Playwright/poet John Johnson received the 2019 Distinguished Artist Award, also known as the East of the River Artist Award. (Courtesy photo)
Playwright/poet John Johnson received the 2019 Distinguished Artist Award, also known as the East of the River Artist Award. (Courtesy photo)

For the first time in the history of the East of the River Arts Award, the prize was given to two figures who are not visual artists, but share a common medium: theater.

Adele Robey, executive director of the Anacostia Playhouse, and John Johnson, a playwright/poet and arts activist who records the life of normal people in Anacostia, were the two recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Artist Award, which includes a cash prize for both artists.

Robey was the original founder of the now defunct H Street Playhouse in northeast Washington. Having lived on Capitol Hill for 35 years, Robey was a founding member of Theater Alliance, formed when she served on the board of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In 2001 she and her late husband bought a property at 1365 H Street NE in Washington, D.C., the site of the old Frenchie’s Restaurant, transforming it into a small, independent black box theater. In 2002, the H Street Playhouse sprang into action.

It was through that association that Robey met her co-winner, John Johnson, who approached the director about the possibility of staging his play at the venue.

“What we found in 2007, we found there was a wealth of talent in Anacostia. We originally had opposition in the community, but they understood that arts and culture belong in every neighborhood,” said Duane Gautier, president of the ARCH Development Corporation, which created not only the Honfleur Gallery, but also the Anacostia Arts Center, which houses the Vivid Solutions Gallery, the Hive (an incubator art space) and founded the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award.

“We said, you should not have to go out of your neighborhood to see good art and hear great music,” Gautier said.

He also introduced the novel idea to have each of the awardees introduce each other. Neither Johnson nor Robey knew that each would receive the prize. But after a month, the secret was out.

“The Distinguished Artist Award, which we have been doing for about nine years now, goes to artists who live east of the river,” Gautier said. “But it is not only that they are good artists, but they also made a contribution to the entire D.C.”

In her introduction of Johnson, Robey recalled the first time the two of them met.

“In 2008 when we had a little theater called the H Street Playhouse, I kept getting these messages on the phone saying, ‘This is John Johnson. I would like to rent space in your theater,’” she said. “He would call back, and call back, but he was really nice.

“I had to know who this John Johnson was,” Robey said. “So we agreed he would come and do the show, which when he gave me his card, it said ‘Why I Hate White People.’ But when you turned it over, it said ‘Why I Hate Black People.’ It was inventive, touching, funny, smart. That was John.”

When time came for Johnson to introduce Robey, he called on some of the same memories of their first encounter.

“It’s always amazing to hear people’s perspective of you,” he quipped. “She told a lot of the history already.

“I wanted to write this play, to talk about life without filter,” Johnson said. “I was searching for a place to have this play, and everybody was denying me. I had this play with a whole group of amazing actors from D.C. And they would say ‘right,’ and never call back. But Adele answered the phone call. And it took a little while, but she came through.

“She was really honest,” he said. “She asked if I had the money, and I said yes, and she said ‘these are the keys.’ I was honored that she opened her space to us, didn’t hound us, and just gave us the keys.”

“Later on, Adele came to Anacostia, and we already had this relationship,” Johnson said. “She let me into her space a couple of times, we’ve done a lot of theater, and we just really started bonding.”

Both artists work is grounded in telling the stories, through theater as both actors and writers, and have a dedication to the authenticity of the story.

The Anacostia Playhouse opened in 2013 after a previous incarnation of the theater moved from H Street in Northeast. It also hosts an arts center, an artist’s studio and a gallery in its location on Shannon Place, just blocks from the Anacostia River waterfront.

The awards ceremony was held at the Anacostia Arts Center on Friday, Aug. 9 in conjunction with the opening of two other visual art exhibits in the Honfleur Gallery and the Vivid Solutions Gallery.

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