In a City of Monuments, History Lives Onstage and in the Streets

Although James Ijames does not specify the setting of his new play “Good Bones,” it sure seems like Washington. For one thing, a character says it “used to be a swamp.”

That checks out; when I paid a visit to the capital last week, the summer humidity was already settling in. And hasn’t Washington become, as Ijames writes of the play’s locale in an introduction to the script, one of those places “that is now too expensive for most people to live”? It has: My older son, an elementary schoolteacher in D.C., is just squeaking by.

Well, lots of cities are wet and pricey. But when two characters in “Good Bones” — one a new homeowner renovating a townhouse and the other a contractor intimately familiar with its former incarnations — discover that they both grew up in a nearby project called Dunbar Gardens, local bells may ring. The Paul Laurence Dunbar apartments are less than a mile from the Studio Theater, where the play is running through June 18.

Of course, there are apartment complexes named for Dunbar, one of the country’s first Black poets to gain widespread recognition, in several American cities. Still, anyone who spends even a little time observing Washington’s glassy new high-rises squeezed up against its squat Federal piles, many built by enslaved people, will recognize Ijames’s spiritual geography: a place where history is both erased and inescapable.

So even if it was a coincidence that the tension between past and present informed all three plays I saw during my visit, it was a telling one. “Good Bones,” Ijames’s follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham” (now on Broadway), examines the theme through the lens of contemporary gentrification — though the gentrifiers and the gentrified are, in this case, both Black. The familiar knots of privilege and appropriation become even more tangled when the people raising the property values grew up in the same neighborhood as the people they’re pricing out.

The other plays look further back, and at other forms of erasure. “Here There Are Blueberries,” which I saw at the Shakespeare Theater Company, concerns the discovery in 2006 of an album of 116 photographs that depict daily life among the residents of Auschwitz. Mind you, these are not the concentration camp’s prisoners, who are never seen, but the jolly-looking Nazis who ran it. Why such an album survived, and what should be done with it, are questions that bedevil the archivists who narrate the story.

Our responsibility to the past is also the crux of Kenneth Lin’s “Exclusion,” at the Arena Stage. The title refers, in part, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers; designed to last 10 years, it was not repealed until 1943. The law, as well as the anti-Asian violence it in essence sanctioned, is, in the play, the subject of a celebrated book by a Chinese American historian named Katie who sells the television rights to Hollywood.

You could almost write the next beat yourself: Katie finds herself participating in egregious falsifications, as a terrible injustice is turned into entertainment by the dumbing-down machine. It’s a heavy if sadly believable irony that the mini-series created by a smarmy producer sidelines its historical conscience (Katie gets fired) and eventually excludes the Exclusion Act itself.

But because Lin’s play, running through June 25, is a satire, the curtain does not come down on that downer. In a comic turnaround that could be motivated more clearly, Katie comes to believe that the producer’s rewrites are justified. Yes, he has turned a doctor who in real life was lynched by a mob into a kung fu expert who lynches the mob instead. And yes, he has transformed a humble seamstress into a prostitute to make the role more attractive to the actress who will play the role. Still, when the show becomes a huge critical and popular success, providing visibility to Asian actors and a boost to her career, Katie accepts the strange trade-off of being seen by being erased.

As directed by Trip Cullman with the bright colors and swift pacing of situation comedy, “Exclusion” is instantly legible and accessible. Still, its emotional high point is just the opposite: a halting conversation between Katie and the actress that takes place in unsubtitled Cantonese. And though what they say is thus incomprehensible to those who do not speak the language, it dramatizes with great poignancy the power of what we can sense but not understand.

There are moments like that in “Good Bones,” too. The homeowners, Aisha and Travis, hear sounds in their house they cannot explain. Are they the voices of ghosts whose lives are being painted over by the beautiful pale blue of their new kitchen?

Yet the plot turns, somewhat squeakily, on sounds they can explain all too well: booming music from a late-night party nearby. When Travis, over Aisha’s objections, calls the police to complain about his neighbors, the conflict is set in motion, pitting the entitlement of new wealth against the traditions of old community.

The questions Ijames raises in “Good Bones,” directed by Psalmayene 24, are profound: How can cities feel welcoming to people whose ideas of welcome are incompatible? What is the responsibility of newcomers to the surviving structures, both physical and emotional, of the past? And though those questions do not yet coalesce into a tight narrative — the tacked-on happy ending is a carpentry job their contractor would redo immediately — “Good Bones” is a house in progress. By the time it gets to New York (the Public Theater plans to present it in an upcoming season) it may well look and feel completely different.

“Here There Are Blueberries,” a Tectonic Theater project conceived and directed by Moisés Kaufman, also approaches history as a living process. Like previous Tectonic works, including “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” it proceeds in the form of an investigation based on interviews and relevant documents.

In this case, the interviews begin with archivists at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — not far from the theater — as they process the astonishing trove of photographs sent to them by a possible donor who says little about how he got them. The images of Auschwitz leaders and workers enjoying outings and singalongs and rewards for their “accomplishments,” including bowls of fresh blueberries, seem to say almost too much.

By the time the play introduces another Auschwitz album — one that fills the historical and emotional gaps of the first with images of inmates — you understand why, as a former Nazi propagandist explains, “One must harden oneself against the sight of human suffering.”

Yet I’m not sure plays should. “Blueberries,” which closed on Sunday in Washington but will be presented next spring at New York Theater Workshop, is so brisk and unsentimental it sometimes feels merely clinical, or perhaps surgical, its unbearable topic opened up for autopsy.

That’s effective, but the more powerful moments for me are those in which characters vitally and morally involved in the story — descendants of Nazis, a survivor of the camp — speak from painful experience about the ways history implicates them, and all of us, even as it starts to fade from collective memory. The procedural mysteries of the albums are, after all, less important than the living fact of their irrefutable testimony.

Theater is its own kind of testimony. “Blueberries,” like “Exclusion” and “Good Bones,” uses drama (and comedy) to extend our thinking about the legacies of prejudice and resistance, power and deprivation. But then so does any tour of this history-rich, antihistorical city. As our teacher son walked us back to our hotel after seeing “Blueberries,” I asked him about a particularly impressive Beaux-Arts building we passed. “The Carnegie Library,” he said. “It’s now an Apple store.”

Good Bones
Through June 18 at the Studio Theater, Washington D.C.; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

Through June 25 at Arena Stage, Washington D.C.; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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