A month after the Anacostia Playhouse was originally slated to open, the city’s newest theater is finally starting to look like one.
Julia Robey Christian, the venue’s chief operating officer as well as the daughter of its founder and CEO, Adele Robey, is showing me the newest structure in the playhouse: the box office. Otherwise, what I see mostly feels like a three-dimensional blueprint drawn in steel and wood. Frames for offices and a green room have been raised along the back wall. In the center, steel beams outline the large room that will become the playhouse’s versatile 150-seat black-box space. Over the din of machinery, Robey Christian muses about finding a vintage rolling cover for the box office.
The Anacostia Playhouse on 2020 Shannon Place SE should’ve been operating by now, had everything gone according to plan. Still, the naked beams and construction noises are a positive development. When I visited the space in March, it was still an empty, quiet warehouse, bound up in invisible red tape.
Now, the regulatory barriers have been hurdled, and the new opening date—the “drop-dead opening date,” Robey Christian stresses—is June 21. A show that’s part of the D.C. Black Theatre Festival is scheduled to run from June 21 to 30. At that point, renovation will need to be complete and the space fully outfitted with a theatrical lighting grid and sound system.
While the Anacostia Playhouse continues to take physical shape, the Robeys have turned more of their attention to what they’ll put inside it. A year after the Robeys transplanted their home for small theater companies from bustling, increasingly expensive H Street NE, the building setbacks are short-term hiccups compared to the long-term challenge the playhouse faces: making sure that the Anacostia Playhouse is a place for audiences not just from other parts of D.C., but from Anacostia, too.
When Adele Robey tells people she’s opening a theater in Anacostia, she says, “People sort of go, ‘OK, interesting, risky.” She says she’s confident, however, that once audiences make the trip to the area to see a show, “it will undo these sort of things you’re carrying around in your head about what Anacostia is.”
What Anacostia is, Robey hopes, is a place where middle class, mostly white theatergoers are willing to travel for a show. But she also hopes they’re not her only audience. While the H Street Playhouse, which opened in 2002, succeeded in bringing theater crowds to 14th and H streets NE, it was eventually priced out as the neighborhood evolved into one of D.C.’s busiest nightlife districts. (“Theaters just drive economic development,” Robert says. “Everybody has just sort of seen that happen.”) Robey’s idea is for Anacostia to embrace the venue as indispensable from the start.
Robey’s plans for the Anacostia Playhouse involve a shift in Robey’s business model. While H Street Playhouse largely functioned as a rental space for a handful of small theater companies, the Anacostia Playhouse’s management will take a more active role in programming (they’re bringing in more music through the D.C. Jazz Festival) and marketing, which will include more outreach to the neighborhood. As a first step, the Robeys hired a house manager, Dale Coachman, a freelance writer and director who lives in Anacostia and who has begun the theater’s local charm campaign.
“What I’ve been trying to do in Anacostia, more so than anything, is just let people know what the playhouse is about and that they have ownership of it,” says Coachman. “When new businesses come to Ward 8, there’s a perception that people are coming in to tell people what to do and how to live and where to buy stuff. With the playhouse we have people coming in pretty much saying, ‘This is yours, make it what you want to make it.’ So we want to give them as much ownership as possible.”
A community-minded theater, of course, isn’t a “community theater”—the often pejorative term for low-budget, low-stakes neighborhood productions. At least one of the resident companies from the H Street Playhouse is staying on.
Broke-ology, Theatre Alliance’s first production in the new playhouse, opens August 16. Artistic Director Colin Hovde explains that the choice of material is “about saying what’s at stake for you? What’s interesting to you? And what kind of theater do you want to see?”
Written by Nathan Louis Jackson, the play is a portrait of an African-American family struggling to cope with the father’s losing battle with multiple sclerosis. The show has been produced all over the country and, Hovde says, “has a really proven track record in terms of the conversation that it starts.”
Yet producing in and for Anacostia is not the only challenge Theater Alliance must face. The company was in residence for 10 years at H Street Playhouse, but it won’t operate full-time in Anacostia. While Theater Alliance will have office space in the new playhouse, it will produce shows all over the city. “I feel like we don’t want to geographically isolate ourselves to any one location until we have a demand to be in that location and we’ve got a real need to be there,” says Hovde. “Yes, there’s the question, will people come across the river that have supported us in the past? But I think there’s the bigger question of what do we at Theater Alliance want to do, and whose stories do we want to tell, and how do we want to engage?”
Elsewhere on the production calendar, Anacostia is coming to the playhouse. Artist Jason Anderson, who performs as Jay Sun, hopes to perform his show Jay Sun for President at the playhouse on August 1. Anderson was raised in Anacostia, and his company, SouthEast Trinity, produced several shows at H Street Playhouse and once at 2020 Shannon Place during the LUMEN8 Anacostia Festival last June. Anderson says he is enthusiastic about development that brings the arts into the community “as long as artists from the community are allowed to use the platform along with everybody else.”
Although Anderson says the specter of gentrification concerns him, he says he’s excited to see what companies from other parts of D.C. can bring to Anacostia. “Our community needs to see maybe some variations of Shakespeare, and maybe some opera, and maybe some variations of culture.”
Anderson’s show will be directed by John Johnson of the company Verbal Gymnastics, who sees a professional venue as a needed resource for the neighborhood. “I had to go over to H Street to perform because, you know, there was no space like a black box in our community, other than maybe like a church,” Johnson says. “But you can’t use the full range of language in a church, because that’s not a part of their etiquette. That’s nothing against the churches, that’s just the way it works. Our art sometimes has a form that needs to be in another space.”
Johnson is also producing a monologue-based show called I Am Anacostia, which he would like to mount in September. Johnson wants it to include a mix of seasoned artists and newcomers, people he knows from the community who have previously been without a platform. “They might be banging on the green trash bin in the back yard, rhyming,” he says. “Let’s put it onstage. Let’s give you this microphone to speak some of the things you’re talking about. They’re relevant. And people assume that you’re not having these conversations because they aren’t in the halls of Congress. They aren’t being discussed in think tanks. But it’s relevant.”
The Robeys aren’t technically building a playhouse yet. For now, to stay in compliance with the letter of the law, they’re simply renovating a warehouse.
When the Robeys and Mayor Vince Gray announced last July that the former H Street Playhouse had found a new home in Ward 8, they had not taken into consideration one possible snag: parking. In March, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs placed a “stop work” order on the site because construction was underway without a building permit—which DCRA could not grant because the parking spaces the Robeys had rented along with the warehouse were not in compliance with regulation. They appealed for a variance from the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, knowing that the process can take time. The entire renovation schedule was thrown into limbo, along with the production schedules of a handful of companies counting on the venue. The delay, had it lasted into the fall, would have threatened the entire enterprise.
With the help of councilmembers Tommy Wells and Marion Barry, the Robeys sought legislative relief from Chairman Phil Mendelson, who denied their request to put the legislation on the Council schedule. Mendelson told Washington City Paper at the time, “it is not in the public interest to enable developers to begin construction regardless of zoning compliance, thinking that after-the-fact they’ll meet the requirements. The temptation to create this type of precedent must be resisted. The potential for future abuse is certain.” A struggle to open an arts venue, in other words, briefly became the latest skirmish in the city’s zoning wars.
As an alternative, Mendelson met with Adele Robey and proposed that the work proceed using separate electrical, plumbing, and interior warehouse renovation permits. The zoning variance wouldn’t be necessary until the playhouse sought a commercial certificate of occupancy allowing it to operate as a theater. On March 29, Mayor Vince Gray paid a visit to DCRA and signed the renovation permit himself.
Finally, on April 23, the Robeys were granted by a unanimous vote from the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment a full exemption from those pesky parking requirements. The final occupancy process comes next. “We can be a warehouse until we put in seats,” says Robey Christian.
Still, an Anacostia with one less warehouse and one more playhouse clearly has city officials excited. The Robeys are aware of the place arts organizations hold in the ecology of economic development, however small and psychic. Their solution, for now, is lots of dialogue. One positive shift, Robey Christian says, that has taken place between the building of the H Street Playhouse and the building of the Anacostia Playhouse is how openly people discuss “avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification.”
But the Robeys don’t want to spend all their energy holding a dialogue on neighborhood change. “We can’t take on all those fights,” says Adele Robey. “That’s what we’ve always said: Here’s what we do, and we promise that’s all we’re doing. We’re making a theater, no more and no less than that.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery