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The political gets very personal when someone in the family decides to run for president. Especially if you are Candace Gingrich- Jones, a lesbian and the half-sister of Newt Gingrich. The Accidental Activist, a new play by Gingrich-Jones’ wife Rebecca Gingrich-Jones, debuts this Wednesday as the first installment in the Beltway Drama Series. Based Candace’s memoir of the same title, the script explores the relationship of the Gingrich siblings and updates the tale to include Gingrich’s current bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Candace Gingrich- Jones will play herself.
The Beltway Series is headed by John Feffer, a D.C.- based playwright and the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Housed at the Busboys & Poets in Hyattsville, the series will offer monthly staged readings of plays written by D.C.-area playwrights that take on issues of social justice or international relations. “We’ll see what kind of appetite there is for politically themed productions,” says Feffer.
You can’t argue with the decision to begin the series with The Accidental Activist. “I’m really drawn to this story, ” says Rebecca Gingrich-Jones, “because in this election season people have such strong opinions about people who they’ve never met before. I just kind of wanted to show the audience a different side. I like to try to write plays that help people question their assumptions.”
The shedding of light on a marginalized point of view appears to be the thread connecting the works on the Beltway Series roster. The three playwrights I spoked to said they hope their topics will excite rather than alienate an audience whose town is saturated with politics.
“It’s the story of a war criminal but told from his point of view,” says Kitty Felde, the Washington correspondent for Southern California Public Radio, of her play A Patch of Earth. The Beltway Series’ April offering has had one “grown-up” production before, and won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition. Felde says it gets produced frequently at colleges. Half the play consists of transcripts from the 1997 war crime tribunal of Dražen Erdemović, a Bosnian Croat who confessed to killing “no more than 70” Muslim man and boys in a field outside Srebrenica. Given the choice to shoot or be shot, Erdemović was faced with a moral dilemma with which Felde finds “college students love to wrestle.” But it’s harder to entice a paying audience. “A wonderful artistic director here in town told me—-she loved the play—-but she was like, ‘I can’t sell tickets to a war-crimes play.'”
Patricia Davis, a former communications director at The Guatemala Human Rights Commision and co- author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth, wrote the series’ June installment, Alternative Methods. I reviewed the play when it was produced in 2010 at Capital Fringe, and I thought Davis succeeded in her portrayal of a terrorist motivated as much by love as a desire to destroy. Davis argues that a passion for social justice issues is not only a distinctive strength of D.C.-based playwrights, but is also why the stories will resonate with audiences. “I think that that is one thing that may be unique to Washington playwrights. People are drawn to Washington because they’re writers and there are a lot of writer jobs. It’s a paper city.” Washington residents, she continues, “are also drawn to ideas, so people like Jon [Feffer] and me start writing plays out of a nonprofit background.” She believes life in D.C. allows playwrights to become particularly qualified to offer an under-represented point of view. “We’re actually interacting with people who are on both sides of the issue that we’re talking about…you have access to people in a way that you wouldn’t have if you were writing someplace else.”
Feffer suggests that the political environment could also be partly responsible for why the theater scene in this city became so vibrant in the first place. “What I find interesting about Washington is that it’s entirely theatrical…Certainly since FDR, everything has been orchestrated like theater, with a very conscious sense of what is entertaining and what is spectacle. And with a very well-honed sense of how words and images go together. So I think this is a very natural theater going audience here because we’ve been primed in some sense to see theater everywhere.”
All the participants in the Beltway Drama series hope audiences will agree and prove that an even greater interaction between the political and theatrical worlds is on the horizon. Says Feffer: “If it’s a big hit we can say justifiably that the D.C. theater scene should pay more attention to these kinds of plays and that audiences want it.”
The Beltway Drama series begins with The Accidental Activist on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Busboys & Poets, 5331 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville. A Patch of Earth follows on April 14; an evening of shorts will take place in May, and Alternative Methods will be performed in June.