Restoration Stage Offers Rare Spotlight for Black Stories

The cast of "The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus" during a March 3 performance at Anacostia Playhouse (Jade James-Gist/The Washington Informer)
The cast of "The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus" during a March 3 performance at Anacostia Playhouse (Jade James-Gist/The Washington Informer)

In its final weekend, the D.C. region’s only black-owned theater company, Restoration Stage Inc., delivered on Friday, March 3 an arresting performance of “The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus.”

The play was written by fifth-generation Charles County resident and playwright Steven A. Butler Jr., the play was inspired by the lives of his great-great-grandparents, Ruby Dyson and Ollie Thomas, and their struggles as circus performers in early-1900s Maryland.

It’s a story that won’t be found in any history book, and that’s why Restoration Stage director, producer and founder Courtney Baker-Oliver decided to produce it.

“When mainstream theaters show black people, they hardly stray from thug or slave life, as if those are our only stories,” Baker-Oliver said.

So Butler and Baker-Oliver write and produce black plays with storylines that would otherwise be ignored by mainstream theaters. They merge history and art to show the diversity of the black experience with an official mission to “restore the black family through storytelling.”

Previous productions include critically acclaimed plays “The Truth,” “All That Glitters” and “Chocolate Covered Ants,” each of which highlight hidden narratives of women, the LBGT community and young men in black America.

“Even though our stories don’t usually get green-lit, I am hopeful in this ‘Moonlight,’ ‘Hidden Figures’ and ‘Fences’ moment,” Baker-Oliver said.

One of the unfortunate outcomes of this reality is that green-lit black productions lack variety. Popular plays such as “Crowns” and “A Raisin in the Sun” dominate the mainstream stages and run annually, but while entertaining or historically significant, they do not represent a diversity of black experiences.

The absence of black theater companies in D.C. has persisted for almost 50 years, and Restoration Stage is now the only black-owned theater company in the DMV.

Restoration currently rents spaces such as Anacostia Stage for their productions. So even in Chocolate City, there’s no consistent space where black people can control their narratives, and a multitude of black experiences remain untold.

Now, in light of the new president’s goal to “make America great again,” Butler and Baker-Oliver say Restoration Stage’s work is timelier than ever.

“We have to demand our narratives,” Baker-Oliver said. “Otherwise ‘MAGA’ (Make America Great Again) will attempt to erase our history.”