Arena Stage tackles DC statehood, racism in streaming film ’51st State’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The 51st State' by Arena Stage

D.C. residents have long protested “taxation without representation.”

It has become even more important during the city’s recent handling of racial unrest.

Arena Stage tackles both issues in its new 60-minute film “The 51st State,” which premieres Wednesday in a sold-out supper club before streaming publicly Thursday.

“The protests after George Floyd’s murder in Washington, D.C. were extraordinary,” artistic director Molly Smith told WTOP. “As we moved into a growing movement toward racial justice and the fight in Washington D.C. for sovereignty as the 51st state, it seemed to be a perfect focus for our newest film. … D.C. is both local and national.”

The film is based on nearly a dozen real-life accounts.

“We interviewed 11 different residents of Washington, D.C.,” Smith said. “There was a first-time protester, there was a pastor who also protests, a historian, a person who is a Twitter underground guy, who because he is immunocompromised couldn’t go out to the marches and yet he’s letting people know where the Boogaloo boys are.”

These were turned into monologues by playwrights Dane Figueroa Edidi, Farah Lawal Harris, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Teshonne Nicole Powell, Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe, Gregory Keng Strasser, Deb Sivigny, Mary Hall Surface, Aria Velz and Karen Zacarias.

“I would say 50 or 60% of the monologues come directly from the interviewees and the rest is the brainchild of the writer,” Smith said. “We cast some wonderful Washington, D.C. actors to perform each one of the roles. We had five different directors working with the actors on the monologues. The rehearsals were all done by Zoom meetings.”

The cast includes the best theater talent that D.C. has to offer: Sherri L. Edelen, Michael Glenn, James J. Johnson, Joy Jones, Jason B. McIntosh, Gary L. Perkins III, Todd Schofield, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Dani Stoller, Justin Weaks and Jacob Yeh.

“We shot it over a two-day period of time in three different areas of the city,” Smith said. “Downtown in the iconic U Street area around Ben’s Chili Bowl, then we were also in more of the federal part of Washington D.C., which is around the Woolly Mammoth area, then we were at a small brownstone home, so three different areas.”

Smith directed the film with a creative team of monologue director Paige Hernandez, senior artistic adviser Anita Maynard-Losh, master teaching artist Psalmayene 24, deputy artistic director Seema Sueko and sound designer Nick Hernandez.

“It has a D.C. sound to it,” Smith said. “Some of it sounds a bit go-go, some sounds more jazz or blues influenced. It’s the kind of music that we have here in Washington.”

Of course, they ran into certain challenges of filming during a pandemic.

“Shooting in the time of COVID-19 is fascinating,” Smiths said. “We had to be tested for COVID within a 72-hour period of going out, everybody is masked, which means that the only person that is unmasked is the actor when they’re acting. Everybody else, the three-person film crew, myself, the other directors, we all had masks on all day.”

Thus, the film captured our summer struggle where masked protesters rallied outside the White House and Mayor Muriel Bowser painted #BlackLivesMatter on 16th Street.

“There were tanks on our city street and because we are not a state, the mayor had only certain avenues that she could respond to this threat,” Smith said. “I think that galvanized people even more in terms of believing that Washington, D.C. needs to be the 51st state. We don’t have representation at the level of the legislature nationally.”

The film claims that statehood is a basic issue of fairness.

“[D.C. Del.] Eleanor Holmes Norton is incredible and she has a strong voice, and yet she has no vote,” Smith said. “We pay more taxes than just about any place in the country and this is a city that has 700,000 people in it. Listen, I’m from Alaska, there’s 600,000 people in it, and we have representation there, so it’s time.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Molly Smith (Full Interview)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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