As the play begins, a man steps outside his front door and picks up the morning paper as a jogger enters from stage right wearing a ski mask. The jogger runs up to him, shoots him twice and runs off.
The gun blast breaks the silence, and many in the audience for a recent performance inside the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church gasp.
The play, "Dog Eat Dog," is produced by the Everyday Theater, a local troupe that acts out urban social issues based on oral histories and interviews with victims and criminals.
Previous plays have included "The Arcade," which dealt with landlord-tenant problems, and "Ghost Story," which dramatized the plight of people displaced by urban renewal.
In "Dog Eat Dog," the incidents surrounding the play's main character, Frankie Purcell, are based on interviews with a young ex-offender and drug abuser and her counselor. The fictionalized Frankie, played by Genni Sasnett, grows up in a slum called "the sweatbox," drops out of school, gets hooked on drugs and, when she tries to go straight, cannot support her sick mother and brothers and sisters on the dead-end, minimum-wage jobs open to her. She becomes a big-time drug dealer and eventually is shot by the police--maybe while reaching for her gun and maybe while just getting up off the floor.
"We were looking around for a pressing issue to do a play about and we knew a lot of people who had been victimized by crime," said Sasnett, who also designed and built the set.
"We interviewed several dozen people -- residents of RAP Inc. [a privately funded D.C. drug rehabilitation center], for example -- ex-drug addicts," she said. "And we hung around the bus station and interviewed street hustlers."
All the characters in the play are drawn from people interviewed, according to Susie Solf, the play's director, who founded the Everyday Theater in 1979.
The idea for drama based on oral histories comes from Cuba, Solf said. "There's a group there called 'Escombray.' It was formed by some people who were working in Havana. But after the revolution, they thought their work was too bourgeois. They moved to the province of Escombray, and started doing plays based on the stories of the people. . . . I passionately think that theater comes from caring. That's what makes it live for me."
Like Solf, the other members of the company are committed to plays about social issues. They make up a diverse group. English-born Nicki Burton, who writes the scripts for the plays and acts in the productions, supports herself by working as a maid, as does Sasnett. Richard Spector, who plays a rape victim's husband, is a psychiatric social worker. Ron Tucker, who plays a young man traumatized by the Vietnam War who drifts into crime, is a tenant activist now employed in a housing management program. Phil Wiggins, who plays a drug dealer and rapist, plays blues on a harmonica in local clubs. Vicki Green, an "almost full-time mother," recently graduated from theater school.
Players say they had difficulty grappling with the issues raised by the play.
"At first I tended to see the problem in terms of the victimization of poor people," said Solf. "But Nicki Burton had been the victim of a crime and had more of a 'damn them' criminals attitude. We had to come to middle points. I've come to the point of view that, no matter what, people need to be responsible for their actions."
"[The play about housing issues] was more clear-cut," said Burton. "There was a right and a wrong, a landlord who was making profits. Crime was a much more difficult issue. There were people hurting innocent people. But if you go into the life of a perpetrator of a crime, they are victims, too. At the same time, it's just not okay to hurt people."
Vicki Green, who plays the rape victim, Frankie's mother and four other characters, said the sensation of having a gun held up to her neck was "freaky," and recalled experiences of her own. During the rape scene, the rape itself is not shown, but the victim is seen leaving the stage with Silk, the rapist, holding a gun to her neck.
"I knew how she felt afterward," said Green. "I've never been raped, but when I was 15, someone tried to rape me. He beat me almost half to death, but I fought until someone came to help me. Afterward, you don't trust men a hundred percent. . . . But of the characters I played, I felt closest to Evelyn, Frankie's mother. I had a girl friend who was sort of like Frankie. She died of a drug overdose."
Each performance of the play, which was partially funded by the D.C. Community Humanities Council, is followed by a panel discussion.
In the discussion after last week's opening performance, panelists and members of the audience grappled with the issues raised by the play: the causes of crime and the effects on perpetrators and victims.
"What are we as citizens doing for the victims of crime?" asked a man in the audience. "When somebody's found guilty, I'd give him the choice of going to prison and working and paying 50 percent of his earnings to the victim. If they don't want to do that, society should just put them in a room and give them a subsistence living."
"I've spent 10 years thinking about what should happen to the two guys who raped me at knifepoint," said one panelist. "I don't want that to happen to any other woman, but there must be a larger way to deal with this than just to put them away."
"I've obtained drugs and I've participated in a number of crimes," said panelist Lawrence Autry, a resident of the RAP Inc. drug rehabilitation center. "The main point of the play is that people die. But it also shows how people are oppressed into situations where they're forced to commit crimes. . . . The play could have demonstrated how sometimes a perpetrator is a victim on another level, especially in drug abuse."
The person on whom the character "Frankie" was based was in a pre-employment program and reportedly was considering becoming a bus driver, but was rearrested on a drug charge, company members said.
"She's very bright and wants to support her family," said Burton. "She's out of jail now, but the jury is still out on Frankie."
The cast of Everyday Theater will perform "Dog Eat Dog" in Atlanta and at the women's penitentiary at Alderson, W. Va., this month before returning to Washington for performances Nov. 12-14 and Nov. 19-21 at the YWCA Penney Auditorium, 624 Ninth St. NW.