- 25 Photos
- Rachel Beauregard (left) and Maya Jackson (right) (Photo: Joshua Yospyn/TBD)
Swampoodle is the story of an old Irish neighborhood, but its story is 100 percent American – and that's why only a foreigner could tell it. Solas Nua commissioned Irish playwright Tom Swift to craft the tale of a Washington enclave that has hosted potato famine refugees, the Beatles, the Nazis and Malcolm X, and as an outsider, he could see the strange history of Swampoodle in a way that no American could. But before he explains why, he'd like to assuage any fears about performances of his play, which takes place in the crumbling Uline Arena near Union Station.
"I just want to reassure potential audiences that it doesn't smell," says Swift. The Uline, which was built on top of the neighborhood of Swampoodle when it was razed to make room for Union Station, was like the Verizon Center of the 50s and 60s. It has been used for concerts, political speeches and religious functions in its heyday – but more recently, as a parking garage and a trash sorting center. It's a raw space, indeed.
"It's no palace but it's an awe-inspiring space when you go in," says Swift, describing banks of empty seating and a cavernous roof. "I've been in there when it's dark, and when you shine one light into the space it becomes magical … We hope it will transform the place. We're excited by the fact that it's been more than 30 years since the place has been used for entertainment – we're bringing back the glitz and the show biz."
Solas Nua's director Linda Murray learned about the all-but-forgotten Swampoodle from a plaque in Union Station dedicated to the neighborhood's former residents. Before the Uline, Swampoodle was a small part of H Street N.E. settled by Irish immigrants in the 1850s. By the 20th century, it became a crime-ridden shantytown, but the laying of tracks to Union Station cut right through the neighborhood, dividing it in half and dispersing its residents. The Uline was constructed parallel to the tracks, opening in 1941, and was the site of the first Beatles concert in America. It was also the stadium for the Washington Capitols basketball team, President Eisenhower's inaugural ball, and a speech by Malcolm X that was attended by George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party.
"My approach to it was to take a look at both histories and combine them in a way, so you get a sense of the layers of history," says Swift. "It was interesting to me, the idea of how communities and landmarks grow up and fall away and that sense of history, of how life is short. We think we're really important, but who knows – in a couple of years, all the things we've done will just be a footnote in history."
Murray brought Swift and his wife, Jo Managan, who is directing the performance, over to Washington for walks through the neighborhood and research at the MLK Library's Washingtoniana division. Swift wrote most of the play in Ireland, where he and his wife run The Performance Corporation, which has partnered with Solas Nua for the show.
"The back room in my house was plastered with pictures and images and maps and historical artifacts. I felt like I was in a little Swampoodle of my own," says Swift, who would use Google Street View to jog his memory when he wanted to revisit the Uline. From outside the country, looking in at the neighborhood's varied history, Swift was struck by a common tie running though each iteration of the neighborhood's inhabitants: Brutality.
"There's a thread of violence that seems tragic, from an outsider's perspective, that I can can try to throw a light on," says Swift. "I was struck by the presence of war in so many occasions through the years, and coming from an Irish person, that sounds strange because we've had a history of violence in our country for years … One of the first events that happened in the Uline was a pro-war rally attended by lots of celebrities at the time who wanted to bring America into the second world war." Only a few decades later, says Swift, the Uline was used as a temporary prison for a massive antiwar protest against Vietnam.
Despite the common thread of violence, Swampoodle is an uplifting play about American history and optimism, says Swift. "I'm hoping that people will go away from the play with a very positive outlook on life, so I'm sure I have been inspired by the American experience," he says, That's due in part to the American actors working with Solas Nua, who spent time in Ireland helping him workshop the play. "They brought amazing energy and optimism, which is the wonderful thing about America, is that everyone has a can-do attitude."
What resulted, according to the show's publicity materials, is a performance that "may contain eye-popping high-wire feats, roller derby smack-downs, big-track earthmovers, brass band music and scenes of a spectacular nature. Bring your walking shoes!"
All of those? Well, not quite, says Swift, who will neither confirm nor deny the presence of each spectacle. But the walking shoes are necessary: "It's not a seated performance, so the audience are guided through the Uline Arena, which is a massive space," says Swift. The Uline is Solas Nua's second experience using raw spaces near Union Station for their performances – October's Improbable Frequency converted a newly-constructed office building into a speakeasy.
In Washington for Swampoodle's Friday debut, Swift has been re-immersing himself in the neighborhood, its history, and the three-ring circus that is the rehearsal process for a show like this (circuses have also performed at the Uline, and they make an appearance in the show). And in finally seeing the show realized in its historic location, another thought occurred to him.
"It was interesting to me that this sports arena, all of human life has been here: Sport, entertainment, music, joy, but it's also been a prison," says Swift. "People have spoken of political ideas that perhaps we think of as non-progressive. It spent a period as a church, as a gospel center, and then a trash transfer center. All human life has been in the Uline and it's just another layer of history that starts today."