A D.C. cemetery's dead come to life again on stage

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 5:38 PM

A woman threatens from a darkened stage: "I will come back and haunt you!" She stares at the audience. If a developer so much as removes a stone from Woodlawn Cemetery, a historic burial place in Southeast Washington, the woman intones: "I will haunt you. They do actually come, you know - the ghosts of those passed. My father's mother could see them."

These are not some fictional character's lines about a made-up place, but words actually spoken by a woman still living in Southeast Washington, about a real cemetery: "If you touch this place," Marie Ward says often, "I will haunt you."

"My mother and grandmother have a plot there, and three more can be buried there," says Ward, a retired federal worker, in an interview. She does not want to give her age. "I want to go there. I want to be buried there. I tell them all the time, 'I will haunt you,' because I am serious. I really want to go there."

Ward's story became part of the script of "Woodlawn," a new play produced by Young Playwrights' Theater, a D.C. nonprofit organization that teaches students to express themselves through playwriting. Since the play premiered at GALA Hispanic Theatre last month, it has toured schools, churches, museums and theaters throughout Washington. The last performance will be Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street NW.

The play was written by YPT's producing artistic director, David Andrew Snider, as a way of bringing the thousands of long-forgotten people buried at Woodlawn Cemetery back to life again, in a sense, through art. He also hopes the play will spur the city to better maintain the graveyard.

Snider says he had wanted to stage a performance about Woodlawn since 2004, when he and his wife bought a house on Texas Avenue SE.

"We knew there was something called Woodlawn Cemetery behind our property," he says, "but we pictured a manicured lawn and neat rows of tombstones."

One day, Snider climbed the hill behind his house: "I was amazed to find an overgrown forest with gravestones sticking out from the brush here and there."

He researched the cemetery and found the prominent names of those buried there.

"It quickly became apparent, as I talked with others throughout D.C., that people knew nothing about Woodlawn, which drove me even more to share it with others and start a community dialogue about the site and our neighborhood," he says.

Snider based the script on interviews he conducted with Ward 7 residents.

The play pits the preservation of the grand but forgotten cemetery against a push for gentrification east of the Anacostia River. The cemetery's 22.5 acres contain the graves of more than 36,000 black people - some who were moved from unmarked graves in other cemeteries in the city into more than a dozen mass graves at Woodlawn.

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