IN THE NEWS

 

An Article From:

The Washington Post

Washington History With Personality

By Marc Fisher
May 6, 2003; Page B1
Section: Metro
Word Count: 732


Adam Mellema was new in town, but within a few days of his arrival, he met an old man who told him great stories about his years working for everyone from Harry Truman to Dick Nixon.  Mellema, a storyteller by trade, was picking up great tales wherever he went, much more fascinating stuff than he'd heard back home in Grand Rapids, Mich., so he decided to formalize his search and dig out some of the stories that make Washington what it is.


Luckily, this dovetailed with Mellema's job as an apprentice at Round House Theatre, which hired him last year to work with students and lead discussions with patrons.  Mellema asked if the theater would support him in an effort to collect Washington stories and adapt them for the stage.  To his shock, he got a green light.


The result, staged by Round House recently in its final production at the Wheaton building that gave the company it name, was “Washington Talks,” a performance of some of the oral histories that Mellema collected from local people, stories about watching the 1968 riots on 14th Street NW, fighting through the ranks of the federal bureaucracy, becoming one of the Army’s first black female colonels, losing the fat middle of a lifetime to heroin.


And then there’s Debbie Grass’s story: She sits in the center of the stage, her middle-aged face smiling young, her eyes cast up toward her life as a child, a girl in the While House, daughter of a Secret Service agent who traveled with the presidents.  She grew up in the White House, friend to the children of the Kennedys and the Johnsons, playing with them.  Her father was in the Dallas motorcade, a car behind the president, and when Kennedy was shot, she lost contact with her dad.  For days, the heard nothing, didn’t know where he was.


Caroline Stafford-Pastel plays Grass in “Washington Talks,” but the words are those taken down by Mellema in one of the lengthy interviews he conducted with about 20 Washingtonians, words that the playwright edited and arranged to create a piece that tells something about this place.  Grass recalls her friendships with the Kennedy children, then the confusion of those days after Dallas, and then she says, “We never got to say goodbye to our friends.”


Most of the characters Mellema found had no such high-flying contact with officialdom.  Cathy Lumpkin Noble, a nutritionist who rose through the ranks of the Army at a time when black women couldn’t, recalls walking into her church after her big promotion to colonel and beaming because “everybody would try to sit near me,” and when you see actress Dolly Jane Turner posing for her entrance into a pew, you suddenly see the power of the pride of status.


A history teacher, Stan Boyd, who was a teacher at McKinley High and later at Banneker, tells of FBI agents back in the 1970s surprising him at home to ask about his visit to the Soviet Embassy.  “I had merely gone there to pick up copies of their Constitution so my students could compare it to the U.S. Constitution,” he says, and the actor playing Boyd, Bud Larkin, offers a smile and a shake of the head that manage to communicate the hysteria of the Cold War.


Each of these scenes is universal, and each is peculiarly Washington.  “People didn’t think of their stories as very significant,” says Mellema, who is 24 and one year out of college.  “but everybody had stories about how Washington was as a segregated city.  There were stories about the government, but there were just as many that had nothing to do with government.”


Mellema visited Knollwood, an Army retirement home in the District, to find longtime Washingtonians whose lives had intersected with important pieces of history.  But the best stories he collected and the most compelling characters he met came from chance encounters and word-of-mouth contacts.


The young playwright learned that everyone has a tale to tell.  His audiences learned that even a place that famously lacks a distinctive identity is near to bursting with stories very much its own.  Mellema and Round House, now with new and impressive theaters in Bethesda and Silver Spring, hope to continue mining their audience for future installments of “Washington Talks.”