On stage, the school-age actors and actresses were chanting as their hometown epic drew to a close. "We, the people, pick Walter Fauntroy," they shouted. "We, the people, pick Walter Washington."
Home rule - long a a subject of political controversy and social protest - had finally entered the arena of song and dance. An amateur cast, performing at Ford's Theater, hailed the District of Columbia's first elected mayor and congressional delegate of modern times in a musical retelling of the city's 178-year history.
It is a homegrown drama with a political and social message. Grace Bradford, a Washington native and city public school teacher who wrote and directed the play, describes it as aimed at helping to fill what she views as a void in D.C. residents' knowledge about their city's past.
"I was never taught any history of Washington, D.C., and I don't know of any students in recent years being taught that," Bradford, 45, said in an interview. "So this is all new."
Her play, called "This is Washington," will conclude a one-week run tonight at Ford's Theater, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets are free, but officials warn there will probably be no additional seats available tonight. Bradford said she plans to stage special performances for public school audiences later during the school year.
Her theatrical tribute to Washington is a further sign of widening interest here in the city's evolution. The District of Columbia's school system currently provides some elementary instruction in city history to thirdgraders and is preparing a more extensive D.C. history course for ninth-graders.
"This is Washingoom" also is carefully crafted to maintain a racial and sexual balance. Its cast of senior and junior high school students includes nine whites and blacks. Twelve are boys, eight are girls. Throughout the play, Bradford juxtaposes black society - from slavery to freedom and political power - against Washington's white establishment.
"It was intended to bring out the fact that Washington had two lifestyles - a black lifestyle and a white lifestyle," she said.
While the play concludes with the city's recent drive for self-government, much of the drama is devoted to a patchwork of events, big and small, from the city's more distant past.
It recalls long-forgotten times when homes were auctioned off for $500 and shoes went on sale at the Hecht Co. for $3. It depicts the burning of the Capitol and the president's house by the British in 1814 and Abraham Lincoln's assassination in the same theater where "This is Washington" has been staged.
It reminisces about the controversy-ridden Reconstruction era of Boss Alexander Shepherd. It recounts how Sophia Browning Bell, a slave, saved money by selling vegetables in order to buy her husband's freedom and how he, in turn, saved money to buy hers. In songs, dance, repartee and photos that projected against the stage's backdrop, it sketches times of war, boom, depression and social unrest.
In the end, the cast voices a plea for broader home rule for its city, including ratification of a constitutional amendment that would give the District of Columbia voting representation in the Senate and House.
Bradford, on leave from his job as a music teacher, wrote and staged the play under a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. According to Bradford, seven of the 28 teen-agers who have had acting roles or helped manage the production were paid $662 each through the Washington Youth Corps, a federally-financed, summer job program for youngsters from low-income families.
The 16 other students, Bradford said, have not been paid. They were ineligible for the youth corps because their families' incomes exceeded poverty levels and, officials say, no other city jobs funds were available. After each performance, Bradford has taken the stage to urge the audience to donate money to help pay these 16 youngsters. Nearly $1,000 has been collected, she said, and another $2,000 has been pledged. CAPTION: Picture, Public school students in cast of "This is Washington" belt out a tune during a performance at Ford's Theater, By [WORD ILLEGIBLE] The Washington Post