A challenge to theaters to reopen now—outdoors

Inspired by Black Lives Matter activism, a call to action to take art out of the box.

When are the Small Box theater companies going to throw off the straightjacket of conventional space-bound theater and explore alternative venues?

Black Lives Matter Plaza was created overnight with a paint roller and an executive order, and it set the stage for 10,000 performers to take center stage in an organic outpouring of expressive art and catharsis worthy of any Shakespearean tragedy.

Photo by Malcolm Lewis Barnes

What’s to prevent Woolly from claiming space at 16th and K Streets and hosting a return of What to Send Up When It Goes Down? Who would prevent it?

I have seen the signs, “SAY THEIR NAMES,” as the seemingly endless list of Black victims adds another name—George Floyd—that became the tipping point to set the stage for the current worldwide catharsis and protest against police violence.

Photo by Malcolm Lewis Barnes

Mosaic could create no better set design than to invite the drivers of the 1,000-car convoy that passed under the marquee of the Atlas Theater last week to leave their signs as a historical footnote on the first weekend of the Uprising.

Photo by Malcolm Lewis Barnes

I’ve witnessed the wails of rage and anguish as the black, brown, yellow, and queer faces of the BLM movement form circles and Coachella-quality formations instinctively under the leadership of HBCU talent from Howard University students to play out the death rituals in the cleansing daylight of a hot Juneteenth Day.

The white power structure flaunts the Rule of Law every day and makes up the New Rules of Chaos without regard to the people’s will.

What is the “Creative Community” waiting for? An “All Clear” edict from the Mayor that there are fewer COVID-19 deaths lost this week than young Black lives? It ain’t going to happen! The young BLM protestors are putting their lives on the line for a righteous cause and are living organically because they are not afraid of a silent killer when they experience the public trauma of noisy, messy, anti-Black violence every day.

So when are the arms-length reviewers going to come out of their middle-class suburban comfort cocoons and experience this great public performance up close and personal?

I believe the traditional brick and mortar theater establishment is missing a great opportunity to “think outside the box” and take advantage of the summer seasonal change by taking their art to outdoor performance venues.

I reached out to two Elders in the Black Arts community, Nana Malaya Rucker, the Dancing Diplomat and co-founder of the DC Black Theater Festival, and Bill Grimmette, retired actor and Storyteller who piqued my interest with a Facebook post last week when he asked the provocative question, “Dear actors, are we pawns or are we Players? If pawns, we are irrelevant without a script. WE ARTISTS MUST IMAGINE A BETTER NATION FOR OUR PEOPLE AND PAINT, SING, DRAW, DANCE AND DRAMATIZE IT INTO BEING!”

Nana Malaya Rucker and Glenn Alan, co-founders of the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival.

Nana Malaya said she came from the generation in the ’60s when Mike Malone and Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts had “Street Theater” as part of their curriculum, and held performances in vacant lots, sponsored block parties, or neighborhood parks in conjunction with DC Parks and Recreation. “That was all good because it keeps the community engaged. If we cannot go inside, we can go outside!”

Nana applauded the efforts of #OpenYourLobby led by the Shakespeare Theatre Company to open their doors to those protesting in Washington, DC, for Black Lives Matter participants, for justice, for equality, and for civil rights.

Woolly also opened its lobby as a major hit-the-refresh-button stop for marchers making their way from Penn Quarter to BLM Way!

But it was a missed opportunity for these two venerable theater cornerstones in Penn  Quarter to round up their actors and performers and engage their dramaturgs in a choreographed chorus to viscerally show their engagement and use this public space to vent their pent-up creative expressions on the greatest stage in the world—the streets of Washington, DC!

The alternative is to go the way of Blockbuster and Gold’s Gym! Will Woolly with their Penn Quarter $50-per-square-foot overhead be the next JC Penny? Nonprofits who do not innovate can fail too!

I would love to see the Carter Barron make a comeback for Shakespeare in the Park just as soon as the restoration is done. That amphitheater is one of DC’s jewels.

After all, The Globe was an outdoor venue in an era when rats and the plague were as common as street walkers and body snatchers.

Washington experts are truly overthinking this pandemic’s impact on “The Creative Economy,” as they Zoom in from their ivory towers with consternation about COVID-19 correctness, G&A, and overhead. They need to “take it to the streets” like I saw the young protesters do all over DC this past weekend and protest the overreaching hand of government.

What would prevent Arena Stage from staging Into the Woods in Rock Creek Park? Only their imagination! The “creatives” have to take back control of their destiny and make art happen where they live even if it’s outside a 7/11 or Starbucks!

Bill Grimmette

Summer is here and this Shelter-in-Place order is going to fall apart under its own weight as the energized youth of Washington do what they naturally do—live their lives fearlessly!

This COVID-19 pandemic, like 45, will be either an existential threat to the theater establishment or an opportunity to usher in a fresh new renaissance. No business—and yes, theaters are a business as much as the old “Gentlemen’s Clubs” on K Street—can stay closed for six months without irreparable damage to its bottom line.

“Nothing changes without the arts,” says Bill Grimmette. The next 45 days will tell the tale.

Wasn’t it a fellow named William who said, “All the world’s a stage”?

© 2020 Malcolm Lewis Barnes


  1. All of the professional theaters you mention and the actors in your perceived productions still fall under the jurisdiction of Actor’s Equity. That means actors would still be required to be 6 feet apart, have masks on and can not touch whether they’re outside or not. Changing the venue doesn’t change any of that, so for now, the ivory towers you mention are the best places for them to present their content, much of which has been very informative and compelling.

  2. Talon, throw off the straight jacket and professional pretences of your union credentials! There is a Strike going on and COVID-19 is the Union Buster! I suggest you read David Siegel’s “Rehearsals in PPE and other big changes to expect when theaters reopen in DC”, which prompted me to pen this opinion piece.

    David has saved you the time of reading the”ReOepn DC” 80 page opus and ‘Recommendations to the Mayor’ that a blue ribbon panels put together and published May 21. It calls for 4 phases culminated by the delivery of an “effective vaccine or cure”!

    In phase 2 they recommend reopening to audiences of 50 or less without the benefit of in-person rehearsals and of course ‘no contact’ such as kissing! While I try to imaging a kiss-less Romeo & Juliet, take the next couple of months to digest the process oriented future of theater in the Nation’s Capitol!

    And while you are at it, you may want to look for a few side hustles in the GIG Economy, cause that Actor’s Equity union card ain’t going to pay the RENT!



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