“Our goal is to organize people around the issue of gentrification while having fun,” says Marisabel Villagomez, an actress with the El Barrio Street Theater.
The year-old company’s latest production is Standing Our Ground!/Aquí Nos Quedamos!, a play about gentrification in the Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Shaw, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. The play is dedicated to the members of the tenants association of 1611 Park Road NW, who avoided displacement by mobilizing their fellow residents to collectively purchase their building in October 2000.
El Barrio grew out of a series of D.C. workshops conducted by Adhemar Bianchi, director of El Galpon de Catalinas Sur, a well-known theater company in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bianchi’s visit was organized by the Gala Hispanic Theatre, which invited him to Washington to share techniques used by his 250-member group. In May 2000, at the conclusion of the workshops, eight participants traveled to Buenos Aires to study acting and puppet-making with Bianchi for two weeks. The actors returned to D.C. and used their newfound knowledge to form El Barrio.
El Barriowhich now has 30 membersput on several performances in city parks last week. At last Friday evening’s show, early arrivals to Lamont Park watched actors wriggle into two 15-foot parade-puppet costumes: A supersized Anthony Williams puppet shook hands and kissed babies while a “corporate suit” puppet stood on the sidelines and laughed menacingly. As the other actors erected a set of plastic pipe and spray-painted murals, the Malcolm X Drummers, who provided the show’s musical accompaniment, warmed up the crowd of about 60 people.
Standing Our Ground! tells the story of star-crossed lovers Anthony and Jennifer. The pair, whom Villagomez describes as a “lower-class Latino youth” and a “white-girl gentrifier,” attempt to organize their neighbors to fight dislocation during an influx of affluent whites from the suburbs. “It’s our own interpretation of West Side Story,” says Villagomez.
In one musical number, while Latino and African-American residents rap lyrics about keeping their homes, new transplants cry, “A Starbucks here/A Fresh Fields there/Money and happiness everywhere!” The diverse cast speaks in both English and Spanish throughout the hourlong play. Because the dialogue switches languages so frequently, the audience buzzes with helpful translators who lean over to neighbors to interpret.
After the performance, El Barrio’s actors handed out fliers (in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese) explaining tenants’ rights and inviting the audience to attend a rally in support of affordable housing. “The people in these neighborhoods have lived here forever,” says Villagomez. “We have to give the community a sense of what they can achieve with their tenants’ rights.” Sarah Godfrey
El Barrio will hold a final performance of Standing Our Ground!/Aquí Nos Quedamos! at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4, in Unity Park.