Early in History/My Story, Thom Workman’s one-man show currently at the District of Columbia Arts Center, one of the characters Workman portrays, Jamal, challenges the representations of African-Americans traditionally offered in historical texts and questions the whitewashing of such nuggets as George Washington’s ownership of slaves, the Ku Klux Klan’s largely unimpeded rise in this country, and even Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “History is a lie,” Jamal declares. “My story is still untold.”
Through monologues and scenes, Workman attempts not only to tell Jamal’s story but to confront problemscontinuing racism, gang violence, homelessnesscurrently plaguing Washington’s black community. Indeed, much of History’s narrative is set specifically in D.C. (a titty bar on Georgia Avenue, a steam grate outside the Justice Department), and many of the characters Workman steps into are based on people he has seen around town, taking the 90 bus, livingand dyingon the streets.
The slides projected between scenes, of D.C.’s graffitied walls and sidewalk shrines, are also realmemento mori that silently tell some of History’s grimmest stories. There is one picture, for instance, of bottles arranged against a brick wall, “We Miss You Blodie” written above them. “I took a lot of pictures of the murals kids create around the city as memorials to other kids who’ve actually died,” Workman, a teacher at City Lights school, explains. “And at Blodie’s memorial on Lincoln Road, people would come and reminisce, and drink and leave their bottles behind.”
The figure Workman returns to most often throughout his playthe one he says best captures his message of rage and salvationis someone who might easily have been Blodie’s murderer: Thugg, a black man we see grow from victimized child to street killer to death row prophet. “In the end, his story is about redemption,” Workman says. “Thugg had somebody in his lifemaybe a teacher, maybe Bob Marleywho broke into his consciousness. Thugg’s still a thug, but he’s hearing another voice that tortures him. And not only that, he has visionsof the slave ships and what happenedso even in prison, locked in the belly of the beast, even on his way to the chamber, he’s gotta talk to the young ones, spit out the last little bit of hope.”
Workman admits History/My Story is full of anger, but he maintains that his is not anger for its own sake but one that demands social change. “We shouldn’t let rage scare us. We have to use that anger, that fury, to push this thing forward and make a difference,” Workman says. “You know, we got nowhere to go but up from here.”Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
History/My Story plays Friday and Saturday nights at 10 p.m. at DCAC to Feb. 24.