Dickenz in the ‘hood Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:28:39
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When you rip your heart out of your chest in the Fichandler Theatre at Arena Stage, you don’t just yank it out and drop it on the bed–especially if you are the ghost of Jacob Marley and you’ve been dead for seven years, and it’s Christmas Eve. And even though the stage directions only say, “Marley takes his heart out and shows it to Scrooge,” you have to pull it out with a flourish. “Show it to the Arena,” says actor Henry Strozier, holding the koosh-ball “heart” and brandishing it to the four walls of the rehearsal hall. Strozier has logged 11 years with Washington, D.C.’s premiere theatre-in-the-round and has landed the role of Marley in Cornerstone Theater Company’s brand-new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, running through January 2. He knows what to do with a heart at Arena Stage.
But that doesn’t stop 11-year-old D’Vaughn Spencer from making a gruesome suggestion. “You should get some of that goopy stuff from a toy store red and let it run through your fingers,” he says with authority. Director Bill Rauch approves with a grin.
This may be the 10-billionth adaptation of Charles Dickens’s well-worn tale of skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with a pack of ghosts on the night before Christmas–but this one is unlike any that went before, not only because it is set in 1993 in the southeast Washington neighborhood of Anacostia, but because A Community Carol is a unique collaboration of people from that struggling neighborhood, from the highly polished Arena Stage, and from Cornerstone, the distinctively populist company that specializes in bringing live productions to theatre-less communities around the country.

This production is unusual, even for Cornerstone. It’s the first time the Los Angeles-based traveling company has forged a partnership with a major resident theatre, enlisting its seasoned professionals as collaborators and basking in its long-respected footlights.
On this Veterans Day weekend, two weeks before opening night, about half of A Community Carol’s 35-member cast gathers in the production’s “rehearsal hall,” a warehouse room on the ground floor of a parking garage across the street from the theatre in Washington’s upscale southwest waterfront neighborhood.
Strozier, who has just wound up a critically acclaimed performance as Malvolio in Arena’s production of Twelfth Night, swaps quips with Al Freeman Jr., the Emmy-winning soap-opera star who left the cast of One Life to Live in 1988 to become a theatre professor at Howard University and is now starring as Ebenezer Scrooge, a black businessman who has walled himself away from the needs of his community. They are being coached by Rauch, who founded Cornerstone in 1986 with like-minded cohorts from Harvard, from which he graduated two years earlier.
“We kicked around the idea of starting our own company that would interact with the community and work with nontraditional casts,” Rauch says. “We thought it was not only a great thing to do, but that it would help us develop more deeply as artists, pushing us in new directions.” In tandem with Harvard history graduate Alison Carey (who contributed to the writing of A Community Carol and is playing minor characters in the show), Rauch launched the venture with an interracial production of Our Town in Newport News, Va., then moved on to hammer out a Wild West version of Hamlet in the tiny town of Marmarth in North Dakota (and helped launch a community theatre there after the Marmarth Hamlet closed).
Perhaps the most dramatic project came in the winter of 1988: In Port Gibson, Miss., where segregation survived in earnest, the company reworked Romeo and Juliet as the story of a racial feud, casting a white company member as Juliet and a black local high school student as Romeo. The story of that production caught the eyes of Hollywood producers and has been sold to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment for a possible film production in late 1994.
Cornerstone’s accomplishments notwithstanding, it took some fast talking to convince the board of directors of the 43-year-old Arena Stage, and some of its company members, to undertake a production where half the cast has little or no acting experience and to offer it as a regular part of Arena’s subscription series.
“There were a lot of areas of resistance,” recalls artistic director Douglas C. Wager, a 19-year veteran of Arena who assumed leadership of the company after founder Zelda Fichandler retired in 1991. (Wager knew Rauch from the latter’s mid-’80s stint as assistant to Peter Sellars, then producer of the ill-fated American National Theater at the Kennedy Center.) “There were very healthy, aggressive discussions about whether or not Arena should be involved in it. Is it really wise to have 15 non-professionals in the cast? What would it be like playing in a scene with them? What’s my role as an artist, when normally I work with the director and other actors? What is the aesthetic standard? There was a lot of apprehension, but a lot of excitement and interest as well,” Wager says.
Arena had been looking for ways to expand its audience and be more relevant to the larger D.C. community, when Steven Newsome, director of the Anacostia Museum–the Smithsonian Institutions’s only community museum–approached the theatre with the idea of some sort of collaboration. With the museum as an inroad to the community, Wager says, Arena could avoid a “missionary” role: “We’re not some Great White Institution marching across the river to an unserved community.”
Talks about the project began in early 1993, and the final decision was made last April, Wager says. The project would cost about $700,000, a sizeable chunk of Arena’s yearly budget of just under $9 million. To work at Arena, Cornerstone had to become an Equity company. Everyone in the cast would be paid, including elementary school children with no previous experience on the stage. In Rauch, Arena acquired a 22-week resident director.
An advisory board was formed from about 30 leaders in the Anacostia community. They set up information centers in clinics, senior centers and childhood development centers to describe the project and post audition schedules. Rauch says teams spent about eight weeks in Anacostia conducting auditions and offering workshops in acting and in backstage work. A record number of people turned out at auditions for this Cornerstone production–252, smashing the previous record of 150.
The resulting cast includes the aforementioned “heart specialist,” D’Vaughn Spencer, 13, an eighth grader at Sousa Middle School, and his sister, Daun, 8, a third-grade student at Davis Elementary. “I love it,” Daun says about acting. “I think I’ll do it for my whole life.” And seven-year-old Karen Pearson was beside herself when she learned she passed the audition: “I was jumpin’ on the bed,” she enthuses. “My mother, my sister and my brother tried out–I’m the only one that made it.”
S. Robert Morgan, founder and artistic director of the Essential Theatre in Anacostia, landed the part of Dick Wilkins. The receptionist at Arena Stage, Donna L. Norris, will undertake some minor parts. And Teeko Parron, a theatre major at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, will be one of the Cratchit children, a part he can identify with.
“The family–it’s struggling on one income, trying to make ends meet,” Parron says, comparing it to his own family where “it’s a little better–but it’s never really easy, not during these hard times.” Parron lives with two younger brothers and his mother, a single parent who was recently laid off because of the recession, he says.
Anacostia sits across the Anacostia River from the power brokers and federal departments that run the country. It’s a small part of a city wracked with crime, a city that sets new murder records each year, where the mayor has asked Congress for permission to have the National Guard help patrol its streets. Anacostia is beginning to show signs of new life–a subway station recently opened and is beginning to attract new businesses to the commercial area. And though crime isn’t letting up, Anacostia’s community-minded residents aren’t either.
Nicola Tyler, 14, who plays one of the Cratchit daughters, finds time after her 10th-grade classes at Eastern Senior High School to do peer-counseling at a center on Martin Luther King Avenue. Tyler says it’s not uncommon to hear gunfire in her neighborhood. “If you walk down to the stores, you can hear them,” she says. “It depends on the time and the month–there’s not really that much shooting now.”
Such grim realities are what convinced Arena and Cornerstone to settle on the Dickens tale to tell an Anacostia story. Laurence Maslon, Arena’s associate artistic director who contributed to the script and wrote the lyrics to a dozen or so songs composed for the show by Michael Keck, says Dickens’s subjects were immediate and contemporary. “You see A Christmas Carol done now with a lot of velvet top hats, but when he wrote it, he wrote about things before his eyes,” Maslon asserts. “The Cratchits are not cute people with plump, red cheeks they are a real family trying to make it.”
It was Rauch who pushed for A Christmas Carol, Maslon says. Arena had always avoided the holiday war-horse, but the chance to update it and make it relevant to the 1990s was consistent with Arena’s mission. The collaborating companies enlisted the talents of Edward P. Jones, a native Washingtonian whose collection of D.C.-based short stories, Lost in the City, won the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first work of fiction. He, Carey, Rauch and Maslon came up with the play’s final draft–if something that changes constantly during rehearsal can truly be called “final.”
The main charge was to keep the script as close to Dickens’s original work as possible and to update the images and references for a 1993 setting. “The biggest hurdle was how to keep the narrative voice and Dickens’s moral vision,” Maslon says. “We knew we didn’t want some guy in an armchair too boring.” Instead, Rauch came up with a device similar to the Greek chorus policemen, construction workers, firemen, fast-food workers and the like would comment on the play’s development through Keck and Maslon’s songs.
Updating the story to 1993 involved some ingenious writing. Tiny Tim is now “T.T.,” confined to a wheelchair after being caught in crossfire out on the street. Marley’s ghost first appears to Scrooge by way of the TV set. Bob Cratchit becomes a minor character, displaced by Penny Cratchit, Ebenezer’s underpaid secretary. And the riotous party thrown by Fezziwig (Scrooge’s old boss) takes place just after World War II, when Washington, still a very segregated city, was confronting the hypocrisy of sending so many blacks off to war then discriminating against them at home, a practice that becomes depressingly apparent when the racially mixed party gradually breaks up into two separate groups.
Once the dance numbers were identified, Sabrina Peck who runs her own dance company in New York and has been with Cornerstone since an early production in Dinwiddie, Va. was called in to choreograph the production. “I can already see the change in these kids,” she says, running them through a rap number in the Old Vat Room, a cabaret-style theatre in Arena’s basement. She has also been working with two deaf children who joined the production only recently. She’s impressed with the way the other children pitched in to help.
“Cornerstone is my first priority,” says Peck, who is committed to the mission of marrying theatre to community, but is rewarded personally by the way Rauch gives her creative breathing space. “I’m able to talk with him about emotions; we can sit down and work out a scene. It’s a constant dialogue Bill and I have: What’s the mood, the intention, what’s the form?”
Wager concedes that Rauch has a curious way of operating. “He has a sense of clarity and focus, but he surrounds himself with incredible chaos,” Wager observes. “Still, he remains decisive and creative.”
Some of that chaos is apparent in the first runthrough of the entire play. Rauch has pushed the schedule ahead, since it is a weekend–the biggest problem with the production so far is getting people who have jobs and school work to come together at the same time. The young folks’ attention spans keep blurring out of focus. The rehearsal hall feels so crowded it seems that the walls are closing in.
But there are good omens. A late addition to the show is a rousing rap number, a brilliant substitute for some wooden lines that youngsters would never deliver well. Nicola Tyler and Teeko Parron lead the kids through the song and bring down the house. When the ensemble takes the stage for the final number, the musicians begin to tune up when someone in the wings reminds everyone to face the imaginary audience.
So they turn in a rough kind of unison to face the beige concrete walls, raise up their voices and sing “God Bless Us, Everyone” in rousing gospel style. As opening night approaches, you can almost hear an audience clapping.

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