The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg two days after Arena Stage debuted its hour-long “docudrama” online (watch below) gave new urgency to the argument for D.C. statehood. Directed by Molly Smith, the artistic director of the 70-year-old D.C. theater company, “The 51st State” is a series of ten short plays based on interviews with a range of Washington D.C. residents, written by ten local playwrights and performed by 11 local actors. But their concerns are not just local concerns – and this is not just because D.C. statehood would affect the entire nation. The monologues by “characters” as varied as a football fan, a conservative lawyer, a Church-going mother, and a priest who sees Trump as an embodiment of the antichrist, reflect what many see as a pivotal moment in American democracy.
Only two of the scenes contained an extended and explicit argument for statehood. In “The Professor” by Karen Zacarias (the most prominent of the playwrights), J.J. Johnson portrays Michael Fauntroy, a professor of political science at Howard University, a fourth-generation D.C. native who lives in an 19th century home that his family first started renting in 1935, and was finally able to buy decades later. He uses his family’s experience with their house as a metaphor for statehood: “We have rented the home we have built long enough.” The clause in the Constitution that gives the federal government power over the District (specifically article 1, section 8, clause 17) “creates an infirmity that renders all the residents of the district without the same measure of democracy enjoyed by Americans in the states,” he says. Later, in “They Say” by Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe, Sherri Edelman and Thomas Simpson play a retired couple who go into specifics – the federal government has revoked or blocked local laws that regulated the ownership of guns, that legalized marijuana, and that spent “our own money to provide health care for the poor, particularly abortion,” the husband says.
“This isn’t right,” the wife says. “We should be able to govern ourselves. And in a city where the African-American population is still in the majority, you can’t separate sovereignty, statehood and racial justice.”
It’s to the credit of the creative team that “They Say” is immediately followed by “Michael” by Caleen Sinette Jennings, in which Michael Glenn portrays a lawyer who is opposed to home rule: “Make DC a state, you got pure chaos and corruption.”
Much of the conversation is about the recent protests in D.C. following the police killing of George Floyd; the scripted scenes (many against a backdrop of outdoor murals) are interspersed with brief documentary footage of those protests. In “Where I Sit” by Mary Surface Hall, Jacob Yeh plays a theater artist who wants to go out to protest, but he’s immuno-compromised, so instead he stays home and helps coordinate. “The revolution needs stage managers, right?”
It’s understandable why the characters sometimes deliver what sound like political speeches – they’re angry; they’re upset; they’re informed. But I found the more personal and less polemical moments more persuasive. Justin Weaks is a standout as a teenager nervously fiddling with his smart phone in “No More Running,” by Teshonne Power, detailing his nightmares as well as his convictions. In the last of the ten plays, “go” by Gregory Keng Strasser, Gary L. Perkins III portrays a musician who narrates his harrowing experience at a protest and how it changed his life, made him part of a community, taught him some lessons. “Everyone has a story, you got to talk to people on a personal level,” he tells us, pointing first to his head, and then to his heart. “You got to hear their story.”