A D.C. cemetery’s dead come to life again on stage
By DeNeen L. Brown,
Awoman threatens from a darkened stage: “I will come back and haunt you!” She stares at the audience. If a developer so much as removes a stone from Woodlawn Cemetery, a historic burial place in Southeast Washington, the woman intones: “I will haunt you. They do actually come, you know — the ghosts of those passed. My father’s mother could see them.”
These are not some fictional character’s lines about a made-up place, but words actually spoken by a woman still living in Southeast Washington, about a real cemetery: “If you touch this place,” Marie Ward says often, “I will haunt you.”
“My mother and grandmother have a plot there, and three more can be buried there,” says Ward, a retired federal worker, in an interview. She does not want to give her age. “I want to go there. I want to be buried there. I tell them all the time, ‘I will haunt you,’ because I am serious. I really want to go there.”
Ward’s story became part of the script of “Woodlawn,” a new play produced by Young Playwrights’ Theater, a D.C. nonprofit organization that teaches students to express themselves through playwriting. Since the play premiered at GALA Hispanic Theatre last month, it has toured schools, churches, museums and theaters throughout Washington. The last performance will be Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street NW.
The play was written by YPT’s producing artistic director, David Andrew Snider, as a way of bringing the thousands of long-forgotten people buried at Woodlawn Cemetery back to life again, in a sense, through art. He also hopes the play will spur the city to better maintain the graveyard.
Snider says he had wanted to stage a performance about Woodlawn since 2004, when he and his wife bought a house on Texas Avenue SE.
“We knew there was something called Woodlawn Cemetery behind our property,” he says, “but we pictured a manicured lawn and neat rows of tombstones.”
One day, Snider climbed the hill behind his house: “I was amazed to find an overgrown forest with gravestones sticking out from the brush here and there.”
He researched the cemetery and found the prominent names of those buried there.
“It quickly became apparent, as I talked with others throughout D.C., that people knew nothing about Woodlawn, which drove me even more to share it with others and start a community dialogue about the site and our neighborhood,” he says.
Snider based the script on interviews he conducted with Ward 7 residents.
The play pits the preservation of the grand but forgotten cemetery against a push for gentrification east of the Anacostia River. The cemetery’s 22.5 acres contain the graves of more than 36,000 black people — some who were moved from unmarked graves in other cemeteries in the city into more than a dozen mass graves at Woodlawn.
Among those buried at Woodlawn are some prominent African Americans who changed U.S. history. They include John Mercer Langston, the first black lawyer in Ohio, who organized the law department at Howard University. Langston, considered a great orator, became the first black man to represent Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1888, Langston ran for Congress as an Independent against a white Democratic opponent. The election results were contested for 18 months, but Langston was declared the winner. He served the six remaining months of his term.
Woodlawn also contains the grave of John Willis Menard, a poet who was the first black man elected to the U.S. Congress, in 1868. A year later, Menard became the first African American to stand on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during a legislative session, arguing before a Congress that refused to seat him.
A huge stone marks the plot for Blanche K. Bruce, (R-Miss.) who was born a slave and became the second black man elected to the U.S. Senate and the first to serve a full term there.
“You don’t get much higher than a U.S. senator born a slave,” says Tyrone F. General, president of Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association.
And yet many people have little knowledge of the cemetery, which sits off Benning Road SE, down the street from the more famous landmark, the Shrimp Boat. If you drive too fast or catch a green light at C Street, you will surely miss the entrance. Squeezed next to pale yellow apartment building, it is much less than majestic gate — just a driveway between red brick pillars marked by a small sign.
The cemetery is privately owned by the Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association, which is governed by a board of volunteers who are descendants of those buried there.
“Because it is not government owned,” General says, “the city escapes responsibility for maintenance.” As a group of aging volunteers, “we lack the funding for routine maintenance,” General says. “I want it restored to its rightful dignity, so that the physical appearance would be worthy of the people here. The hypocrisy is that we have been designated a national historic landmark, but [we are without] funding for routine maintenance.”
The last burial at the cemetery took place about 1980. The city threatened to declare the cemetery abandoned, a declaration that would allow developers to move those interred there and build on the land. But a small contingent of caretakers and volunteers from the association refused to allow that to happen. They brought their personal lawn mowers and cut the entrance to the cemetery. As long as there was some activity, the city left it alone. The Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association took ownership in 1972.
Over the years, weeds grew in the back, beyond the entrance, where thieves once set up a chop shop. The honeysuckle grew so tall that it covered most headstones. “When I first started here,” six years ago, General says, “you couldn’t see any of the headstones because of overgrown brush. The only thing you could see is the top of that saint.”
The driveway leading to the cemetery looks like a broken lane into the past. Headstones that have torn away from graves lie next to a fence waiting to be put back where they belong. A stream that seems to have died ends in a gully and a tangle of weeds.
Last year, Snider began writing the play after interviewing descendants and residents in Ward 7.
“By August, I had hundreds of pages of interviews, monologues, dialogues, poetry and paintings created with participants about the history of Woodlawn,” Snider says. By September, the first rough draft of the play was on paper. In January, Snider completed the final draft and put out a casting call. He hired nine professional actors who began rehearsing as Snider directed.
Snider calls the play a ghost story. The play delves into history, digs through the weeds for stories. Characters cut the earth, and ghosts of the past emerge to talk to the living.
On stage, an actor playing the role of a historian and reading the words of a descendant explains: “Back in the day, yellow fever, people would fall into a coma, be like they’re dead. And doctors wore these thick leather gloves, to protect them from the disease. So a coma felt as good as dead.”
Sometimes people who were in comas were buried alive, according to historical documents.
“Eventually enough coffins were dug up later with finger nail marks in them — they had tried to dig their way out — that being buried alive was a real threat.”
Wealthy people started making sure their coffins had bells inside them. “So if they ever were buried alive they could ring that bell for help. And men would work the ‘graveyard shift’ — that meant walking the graveyard all night with a lantern and a shovel, just waiting and listening for that bell.”
If the caretaker heard a bell, he would run to it to begin digging.
“So you see, those who didn’t move were thought to be dead,” the historian explains. “So in this life, it’s important to move — it’s important to do something with your lives — so people don’t assume you’re already dead.”