She cries: a slow, quiet, shy cry. It's nerves, stress, exhaustion. Or it might be stage fright.
" 'Capers," the one-woman-play Anu Yadav is writing and starring in -- over a year in the making, "based on interviews, interaction and observation" -- is a work in progress. Until Tuesday, late into the night, Yadav was still making cuts: a line in a monologue here, a dialogue there. She'll perform it in a staged reading tonight through Saturday at the D.C. Arts Center in Adams Morgan. Last night, for an almost standing-room only crowd, she performed it, script in hand, for the residents and former residents of 'Capers -- shorthand for the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing project in Southeast Washington, not far from the proposed major league baseball stadium.
Slowly, as Yadav has witnessed, this neighborhood of 707 units -- with about 400 families and 300 seniors -- is disappearing, its residents moving away. Buildings are being boarded up; Little Star, the Korean-owned corner store down the street, was recently bought out, all because of Hope VI, a federal grant program that gives the District money to turn public housing projects like 'Capers into mixed-income neighborhoods where original residents can later come back -- what some people would call gentrification and others would call revitalization.
It's the complicated story of a changing city. Indeed, amid the cranes that signal development in the District, residents in the projects -- some with working-class jobs, others unemployed, many with children -- are outsiders of sorts, like Yadav. Of Indian descent, born in the Midwest, schooled at Bryn Mawr just outside Philadelphia, she isn't "one of them" but rather one of the countless twentysomethings who've moved into the District, diploma and dreams in hand. But her life doesn't revolve around Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan or Capitol Hill, but here, where kids like 10-year-old Jasmine call her Miss Anu and 52-year-old moms like Miss Frazier share their life stories.
"I thought it was going to be really fun," Yadav said over dinner the night before the reading. A Columbia Heights resident who works part time as an office assistant, she knows more people in 'Capers than in her own neighborhood.
In the beginning of the play, as the narrator, she explains, "I like acting, I like writing, I like talking to people. I thought maybe I could combine all those things and document some of the people's stories in the neighborhood before it vanished and before people moved out. So I asked people I knew, 'Can I interview you? I'll put it together in a play?' And, people said, 'Yeah.' "
Yadav, 26, first stepped into 'Capers in July 2002, a month after moving to the District and a year after winning a $22,000 fellowship that let her spend time in Brazil, India and South Africa, studying street theater and "how the arts can be used for something other than for art's sake." Like the one-woman works of Anna Deavere Smith ("Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," about the impact of the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles) and Sarah Jones ("Bridge & Tunnel," soon to be on Broadway, about immigrants in New York), " 'Capers" gives voice to the voiceless.
So in a one-hour play she plays nearly a dozen parts.
Once, she's 15, a child in a public housing project, who recites a poem:
"Mom is mad
because things aren't going her way
and today was just a terrible day
Mom is mad
because no one doesn't want to be bothered
and there's nothing better to do
but to sing the blues
while whipping you"
At another point in the play, she's Michael Kelly, an architect by training, the head of the D.C. Housing Authority who, in effect, is the District's biggest landlord in charge of projects like Hope VI.
"Frankly," his character says, "I'm holding up my end of the game . . . Where's schools, where's mental health, where's ex-offenders? Put me up against these other cats. If you look at government services equally, I'm a freakin' hero, I'm a loving hero."
It's tough task, "much harder than I thought," said Yadav, who expects to finish the play by the end of the year. She received a $2,500 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities last year, and is being helped by Sol y Soul, the nonprofit District-based theater group. "I am using people's stories, in a literal way. You have to be vigilant in your process. You have to be sensitive and treat people as people. But it's painful, the ethics of what I'm doing. When are people just material for a play? When are they not just material? When are you just connecting with people?"
She connected with Miss Frazier -- or Debra Frazier, 53. She was at the play last night, sitting in folding chair at the back of the room. She moved out of 'Capers with her two daughters a little over two weeks ago, and now lives in a house in Northeast Washington with the help of a low-income voucher.
Frazier isn't sure if she's coming back to 'Capers.
"I still can't believe she did it," Frazier said, sitting on the porch of Yadav's house three days before. Yadav consults her and other women on the play -- to get a feel for how real it is. "She got our lives together, our experiences together, our struggle together, so that we won't be forgotten. She's created a concrete look at what happened from our point of view. She got us on paper."
Not to mention onstage.
" 'Capers" will be performed at 7:30 tonight through Saturday at the D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. 202-526-4417. $5 to $10 suggested donation.