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Musical 'East Of The River' Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia

The cast of <em>East of the River</em> performs at the Anacostia Arts Center Friday night.
Eslah Attar
The cast of East of the River performs at the Anacostia Arts Center Friday night.

Nothing says "gentrification" quite like the opening of a Whole Foods.

That's the message, at least, of a new musical about the idea that a location of the largely organic, high-priced grocery chain could one day open in Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood.

Anacostia lies east of the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C., in a part of the city that's historically been more impoverished and more heavily African-American than other areas.

Gentrification — or, as advocates would say, "revitalization" — has brought changes throughout D.C. over the past 15 years or so. Areas once blighted now feature shops with gourmet coffee and independent bicycle stores. Access to fresh and healthy food can increase for residents living in "food deserts," where it could previously have been hard to come by.

Star Johnson, resident of D.C., is the writer and lead voice of the musical East of the River.
Eslah Attar / NPR
Star Johnson, resident of D.C., is the writer and lead voice of the musical East of the River.

New spaces for artists can open — like the Anacostia Arts Center, which opened in 2013, and where the musical East of the River held its first and so far only publicly announced performance in a workshop performance Friday.

Star Johnson, the play's creator, wanted to show multiple sides to the debate about gentrification.

"You don't have some of these tropes that you've seen before," Johnson says. "You know, the mean white guy saying, 'Get out of this neighborhood! This is my neighborhood now!' And you don't have all the black people saying, 'Don't take our neighborhood away from us!' It's varied reactions."

Opponents note that gentrification can raise rents and the cost of living, and longtime residents — and artists — can be forced out in search of more affordable areas.

Massive condominiums that all look the same start to crop up.

White people start showing up in black neighborhoods.

What the Washington City Paper once called the "most belabored story in the District" now has roots in Anacostia.

"Something that I noticed while walking down Potomac Avenue [in Southeast] was a white woman with a stroller," says Johnson, who grew up in the D.C. area.

"And I was thinking, what? Where am I? Something's changed, something has fundamentally changed," she says.

Johnson interviewed residents around Anacostia about their neighborhood for the musical she wrote and directed. In East of the River, LJ Moses plays a young city planner who's come home with an urban planning degree and plans to "improve" Anacostia.

In one scene he gets into a debate with a neighborhood friend, played by Alesia Ashley.

"I'm proud of this place, to be a product of this place. I'm sorry, I'm not going to apologize for that," she tells him.

"You don't see the crime and neglect in this neighborhood?" he responds. "Something has to give."

"I see it, but I don't see how this project is going to fix anything," she says. "The people in this neighborhood aren't going to benefit because we won't be here in five years."

The importance of nuance

"I think musical theater is the quickest, most effective way to get to the heart of a story," Johnson says.

In what might be the first song to glamorize the Whole Foods olive bar, actor Brittney Sankofa raps in "Manchego Cheese":

"Manchego cheese, fresh nuts and hand-carved meats, farm-raised eggs and bags of gluten-free everything. Sippin' tea with the Queen of England, I'm-a get fat from eatin' even if my little wallet takes a beatin'. Picture me standing standing round this posh olive bar. You wanna know 'bout delicacies? Come sit with me, I'm bourgeoisie."

To be clear, there are no reported plans for a Whole Foods in Anacostia.

"I always say, 'Gentrification is not good or bad, it's good and bad. And I don't know that it always answers the question that needs to be asked," Johnson says.

She says the question is, "How do you retain the soul of these communities that have been here forever while making it a safer and happier place for the people to live?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
Ian (pronounced "yahn") Stewart is a producer and editor for Weekend Edition and Up First.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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