Two or three days after Marion Barry died, John Muller decided to check a long-neglected email account linked to Mayor for Life: The Untold Story, a one-man play he’d written and presented at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival in 2007. He found an email from a former collaborator from Bowie State University, wondering whether they should remount the play in the wake of Barry’s death.
Muller reread the script for the first time in seven years and decided that, while a revival of the play would be an appropriate tribute to the former mayor and Ward 8 councilmember, the content would need to be expanded and severely rewritten. Thus began an intense revision, the results of which can be seen tonight at the Anacostia Playhouse.
In its first form, the play was 2,900 words long and took a satirical look at the contentious relationship between Barry and Joe diGenova, the former U.S. attorney who pursued him in the early 1990s, as told from the perspective of Ezekiel, a Street Sense newspaper vendor. It also included a provocative poem that Muller picked up from Henry Hackney, a homeless man who used to visit the Starbucks where Muller once worked. Before Barry’s death, Muller says the poem, which made fun of Barry’s addictions, seemed hilarious at the time, but lost much of its humor with Barry gone. When Anacostia Playhouse owner Adele Robey saw the poem in the original script, Muller says, she was shocked. “She was like, ‘If this play goes up as it is, with this poem, they’re gonna burn the Playhouse down!'”
The character of Ezekiel still narrates the new version of the play, but instead of poking fun at Barry’s past, it now focuses on why Barry “engenders such unconditional loyalty and unconditional love from Washingtonians,” Muller says. While reporting on Ward 8 for the past five years as a contributor to the Greater Greater Washington and Death and Life of Historic Anacostia blogs, he began to understand the command Barry held over rooms full of people and how that attention turned into respect. After all, Muller points out, “Marion Barry made people’s careers.”
The script, Muller hopes, will act as a eulogy for Barry from the perspective of ordinary Washingtonians: the people who pick up trash and drive buses, as opposed to the flashier officials who formally eulogized Barry at his funeral. Ezekiel’s language is an amalgamation of street talk Muller’s heard over the years (expect references to “The Plan” and “main man smooth” Jim Vance) and he presents Barry as a sort of folk hero, a man with plenty of flaws who nevertheless transformed the District. In the aftermath of his passing, Muller expects audiences to embrace this version of the Mayor for Life.
The play will be presented tonight at 6:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Admission is free.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery