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It’s six hours before the first preview of Broke-ology at the Anacostia Playhouse and I’m sitting on the plush red couch at center stage. The couch’s ultimate destiny, I’m told by Theater Alliance Artistic Director Colin Hovde, will be to grace a corner in his still-empty office upstairs. Hovde and Chief Operating Officer Julia Robey Christian are taking a short break to tell me about the playhouse’s final preparations and the all-important certificate of occupancy it received on Tuesday. After months of slogging through a mess of red tape—-particularly parking permit problems that led to construction delays—-last week the Anacostia Playhouse formally welcomed an audience for the first time.
On Tuesday, Robey Christian gave a tour to four inspectors from the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. She feared that the agency would find some new reason to prevent the theater from opening, but for once, everything went smoothly. In the end, says Robey Christian, an inspector told her, “‘Julia, I see no reason why you can’t have a theater.'” Granted, the certificate of occupancy is a temporary one, under which the theater can operate for 30 days. The sprinkler system must still be connected to an external water supply and the alarm system must be connected. Until that is complete, fire-watch personnel, certified by D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, will be present for each performance.
The entire playhouse has undergone a remarkable transformation since my last visit in May. What was a gutted warehouse with only the frames of rooms in place is now a newly painted, fully operational black-box theater. When I visited last week, the dressing rooms, lobby, and offices were not finished, exactly, but very close.Broke-ology‘s set is hyperrealistic: For Nathan Louis Jackson’s story about an African-American family struggling with poverty and illness, designer Harlan Penn has created a thoroughly detailed interior of the family’s home. The set’s complexity makes a statement about what kind of resources the Anacostia Playhouse could provide; it takes a step beyond the minimalist, experimental productions that are so often associated with black-box spaces.
The one feature left over from the old warehouse is a colorful mural that adorns a hallway wall around the play space. Robey Christian and Hovde have been talking about what to do with the mural for a few months. Robey Christian’s first instinct was to keep it. Hovde thinks it should be painted black, and every group that uses the space could sign one of the wall’s bricks.
After Broke-ology comes an interesting lineup of shows: John Johnson’s I Am Anacostia will open at the end of September, and Pinky Swear Productions will bring a production of David Henry Hwang’s Bondage to the playhouse on Nov. 7.
Last week, ticket sales for Broke-ology were “no better and no worse” than they tend to be during previews, Hovde said at the time. Even when Theater Alliance was housed on H Street NE, a play usually needed positive reviews and good word of mouth to produce strong ticket sales. Though when it comes to the burgeoning art scene in Anacostia, ticket sales aren’t the only important pieces of data: There’s also the question of whether audience demographics will change. As of last week, Hovde says, the ratio of previous patrons to new ones was about 1 to 1.
For now, both Hovde and Robey Christian seem relieved to only have to mind little details like office furniture and paint. Eventually, both of them came to agree that the mural should become a wall for artist signatures. “A montage of the history of what gets produced here,” Hovde says, “is kind of important.”
Broke-ology runs at the Anacostia Playhouse to Sept. 8 at 2020 Shannon Place SE.
Photo courtesy Theater Alliance