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Just after the FBI nailed Mayor Marion Barry at the Vista Hotel in 1990, D.C. poet and playwright Kenneth Carroll began reflecting on the irony of the whole episode. Here was a man, he thought, who had embraced a power establishment that otherwise ignored the mayor’s grass-roots constituency. With the bust, he concluded, the same establishment that had helped thrust Barry into office was now kicking him out. But Carroll never doubted the potential for a Barry comeback. He also knew to whom the mayor would turnto the poor, urban constituency shut out by Barry’s cabal of developers, media personalities, and local power elites.
Carroll sat down to write a political satire that would, it turned out, foretell Barry’s return and read as a sort of documentary play on his resurrectionexcept that Carroll’s play would remain open-ended, unresolved as to whether the reborn mayor would come back to reclaim the old power structure or side with the black community that had backed him from the start. “It’s about the forces in a given city that deny the poor citizens basic shit,” he says.
His one-act play, Make My Funk the P-Funk, is finally being mounted this week after years of lying dormant. Local producer John Moore heard Carroll read the play years ago and believes that now, with mayoral transition under way, the issues the piece presents are more relevant than ever.
“[Carroll is] speaking right to me,” Moore says. “He always writes with a political slantstreetwise but intelligent.” In collaboration with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Moore and his partner, Imani Drayton-Hill, will produce the play as a stage reading for one night only. Moore plans to use the occasion as a gauge for the play’s potential commercial appeal.
The play opens with the mayor of a large city fleeing to an urban ghetto after being caught in a hotel drug bust with a prostitute. From there, Mayor Joe, as the lead character is called, takes refuge in the dingy tenement dwelling of a young woman. As an adversarial press, the white establishment, and local business elites come after him, he has to decide if he will reconcile with this group or instead draw strength from the disenfranchised community.
Carroll calls the piece “a psycho-funk political fantasy.” Onstage, the playwright includes a DJ who serves as a variation on the Greek chorus. Shifting from funk to go-go to easy listening, the DJ helps to move the story along by allegorically playing short takes from various musical tracks: When the powerful developer appears on stage, the DJ may play Barry Manilow. When a black constituent comes on, the music switches to George Clinton or Chuck Brown. “The mayor has to decide if he wants to ‘waltz’ or to ‘funk,’” says Carroll. “Unless the mayor dances to the funk, he will be destroyed spiritually.”Guy Raz
Make My Funk the P-Funk will be performed at Woolly Mammoth Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. A poetry slam will follow.