those who died young in their community, with nicknames such as J-Rock, Popcorn, Butta Rocks, Sinquan, Lip, L'il Ed, Brandon, Swag and Tank.

"Out here, it doesn't matter what kind of shoes you wore or car you drove, but there's something about everyone that does matter," says Crystal Bullock in the play. Bullock, a Hart graduate and a junior at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a public charter school, is one of several who shared the Stage Manager role. "That's the part that stays with us forever. How we remember them tells us who they were."

For the past 15 years, under the guidance of Nancy Schwalb, executive director of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, students at the Congress Heights middle school have taken a classic play and rewritten it line by line for their world. Most of the productions have been re-imagined Greek dramas, including "Lysistrata: Sistas on Strike," and "The Persians: Tragedy in the Hood."

Schwalb loved the scripts her students produced, but she found that the one-time live performances in Hart's sweltering auditorium were usually frustrating. Kids had trouble remembering lines and projecting their voices. This year, she arranged to have it videotaped by a local director, Tom Mallan, who shot it in bits over eight weeks.

"This way, their voices were heard. It makes all the difference in the world," she said. The students will also have a DVD to keep.

The 1-hour 5-minute production was screened for students and families Thursday night at the UPO Petey Greene Center, with Hollywood-style velvet ropes and a red carpet rolled out onto Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Some students were skeptical of Schwalb's choice. But as they grew familiar with the story, they came to see the play not as a quaint period piece but as something that spoke universally to them about the fragility of life and the need to value every moment.

"Cherish life. You never know when it's going to be your time to go," said Renita Williams, 17, a Ballou High School senior and Hart graduate who plays Emily -- renamed Wynter -- the young bride destined to die in childbirth. Two years ago, her older sister Terry died of asthma.

As they rewrote and rehearsed, the sudden losses in their own lives sent ripples through their work. In March, Hart's popular dean of students, William Brockenberry, 45, died during heart surgery. On May 26, Eugene Dixon, 17, a close friend of a couple of cast members, was fatally shot outside an Oxon Hill pawnshop by a man with whom he had an ongoing dispute, police said.

"Life's too short. Can't spend it angry, holding grudges," said Jessica Carpenter, also a Hart graduate and a senior at Luke C. Moore Academy.

Students also saw "Our Town" as a way to bring Southeast -- renamed Southside in their retelling -- to life for those who know it only from headlines. "We have more churches than liquor stores, although many people think it's the other way around," one of the Stage Managers says in the play. And although bands such as TCB, MOB and CCB have taken the place of Junkyard, Backyard and Northeast Groovers, "Chuck Brown is forever," the narrators say in unison.

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