- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

From the biting and boisterous opening moments of Arena Stage's production of "Anthems: Culture Clash in the District," it is clear that this play could act as a metaphor for today's D.C. mayoral election.

"Find our anthem" and "make it continuous" meaning make it connect us and join us all together is the monumental mission put to playwright Richard Montoya. The charge is issued during a chance airport encounter with the author by one straight-shooter named Ben Bull, a real and fictitious grief counselor who is headed to Washington to walk yet another victimized family through the Pentagon after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Montoya, of the Chicano/Latino community theater troupe called Culture Clash, conducted countless interviews "no longer as a writer but as a war correspondent" with folks across all racial, economic and sex barriers in the city as well as the suburbs. He struggles for two hours to uncover an elusive melody of praise and devotion to portray a capital city that is anything but homogeneous or harmonious.

Just ask the incumbent mayor, Anthony A. Williams, why his slogan of "one city" fails to resonate from Western Avenue NW to Stanton Road SE. Washington, D.C., after all, is a tale of two cities. And it is a world unto its own. Is there a politician or a playwright who can bring us together in this fractious fabled city? I dare say no. Although, peeking like Alice through the looking glass at this "strange place" that the author just "can't get," one does catch a fleeting glimpse of how we are, and can be, one.

"As a people, we have much more in common than we have separate; but unless we realize our commonalities, we will remain forever separated. These collisions in the piece bring us together, closer to that unifying anthem," said director Charles Randolph-Wright. If only the right leadership for this unifying role would come forward. Too bad too many suited for task hid backstage.

So, D.C. voters are presented with little choice of candidates who promote healing of this city's schizophrenic soul.

Arena's artistic director, Molly Smith, calls the play "an irreverent Valentine" that brings the viewer to the heartbeat of the nation's capital, or the "forgotten ground zero."

It is worth watching for its unique Washingtonian "flava" as the young rappers are heard. Beware, this play or rather this provocative contemplative poem is not for the faint of heart nor those whose politically correct palates will gag on the searing satire. "Some see this cultural, economic, and racial blending as a rich and valuable part of our democracy; others see it as a threat; Culture Clash sees it as the inspiration for theater that poses questions as it entertains," writes Ms. Smith.

Indeed, Washington Wizards cheerleaders, former U Street jazz musicians, Howard University students and a black, single working mom with a private penchant for Abraham Lincoln (go figure) share universal stories from their singular Washington viewpoint as Mr. Montoya tackles stereotypes.

The most endearing is a Muslim cabdriver who, like most everybody else in the District, loves the Washington Redskins. After a white couple, Mohammed's regular customers, attend a mosque service at his invitation, they give him a Redskins jacket. He happily heads off to FedEx Field only to be stripped to his shorts while one white fan in a flannel shirt and toting a rifle and a black man brandishing a handgun pass the security checkpoint unchecked.

Not to omit any minority from the "Anthems" rainbow hovering over the Potomac, even the black and white panda, Tian Tian, is symbolic himself of the deep and diverse divisions in the metropolitan mix. Aside from his biracial coloring, the neurotic bear laments the pressure to reproduce "and to sign the mayor's petitions" when he'd rather be hanging out with his gay brothers and sisters in Dupont Circle. A white Southerner, supposedly the quintessential liberal, claims she'd be more frightened going to the White House after dark than to Anacostia. Bring anyone to mind? A Baptist minister take your pick from any street corner or candidate forum laments the mainstream depiction of Jesus Christ because he just ain't black enough.

Where have we heard that before? Being "black enough" is really a ruse and is nothing more than a distraction from real issues. Do those who would be leaders of this city have the necessary instincts and sensibilities to include constituents from every street corner in every quadrant in their equation when they are dividing the political pie?

Or, do they abandon their ancestors who made it possible for them to climb as far up the social strata as they're able, then look down on those left behind? Take note, a Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas character makes a cameo appearance in this play, too.

"Anthems" is a collaborative venture trying to depict life beyond the bounds of the rich and powerful. This non-native playwright actually rode Metro's Green Line, caught the crosstown buses, grabbed a half-smoke in Ben's Chili Bowl, walked the Adams Morgan streets and Capitol Hill alleys interviewing those who live and work and play in this peculiar place.

You can't get more hometown D.C. than the brother formerly of the old Lorton Reformatory, wearing his gold hat, gold lapel hanky and gold shoes telling a tall tale about how he, not singer Chuck Brown, was the creative force behind the distinctively D.C. "go-go" band sound.

Here, the attempt to give voice to those who are rarely heard in the D.C. Chorus Line is accomplished. One does tap into the sentiment that Washingtonians are more alike than different because what they have in common is their love of this eclectic enclave and they don't want to be left out or pushed out.

Herein lies the critical challenge in this D.C. mayoral race: Who can bridge the diversity divide? The District needs leaders who cannot only win elections or cook the books but can connect with all people who call the District home to score that all-elusive, allegorical D.C. anthem that is not in a play but lived every day.

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