I recently sat down with Darien Mitchell, writer, producer, director, and star of “Flight of the Xenophobe,” a new play making its debut at the Capital Fringe Festival running July 7-29. The show also features Obum Ezekwem, Steve Langley, Margaret Anne Murphy, and Matthew Wilson.
*All images were taken by Margaret Anne Murphy (last three images shot using Kodak Tri-X)
Tell me a bit about your play “Flight of the Xenophobe.”
DM: “Flight of the Xenophobe” is basically a play about gentrification. The story is told from the perspective of 578, a lifelong DC resident who has just returned home from prison, who is not used to the neighborhood he reenters. 578 has been in prison a long time and it’s a lot different than the place he left. He doesn’t recognize or understand the changes. To make matters worse, while he was incarcerated, an individual with a lot of racist tendencies mentored him, resulting in 578 bringing that attitude back home with him.
What inspired you to create this piece and then produce the staged production at The Capital Fringe Festival?
DM: As a lifelong District resident, I’ve seen many changes over the years. What’s really funny to me is the fact that I drive for Uber part-time and people who have been here for less than five years tell me about the changes they’ve seen in this city in that time. Gentrification is the hot issue of the moment, it’s the flavor of the month, and everybody is talking about it. It’s happening all across the country. I thought it was a good topic to tackle. I had the idea to to put a few people in a space that wouldn’t normally interact with each other and let the natural tensions unfold. And what I found out is that I had a play inside of that.
It’s my first time bringing a show to Fringe. Over the years, I’ve seen several Fringe shows and I enjoyed them. I like how each production is a quick in and out—you get in, you get it done. I like the opportunity. It’s not as expensive as mounting a full production, so it allows you to be able to see your production on its feet without the heavy high overhead it usually costs to mount an independent production.
The play takes place in the year 2013—do you believe the issues raised in the play are still relevant?
DM: Yes, very relevant, if not exacerbated. It’s gotten much worse since the time that I wrote the piece, even though the play itself wasn’t written in 2013. Things are progressing much more rapidly. It’s becoming dire for the people who can’t afford to live in urban areas across the country. It’s getting much worse daily. Every day you see more tower cranes or you see a house that is boarded up with housing permits on it that’s about to be renovated. People who don’t have the resources won’t be staying in cities, anywhere, and it’s really sad. You have to have $2500 for a one bedroom—it’s preposterous. I saw a study that said in order to be able to afford to live in DC you need to make like nearly $70,000—single—to be able to live comfortably.
And that is pretty much eradicating people who move to the city to be artists or people who may not have a high level of education.
DM: Yeah, good luck with that! It’s really sad. Like you said, people who want to come to this city to pursue art, or for whatever other reason want to establish themselves here, may see things about the city they like, but they can’t afford to live here! They have to live outside the city and that’s going to change soon when gentrification spreads outside the city when housing within the city is no longer available. People who could previously afford to live in those locations are going to be pushed further out. The same thing that happened in the San Francisco area where the housing prices are so outrageous that they started pushing into the Bay Area and to Oakland, places that were formerly a lot more affordable. And people can’t afford to stay in those neighborhoods that were once very affordable. It’s happening everywhere.
How has the creative process been for you as playwright, director, and now lead actor?
DM: My intention was to simply write the play. I could not wait to see this crazy play I put together on its feet. I had a very good director lined up, but it fell through and I wasn’t able to get him. So I rolled with punches, and said, “Okay, I’ll direct the piece myself.” Then, as you know, we had a young man who was going to play 578, but he was not fully committed. And the role calls for a lot—it’s even too much for me—so we had to let him go. I figured since I know the play inside and out that I could take a shot at playing 578. While I’d much rather be watching the show from the audience, I’m thankful to bring this complex character to life.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
DM: I imagine that this piece is going to unsettle quite a few folks with its very vivid language and quite a few racist ideas floating around. It’s going to offend some people and that’s okay because theatre should be provocative. It should grab people’s attention—if they can get beyond all of the language and see the piece through the eyes of the people who are displaced due to gentrification. Don’t get me wrong, 578 is extreme in his views, but he does have valid points and there’s a lot of truth in what he says. There’s a lot of information that’s relayed throughout the play, a lot of subtext, and I hope audiences catch on to those things. I hope they come away asking some questions after they leave.
Would you say it’s more of a call to action piece or reflective piece?
DM: I wish it were a call to action piece, but I’m very realistic and I know that the practices that are set in motion are not going to be nullified. People are trying to “stop the bleeding,” so to speak, but the ball is already in motion. It would be nice if we could set aside a few resources for those who are less affluent, who have less resources to stay here, but the way government works makes that impossible. It’s a very sad situation. It’s intended to be a call to action piece, but in essence from the way I see things, even in the most optimistic light, it is reflective because in ten years this conversation will be null and void. The city will have changed to a point where those who cannot afford to be here will not be here.