When I moved to the District in the mid 1970s, after being born and raised in New York and living for three years in Pennsylvania, I found one fact about our nation’s capital surprising and shocking – residents paid taxes but were not represented by elected officials in either the U.S. Congress or Senate. License plates that read “Taxation Without Representation” were a common sight.
Those living in D.C. were finally able to vote in the Presidential election of 1964 with the passage of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by the required number of states by 1961. But the District’s sole representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, remains a non-voting member of Congress. In June, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a bill granting statehood to Washington, D.C. If the upcoming election succeeds in electing Joe Biden and toppling the Senate’s Republican majority, what once seemed unlikely may become reality.
Momentum from the Black Lives Matter Movement places the issue on the agenda for a good reason: According to 2017 Census data, nearly half – 47.1 percent – of the District’s more than 700,000 residents are Black. The juxtaposition between the protests and the push for statehood are explored in The 51st State, produced by Arena Stage. The theater’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, whose vision continues to place Arena on the cutting edge of cultural issues, is one of the film’s directors. “This is a hyper-local docudrama about a city in transition,” Smith says. “What an amazing and overwhelming time to live in, in the midst of a pandemic with tragedy after tragedy and yet people coming together for positive change.”
Arena tapped into its theatrical resources for the film. Ten local playwrights crafted monologues that were then performed by 11 actors well-known to local theater audiences. Interspersed between these narrations are scenes from the recent BLM marches in front of the White House. And while statehood is frequently mentioned, other issues receive attention and other points of view presented. Here are some of the highlights:
In “Real Change” (Playwright: Farah Lawal Harris; Director: Paige Hernandez) Actor Jason B. MacIntosh argues against superficial changes like renaming the Washington Redskins or Virginia’s Jefferson Davis Highway. He deplores “taxation without representation,” noting that the District has the highest taxes in the country and no one in the Senate. “What’s going to change in the system?” he asks.
“On Faith, Love, and Jesus the Revolutionary,” Todd Scofield, playing a priest, is passionate delivering the words of playwright Dane Figueroa Edidi, with direction by Seema Sueko. Growing up in Arkansas, “I didn’t think about race. But a viewpoint of indifference is still indifference.” Citing President Trump’s “white supremacist view of the country,” his character laments that his father voted for Trump and will again.
Joy Jones plays a mother who took her two small boys to the protests. In “Hope (for Him),” written by Deb Sivigny and directed by Anita Maynard-Losh, this mother says that we “have to believe change is on the horizon.”
Two of D.C.’s favorite actors, Sherri L. Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson, are standouts delivering Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoë’s words, with direction by Molly Smith. “There’s a need for bodies in the street,” Edelen says. “We need change for how people are treated.” They also underscore the need for D.C. to have self-rule. Congress, they note, continues to meddle in D.C.’s business, including prohibiting D.C. from passing any bill legalizing or regulating marijuana sales.
An opposing view on statehood is presented in “Michael,” written by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, directed by Seema Sueko, and performed by Michael Glenn. The push for statehood is characterized as “an exercise in raw power” by Democrats to get more seats in the Senate. “If you don’t like it here – move!”
Playwright Aria Velz’s “Just” focuses on a young woman, played by Dani Stoller, who attends her first protest march along with her mother “who hates Trump.” But just marching once, she notes, is not enough. “You have to get involved.” Anita Maynard-Losh directed. (Read Velz’s interview about the film.)
In “Go” playwright Gregory Keng Strasser pulls from true events in the segment directed by Psalmayene 24 and performed by Gary Perkins III. When troops were sent in to clear away peaceful protestors for Trump’s photo op in front of a church, people fled from rubber bullets and flash bangs. Raoul, who lived nearby, opened his home to 70 people and refused the police’s attempts to come in and make arrests. Once inside, the protestors shared stories and when they left the next morning, had formed a community. “Raoul is a friend now.”
Photos courtesy of Arena Stage.