In a black-box theater just off I-295, a community is finding unity through performance.
Anacostia Playhouse has been a gathering place for residents of Southeast Washington, D.C., since it opened in 2002, bringing stores and restaurants to the area.
John Johnson, who has been a playwright and an actor at the playhouse for five years, said the shows performed there reflect the Anacostia community.
“Neighbors are able to get out of their homes and meet each other through coming to theater because normally, they wouldn’t cross paths,” Johnson said.
The playhouse bridges people of all ages, as well as artists and the audience, Johnson said. People already have the story with them when they go, and the actors perform it for them, Johnson said.
Community members are able to experience a range of stories at the playhouse, ranging from first dating experiences to hairstyles.
Johnson believes that Anacostia Playhouse is an important platform for the youth to voice their stories.
“Anacostia narrative is being diminished,” Johnson said. He advocates to encourage the youth.
Johnson said people don’t necessarily hear positive stories about Anacostia because of negative news coverage.
Johnson said he combats negative perceptions of his community by participating in theater at Anacostia Playhouse, which gives him the platform to celebrate Black culture and voices.
“The purpose of my pieces are to celebrate the struggles and analyze the failures, to rejoice around the survival of my neighborhood and connect neighbors, and to build community to laugh, cry and build your emotions to help you prepare for the upcoming week,” Johnson said.
Johnson said it’s important to challenge the negative stereotypes of Anacostia.
“Anacostia is a sacred place with so much history that can be built by the residents here,” he said.
Playhouse Cast member focuses on education
Natasha Preston, who has worked at the theater for six years, is an administrative and production assistant. She is also an actress, playwright and choreographer for the theater.
“A strong component of the mission statement is being a part of the education,” Preston said.
As part of its outreach efforts, Anacostia Playhouse has partnered with Ballou High School, Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School and Young Playwrights Theatre.
The playhouse also hosts a camp for kids each December. Children learn voice, acting, playwriting and movement, and they showcase their talents by performing for their family and friends at the end of the camp.
“Theater brings together community and allows people to listen,” Preston said.
Being a part of an audience gives people the opportunity to hear a different perspective Preston said which exposes people to understanding a world different from their own.
While Anacostia is steeped in history, Preston said the community is rapidly changing.
The playhouse is “one of the few spaces that’s geared towards art and it’s not rigid to be yourself,” Preston said.
She said being part of a larger community that is trying to put on a play has helped her better understand the community.
Anacostia Playhouse success stems from its culture
Adele Robey, the founder and executive director of Anacostia Playhouse, started the nonprofit in an empty warehouse in 2012.
Robey said the playhouse staff members love the black-box format because it suits their personality. The black-box theater is a simple performance space with a flat floor and seating for 100 to 120 people.
“The theater is very intimate, which can be a life-changing experience because normally when people attend plays, they are a couple feet away from the actor,” Robey said.
Anacostia Playhouse continues to receive grants to make adjustments to the facility.
“Theater drives the economic growth in the neighborhood,” Robey said.
The theater brings in roughly 10,000 to 20,000 people each year, Robey said. She said the Anacostia Playhouse is the building block of the community, bringing people from neighboring wards and Virginia to experience the shows.
“People are speechless,” Robey said. “Sometimes the plays address racial issues that people feel very free to speak and have discussion after the shows because the theater is a safe space.”