In "Mayor for Life. Part III," which previewed at the Washington Convention Center yesterday, Marion Barry uses "country slick," the stuff that helped him escape the cotton fields of Mississippi, to escape a cloud of corruption that once seemed to threaten his chances for reelection.
The show starts with a ceremony at which Barry announces his intention to seek an unprecedented third term as mayor of the nation's capital. Here, the Rev. Beecher Hicks, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, updates country slick into contemporary political terms when he says of the Barry administration's brushes with trouble, "He is the Teflon mayor. You can burn it but you can't make it stick."
Hicks gets a standing ovation as he introduces the mayor. But as Barry speaks, he offers a revealing flashback to an earlier episode in his life.
"The journey to this point didn't just start yesterday or last year or the year before that," says Barry, using preacher-style intonations that have become a standard in black political theater.
"The long and tedious journey started on a farm in the Mississippi delta. I traveled through the rough and rocky roads . . . to the many jobs I took to do whatever I had to do to survive, from chopping cotton to waiting tables."
Call this episode, "Mayor: Chop Cotton. Part I." In recalling his life, from his days as a college chemistry student and his work as a civil rights activist to his rise to political power in the District of Columbia, Barry tells his supporters he did whatever he had to do to survive.
In seven years as the District's premier local politician, Mayor Barry has demonstrated a knack for dominating the local political debate and turning opponents into die-hard supporters. And many of those who have refused to be converted have chosen to stand quietly on the sidelines.
Preachers who once disapproved of Barry or who were up in arms over legalized gambling and the city's inability to deal with drug abuse now are supporting a mayor whose administration dispenses funds for church-sponsored programs and issues building permits for church expansion.
Businessmen who once were suspicious of this former street activist now are singing his praises, as downtown construction continues to boom and the city has become a major dispenser of contracts.
Barry spent much of his speech yesterday yet again reciting his familiar list of accomplishments -- "Mayor: Blows Own Horn. Part XX." Not surprisingly, he chose to glide over the more embarrassing episodes -- the corruption and drug cases involving a slew of his former aides and associates -- without so much as soiling his shoes.
"The road was rocky sometimes, filled with treacherous curves, unpaved patches and pitfalls," he says with smug confidence. "Yet, I traveled it."
At his side is his young son, Christopher, who looks bored with the proceedings, and his wife Effi, who is introduced by Barry as his "roommate" and "main squeeze."
Effi Barry is convincing when she vows to be "loyal to this man of integrity and intelligence."
Surrounded by friends, family and supporters -- a few of them government employes who hinted that they would have preferred to sleep in -- the mayor appears comfortable and ready to roll. His famous cocky grin spreads across his face.
"He has brought national prestige to this city," says John Hechinger, the Democratic National Committee member for the District and president of the Hechinger hardware stores. "He is chairman of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Let's keep him there. He's a national figure."
The crowd of between 800 and 1,000 people seemed attentive but not overly enthusiastic. The show, quite frankly, was losing its luster. The old spontaneity was missing and the kickoff smacked of excessive orchestration. Still, Barry and his top advisers have little doubt that the machine will roll on.
"When I hold up four fingers, that means go crazy and yell, 'Four more years,' " said Max Berry, the mayor's campaign finance chairman, as he cued the audience on when to cheer and when to applaud.
Suddenly country slick was getting a little sticky.