Playwright Aria Velz Talks About Arena Stage’s Film The 51st State

Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage is releasing the world premiere of its third film, The 51st State, focusing on the fight for D.C. statehood inspired by the BLM protests and racial disparities. 

Ten different stories are featured in the film written by DMV area playwrights who spoke with community members directly impacted by the protests and the historic journey to statehood. The monologues are then delivered by local actors. 

The film beautifully captures the city at a unique and historic period while shedding light on important issues the country faces during an election year. 

Northern Virginia native and playwright Aria Velz’s monologue is inspired by a woman who came out to protest for the very first time. Velz, director, dramaturg, producer, was an Allen Lee Hughes Fellow at Arena Stage where she worked on Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville, Fiddler on the Roof and Blood Quilt, among othersShe is a graduate from The University of the Arts with a BFA in Directing, Playwriting, and Production. 

The docudrama can be streamed on Arena Stage’s website.

Tell us about your monologue in the film.

Each playwright is given a person to interview who could illuminate an aspect of statehood and the anti-racism movements in different ways. The narrative I wrote centers around a white woman who attended a protest for the first time. I did one 45-minute long interview with her over Zoom, taking copious notes. From there I wrote the monologue based on an aspect of the interviews I found very compelling and familiar – uncertainty. For many first-time protestors, they don’t know what the do’s and don’ts are, and my interviewee was also trying to be aware of her privilege as a white woman while also understanding that she might not be doing enough to help, amplifying that uncertainty. After I wrote my piece, I sent it off to the directing team, and that’s where my understanding of how it all came together ends!

How is the fight for D.C. statehood linked to the BLM movement?

D.C. has historically been a majority-Black city, the only in the U.S., and even today a plurality of the residents of the D.C.’s 700,000 residents are Black. Statehood is absolutely a racial justice issue because currently it means right now we are disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Black Americans. A lot of the opposition to statehood is based in thinly-veiled racism, such as the fact that the city is “too liberal” or that the city “can’t even govern themselves,” as if the Black residents of the city are to blame for their own disenfranchisement. So it’s absolutely related to the work the BLM does – if Black lives matter, so too must their voices in creating change, and statehood would be a huge way this city with one of the most robust Black populations in the country can get a seat at the political table.

What were your most vivid memories attending some of those protests in front of the White House?

I attended multiple protests throughout the summer with my partner (and dramaturg on this piece!). We mainly stayed by the White House. I remember protestors constantly asking if anyone needed water, hand sanitizer, masks, or medical help. It felt very safe – for the most part. One afternoon we were marching down H Street NW by Lafayette Square, and across the street was a line of police in armor and shields just watching us chant and march. At one point I saw a protestor throw a half-full water bottle in the direction of the police – which is something that happened occasionally and normally the police would shoot rubber bullets at the ground in response. But this time the police decided to move in on the crowd – a moving wall of shields and batons, separating the march. They shot rubber bullets, grabbed people, and threw some kind of very small but loud stun grenades as they forced us back. People were scared and started running away; at one point I saw someone trip and scrape her knee pretty badly and I tried to help her up while someone administered first aid. After a block, the wall stopped, protestors were agitated and scared. Some of them shouted in the officers’ faces, some took knees, but there was a lot of frustration and helplessness. I’m not saying this is indicative of how every moment of each protest went, but it illuminates how easy it is to disproportionately exert power and how it can escalate things.

On the set of The 51st State – Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy

The BLM protests have been portrayed by some outlets as being violent. Most people who attended would disagree. How will this film help to show the peaceful side of the movement?

This is such a difficult question for me because I feel like people are addressing the violence in these protests with the wrong lens. I have seen violence in protests – but most of them were either caused or amplified by police, such as watching officers grab a woman riding her bike and shoving her to the ground, making her nose bleed – and then not even giving her a reason as to why she was being detained. But some people wouldn’t consider that violent at all – they only look at broken storefront windows and cars being on fire and saying that that’s the real violence that’s happening at these protests. But it’s more complicated and nuanced than car windows and graffiti, and in that sense, yes I think the docudrama addresses that. Statehood, BLM – there is more nuanced to these issues than people give time and credit to interrogate. I don’t necessarily think that we need to say that “both sides are at fault,” but we do need to address that power and power differentials – those between police and citizens and those between politicians and citizens – complicate things, including violence. I hope that through this docudrama, people see how those complications are everywhere, including within ourselves.

The fight for D.C. statehood has a long and, unfortunately, failed history. Do you sense a shifting this time around?

There is definitely more of a shift! Fewer than twenty years ago the idea for D.C. statehood experienced a lot more bipartisan rejection. But now it’s a double-edged sword – it’s gotten a lot more traction in Congress, but only from Democrats. So now I think D.C. statehood can only happen in one of two ways: 1) Convince Republican Congresspeople that it’s the right thing to do or 2) Elect more Democrats into Congress so that they can do it themselves. I’m going to let readers decide which they think is more likely, but the fact that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called D.C.’s lack of statehood was a “grave injustice” means that now there are serious national power players behind the idea, and that’ll only help the cause over time.

DMV playwrights took the lead in the making of this docudrama. Why are these creatives perfect for this project?

So many people around the country think that D.C. is this stodgy place where only lawyers and politicians exist – but they’re so wrong! It may be small, but it is dense with beauty, complexity, and a culture that has nothing to do with what you find by the White House or U.S. Capitol. D.C. has a thriving performing arts community, and the artists represented in this project represent the complexities of D.C. itself – some were born here, some have been in D.C. for decades, others only moved here a couple of years ago. I am familiar with the work of every one of the artists in some capacity and am enamored by their talent and by how different they all are. If I had the time, I could go down the list to tell you how each of them is perfect for this docudrama. Ultimately, I think it comes down to that every one of these artists love D.C. in their own ways and through their own means. They understand the responsibility to represent the joys and sorrow of the D.C. area and its hopes for the future in a way I think only D.C. metro residents can.

It’s important that everyone vote this time around. Does the film cover that issue?

Every monologue in this piece will feature an issue worth voting for. Whether it’s statehood, racism, immigration, housing, law enforcement – there isn’t a single piece in this film that doesn’t have a corresponding action that we can take if we collectively voted. I think that’s one of the beauties of this film – the implicit thru line is that people are taking action right now. It’s happening on the streets, it’s happening in conversations with loved ones, it’s happening online with strangers, but can we also make sure it’s happening in the ballot box at every local, state, and federal election? Absolutely – if that’s something we’re willing to do.

Read the review of The 51st State.