Phyllis Martin remembers the day in 1951 when the bulldozers came to her home on E Street SW.
"I was sick in bed, and my husband was going to get me some medicine," she recalled. "When he went out the door, he fell. They had already knocked off our stoop."
Where the Martins' house stood eventually became part of L'Enfant Plaza. The Martins were relocated to a town house apartment in the Greenleaf Annex housing project at Second and L streets SW. Other Southwest residents who lost their homes to urban renewal never returned to the area.
Martin's story and those of other Southwest residents and merchants displaced by urban renewal are the raw material of "Ghost Story," a play produced by the Everyday Theater, whose members have a dual interest in acting and community affairs. The play's next performance will be June 14 at 7 p.m. at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, 222 M Street SW. Admission will be free.
The play offers a sometimes bitter tenants'-eye view of the events surrounding the rebuilding of Southwest Washington, beginning in 1951, and concludes with new Southwest residents fighting against the proposed conversion of their apartments to a hotel.
"We did research in the files of the Redevelopment Land Agency and we taped the oral histories of dozens of the old Southwest residents," said Gennie Sasnett, whose roles in the show include a bulldozer operator, a Southwest mother and a hardware store owner who took his case against urban renewal to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost.
"We also talked to Jim Banks, who headed the relocation effort, and to some of the social workers."
One of the social workers interviewed was used as the model for Miss Pro Bono, who in the play tells the people she places in public housing projects in other sections of the city that they have to move because, "It's in the best interests of the public good."
The real-life social worker "rationalized her role by saying that they learned enough from the mistakes they made in Southwest so that they didn't repeat them when urban renewal came to Northwest," said Nicki Burton, who plays Pro Bono in a bouffant wig and later Maxine, a contemporary high-rise resident, in turquoise pants.Burton is also the group's playwright, although the plays are worked out collectively before they're written.
The subject matter is not confined to past history. "Ghost Story" also deals with current issues, such as Parcel 76, a two-square block area at 7th and G streets SW, which some community activists want used for public housing -- a plan vehemently opposed by most middle-class residents of the new Southwest who favor the existing plan to turn it into a park.
The theater group takes its name from a poem by Bertolt Brecht that advises actors to "look sometimes at the theatre whose stage is the street -- the everyday theatre. . ."
"We started two summers ago," said Susie Solf of Mount Pleasant, the founder and director. "It all grew out of a workshop I was teaching where I told the actors to go and see theater on the street and bring it in. It evolved into a play called 'The Arcade' about an elderly woman who's being evicted from her apartment because of condominium conversion."
With grants from the D.C. Commission of the Humanities, the Everyday Theater performed "The Arcade" and later "Rent Strike," a play based on the experiences of tenants in Columbia Heights.Proceeds went to tenants associations trying to buy their buildings.
After each performance of "Ghost Story," a five-member panel reacts to the play and the issues it raises. Panel members at a performance last Saturday included Charles Bressler, who identified himself as "one of the bloodsucking developers." Builder of Waterside Mall and 1,600 housing units in Southwest, Bressler said that people who were unhappy about the way urban renewal turned out should blame government, not the developers.
"We weren't called in to build low-cost housing," said Bressler. "It was the government who designed the mall, who took away your playgrounds and your infrastructure. But before urban renewal, 70 percent of the homes didn't have indoor plumbing."
Gottlieb Simon, executive director of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2D, said that only 40 percent of the homes had lacked indoor plumbing. He read from a government pamplhlet that promised displaced residents that they could return to Southwest.
Phllis Martin said it was true that many houses in her old neighborhood had lacked indoor plumbing, running water and heat.
"But we were a community . . .," she said. "Everything we saw in the play is true, but it was worse than that. It's made me very emotional and I want everybody I know to see it. Sometimes a play or a movie tells you more than people sitting up talking."
Other panel members were Amy Elliot, resident of Tell-Court apartments in Southwest, whose tenant associaton bought the building; John Hampton of the D.C. Rental Accomodations office; and Marty Mellot of Southeast Vicariate Cluster, a church-backed community action group.
"Ghost Story" also will be performed Friday and Saturday, June 19 and 20, at Calvary United Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW, starting at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, free for children under 12. A free performance of the play is scheduled for July 11 and 2 p.m. at Pigeon Park, 16th Street and Columbia Road NW.