For Jelani Alladin, a New York stage actor recruited by Studio Theatre to make a film about the Aug. 28 March on Washington, the convergence of anguishing reality and art provoked similarly wrenching associations.
“It’s an accumulation of things I felt my entire life,” Alladin said. “It hurts to the point where this is what it must feel like when you’re bleeding out.”
Perkins’s and Alladin’s film projects were developed by two of Washington’s leading theater companies — projects that during the pandemic shutdowns have propelled stage artists in new directions, to memorialize galvanizing public events.
The result for Arena is “The 51st State,” a compilation of 10 monologues about the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Lafayette Square and the District’s reinvigorated campaign for statehood. It debuts on Arena’s website on Wednesday evening. At Studio, the outcome is an anthology of seven short, deeply personal videos, shot and edited by seven Black actors who went to the Aug. 28 march. Titled straightforwardly “March on Washington creative responses,” the pieces are being posted on Studio’s website this week and next.
One unlikely consequence of a theater world seeking creative outlets in a time of crisis is the fresh lens these companies have been able to train on their convulsed city.
“It’s a different way for us to tell stories,” said Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, who spearheaded “The 51st State” and a previous movie, “May 22, 2020,” a compendium of monodramas about a day in the life of an outbreak, unveiled in June. “It’s a different way for us to reach audiences. It’s raw, it’s indigenous to the area and, in a really interesting way, it shows our resident theater is resident to our community.”
David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, saw an opportunity for broadening a conversation by inviting the actors to stay in Studio housing for the August march and make some art.
“It just feels like the ground has shifted and the world is new,” he said. “And we’re figuring out how we’re going to be institutionally aligned with the world right now.”
These efforts have been embraced by the participating actors, directors and playwrights — many of them artists of color — as an imaginative outreach and lifeline; all of the artists were paid.
“I think history is sort of forcing us to be more creative,” said Psalmayene 24, a longtime D.C. actor and playwright, who directed Perkins in the acting rehearsal of the piece, titled “Go.” “Oftentimes in theater, we tend to be a little bit ahead of reality. But now reality is ahead of anything we can create.”
For each of the short monologues that make up “The 51st State,” Smith and Seema Sueko, Arena’s deputy artistic director, assembled creative teams and picked the people to be portrayed: The candidates included protesters of various ages and backgrounds, local clergy and historians. Among the dramatists were Karen Zacarías, Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoë, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Caleen Sinnette Jennings and Mary Hall Surface. It was vital, Sueko said, that the writers had no connection to the people with whom they were matched.
“When you’re speaking with a stranger and you want them to share things, they’re less likely to ‘shortcut’ what they say,” she said.
In “Go,” the subject is Chukwuma Enechionyia, better known to his friends and fans as Meka, a musician and recording artist from Northern Virginia. In a widely publicized incident, he was one of dozens of demonstrators crowded together and cornered by police — a practice known as “kettling” — who were given refuge in a D.C. rowhouse.
To create a script about his experience, Meka was paired with writer-director Gregory Keng Strasser. In their 90-minute conversation in late July on Google Hangouts, they hit it off. “One of the things that affected me was about racial identity: Meka is mixed race, I’m mixed race,” said Strasser, who had a fellowship at Arena and has directed locally at Rorschach Theatre.
“He wanted to portray the correct image of me,” Meka said. “I feel he did a great job.”
The script was handed off to Perkins, who had never met Meka either. As it happened, their bond, too, was forged in shared experience: Perkins had been protesting on the same night as Meka.
“As an actor there’s that question of balance, of inserting myself to a degree. With this it was almost seamless,” Perkins said. “What I wanted to be true to was the words.”
The Studio project took a more intimate and spontaneous tack. It originated with a request from Alladin, who appeared in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” at Studio in 2015 and played the lead in the hugely successful mounting of Disney’s “Hercules” in Central Park last summer. He was coming to Washington for the march and got in touch with Muse. “Hey, dude, can I stay in actors housing?” he asked.
That recharged the imaginations of Muse and Reg Douglas, who joined Studio as associate artistic director in January. To mark Juneteenth this year, the company posted videos by five Black artists who had worked with Studio, on the subject of freedom. Now, they had something similar in mind for the march.
“We put a call out for every Black artist from Studio for the past five seasons, . . . brilliant Black artists,” Douglas said, referring to the video proposal. “The idea was to give them freedom: Do whatever you want in five minutes or less. The main rule I gave them was raw, urgent and personal.”
More people responded than the company could accommodate; “winners” were selected by lottery. And what they produced seemed to fulfill Douglas’s prescription. In his video, filmed, written and edited on his iPhone, Jelani interspersed shots of the march with a poignant soliloquy about his explosive feelings. In another five-minute entry, Jonathan Burke, who acted alongside Alladin in “Choir Boy,” included snapshots of himself as a child, attending a commemorative march on Washington with his parents in 1988. It was an attempt to illustrate how the work of making change never ends.
Which also seems to reflect the central point of these theatrical adventures in online film and video. “If our mission is to engage an audience,” Douglas said, “that’s not done just because this building is closed.”