D.C. playwright Timothy J. Guillot’s agitating sorta-musical We Fight We Die attempts to wring inspiration from a handful of sources that would seem to offer plenty. The play draws on, in no particular order, the array of graffiti art that greets passengers on the elevated stretch of Metro’s Red Line between Union Station and Silver Spring, the latter-day coronation of British street artist Banksy as an insurgent hero, and Gulliot’s interest in reviving the Greek chorus as a hip-hop ensemble. Oh, and just maybe the new willingness of government agencies to tolerate and even sanction graffiti art.
The goofy premise Guillot has cooked up to make use of these zesty ingredients might’ve worked as a comedy, or with the gauzy remove of a fable, but the tone here is as somber and portentous as the phrase “Greek chorus” implies. In “AN URBAN CITY,” the program tells us, at “THE PRESENT MOMENT,” the brilliant graffitist Q, a homeless hero of The People, has at last been caught by the police. The mayor herself summons him to her office to demand that he use his prodigious powers to…paint a unicorn at a community center or something, or else she’ll torture and maybe even kill his best friend.
I won’t spoil the ending. But you should know that when it comes down to a choice between his pal’s life or his artistic integrity as a guy who likes to spray-paint his name on garage doors, Q is a man of principle. At least you know, via the rhyming internal monologue supplied him by the chorus, that it’s a difficult decision.
Some things here are praiseworthy. The production recruited four local artists—Diabetik, Tony Lawson, Ursula Miller, and Leonardo Rodriguez — to create Q’s body of work, and three of them worked with Daniel Box and Jessica Chang to decorate the floor and walls of the Mead Theatre Lab. That’s kind of cool, even if none of the imagery the artists came up with satisfies the story’s demand that Q’s oeuvre be so subversive or persuasive that an elected official would contemplate murder to control it. That’s an impossibly tall order, of course, but refraining from showing us Q’s work might’ve been one way for Guillot and director Alvin Ford, Jr. to approach it. For what it’s worth, the pair of Howard University acting students who play Q and his pal Witts (Jeff Kirkman III and Stanley Andrew Jackson III, respectively) can convey righteous indignation and wounded loyalty like it’s nobody’s business. They don’t need a Greek chorus to tell us what’s happening behind their eyes.