One of the most sacred and formidable tasks a theater can undertake is to examine the affairs of its own community. It is the opposite of provincialism: To my mind, it points to a theater town scaling new heights of worldly self-confidence.
The innovation here was to recruit four playwrights of color from the region — Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie and Leslie Scott-Jones — and give each the assignment of a story in one of the quadrants into which the District is divided. For those unfamiliar with the makeup of the capital, the four sections — Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest — bear enormous historic weight in the city’s social, psychological, economic and racial identity.
In “City in Transition,” we hopscotch over 90 minutes among four pieces of varying styles and tones, from Omo-Osagie’s somber Northwest memory play, “Child’s Place,” to Ali-Coleman’s bitterly funny Southeast satire, “Fundable.” The latter, a game show in which three heads of nonprofit groups in that financially hard-pressed sector of the city compete for a $100,000 grant, is infused with scathing irony: Though the host (a splendidly smarmy Dylan J. Fleming) and two of the contestants are Black, the deck seems stacked for the winner to be White.
And isn’t that the all-too-familiar way of the world? the play seems to ask. The exhilarating thrust of “City in Transition” is that this is a sweeping look at Washington through an entirely Black prism. Running through several of the pieces is a jaundiced, scalding eye on the intrusions of a White world in a city that has been racially riven for decades. In Scott-Jones’s sharply drawn “Thirty-seven,” the Northeast play, an earnest White census taker played by Molly Shayna Cohen comes to the apartment of a Black restaurant worker portrayed by Kevin E. Thorne II.
At his kitchen table, Thorne’s Seth and Cohen’s Caroline engage in a civil battle of nerves, as Caroline tries to impress upon Seth the value of his being counted, while Seth tests the thickness of her do-gooding shell with cynical evasiveness.
“Do you live here alone?” she asks.
“Sometimes,” he replies.
“What is your occupation?” she asks.
“Field hand,” he replies.
With the help of photography directors Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich, and technical and art director Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Caldwell uses a variety of effects and tools, such as vintage black-and-white photographs and bold graphics, to give each story a visual personality. Washington sights such as Anacostia’s Big Chair make cameos, too. A few narrative lumps do rise along the way in this ambitious stew, particularly in Collins’s “Big Fish,” the Southwest story, about the shooting death of a rapper; some of the plot gets lost in the patchwork approach. And inconsistencies in memorization — you can see some actors’ eyes wander to strategically placed scripts — prove occasional distractions.
But the scale and scope of this endeavor — 19 actors, five editors, six visual effects people, two costume designers and music by the Curious Music Company — attest to a grand effort to broaden the theatrical conversation in Washington. The city’s theaters have been handsomely upgraded and improved over the past 20 years, but the attendant gentrification of city neighborhoods has barely registered as a theme on those stages.
“City in Transition” attempts to jog the memories of longtime Washingtonians by tracing in “Child’s Place” the history of a Black-owned restaurant in Northwest that has been passed down to a new generation, in the guise of Llogan Peters’s Tiffany. She has plans to gut-renovate the space, in keeping with the rehab of the rest of the block. But she herself is unaware of what her forebears went through, building a Black business in a neighborhood that did not welcome them. So it is left to her grandmother Deidre, played in wonderfully resonant fashion by Kelsey Delemar, to instruct her — and us.
The flashbacks to the 1950s remind audiences of the uphill struggle of Black ambition, and the deep scars that were incurred by those who aspired, even in a place that carried the nickname Chocolate City.
The production’s title is therefore highly ambiguous — in “Transition” . . . to what? Caldwell and Theater Alliance are posing profound questions here for all of Washington to ponder. And what more can we ask of a theater company, than to do just that?
City in Transition: The Quadrant Series, by Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie and Leslie Scott-Jones. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Technical direction, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; photography direction, Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich; costumes, Jeannette Christensen. About 90 minutes. $18-$28. Through May 24 at theateralliance.com.