In 2001, using a massive federal grant, the City of Washington decided to turn the Arthur Capper/ Carrollsburg Housing Project into a mixed-income community, displacing the 707 families within it. You know how the road to Hell is paved, right? Readers of the Washington Post could learn about the chaotic removal of the low-income Capper residents, relocating them, in some cases, to other public housing which was due to be demolished. But how did it look from the inside out?
Anu Yadav, a brilliant actor and a first-rate storyteller, lets us know: it looks like a drama, in which heroic but flawed people battle a bureaucracy which, far from being impersonal, seems to be out to personally destroy them.
The three protagonists — Yadav calls them “composites”, as are all the characters save two — are Rhonda, a highly-intelligent and well-organized woman with a bad crack habit, Lena, shrewd and perceptive but beholden to the building managers for her money, and Miss Shirley, a deeply religious, profoundly dignified older woman whose sense of outrage is at war with a deeply-engrained deference. Yadav plays them all.
In fact, she plays everyone, slipping seamlessly from the voice and persona of a six-year-old child into that of a scolding adult and then to a different child, this one on the cusp of adolescence and beginning to come into her own power. Yadav is at her best when playing children; she gets their self-consciousness, their secret pride, their delight over absolute nonsense, and the way their words tumble over each other, shedding consonants, when they’re excited. (“I wrote fitty-two poems this week,” Shaniqua announces before launching into one about how angry her mother is.)
Yadav also plays two non-fiction characters: herself (she ran a writing workshop for kids in the Capper project) and Michael Kelly, who heads up the housing authority for the City. It may not surprise you that of the two, she plays Kelly more convincingly (the hardest instruction for an actor is to be yourself). Yadav resists the temptation to dress Kelly up as the piece’s villain; in Yadav’s telling, Kelly is a man who means to do good and who is playing the hand dealt to him as well as he knows how.
Which is not to say that the play is without a villain, or without blood-stirring conflict. Yadav conjures up a cracking good bad person: “Mary James”, the project’s manager, who radiates contempt for the people who are her responsibility. Her principal mission in the play is to prevent the victimized residents from complaining to Kelly at a public meeting he holds at Capper. This she accomplishes with vicious efficiency, preying on the weakness of each protester and, when that doesn’t work, calling in the cops.
October 20 – 23, 2015
Forum Theatre and dog&pony dc
at Silver Spring Black Box
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Tickets: $35 reserved seating or Pay What You Wish
Yadav makes no secret of her sympathies or point of view, but this play doesn’t preach. It tells a story, fairly and with considerable skill, which is a thousand times more effective.
As a performer, Yadav may prompt you to think about Anna Deavere Smith, but frankly I like what Yadav does more. Smith brilliantly captures the voices of people we know, but in so doing is captive to their limitations. Yadav with equal brilliance captures the voices of people we don’t know and who are otherwise voiceless, and by so doing reduces our limitations.
As for the Capper Project, it continued, but the Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg (who called themselves the “Capers”) managed to assure that all 707 families had a place to which to return (the original plan was to define “low income” at $60,000 or less; the average annual income of a Capper resident at the time was $8,000.)
The Capers have also continued, and are now engaged in an oral history project. They could do worse than start with the story Yadav has told so well.
Capers, by Anu Yadav . directed and developed by Patrick Crowley . featuring Yadav in all roles . sound design by Thomas Sowers . lighting design by Austin Byrd . Produced by Forum Theatre anddog& pony dc . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.