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Riding 'the 70'
Play highlights 'community' on city's bus routes
(Published July 24, 2006)

By ERICA PITTS
Staff Writer

At the corner of Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street in Northwest Washington, two young men with militant facial expressions stand with arms crossed in front of a Metrobus. Refusing to move, they hold their poses silently, unfazed by the seemingly irate bus driver who can't continue on his route until these young men remove themselves from his path.

Suddenly breaking their stances, the men run to the door of the bus, requesting something inaudible from the driver. After sternly denying the request, the driver closes the door and shakes his head in disbelief.

"I asked the bus driver if we could ride a block or two for free and take some pictures," McNeil later said about his request.

Even though the driver quickly shut his door to catch the green light, he gave these young men a "thumbs-up" before driving on.

That thumbs-up is symbolic of the recent praise that youth advocates Justin McNeil and John Muller of the DreamCity Theatre Group have been receiving for writing and presenting a play called "The 70," which premieres at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on July 25.

With the main character being a bus driver named "Mr. Wonderful," the play is about "the community that exists on the city bus system and the different struggles and successes that riders encounter in their daily lives," according to its producers.

The recent stunt in front of Metro's 70 bus was all for taking a picture that they say speaks volumes about how serious they are about their newest endeavor and how relentless they are in promoting it.

With this play, things are "unfiltered, unadulterated and we have the final say," Muller said during a recent interview.

Taking approximately six months to complete, "The 70" was born in a playwright class that Muller took at Georgetown University. An article written on Floyd Thurston, the real "Mr. Wonderful," inspired Muller and McNeil to delve deeper into the story of a person they described as a "compelling figure." They found that Thurston had served as a Metrobus driver for several years.

Aside from "Mr. Wonderful," the play has characters like the "DVD man," defined as the neighborhood hustler; the "hack," a belligerent homeless person; a Jehovah's witness, who is spreading what they believe is the gospel; and the uncensored "teenage girl," who is ready to fight at the drop of a hat.

With the help of local organizations like Youth Ventures and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, McNeil and Muller were able to raise more than $2,500 to fund DreamCity Theatre Group.

"We're giving theater back to the community" with the help of such organizations, McNeil asserted.

The arts commission's Jose Dominguez, who met Muller through another youth organization, told The Common Denominator that Muller is a "hard worker, diligent and had a great attitude toward getting things done."

The rising college seniors have been friends since high school and "went through several youth organizations and theater groups," Muller said, but their connection is one that seems to go even deeper. During a recent interview, they laughed simultaneously, completed each other's sentences and often communicated with one another without saying a word.

Their friendship is an uninhibited one, solidly created around their commitment to youth development and spotlighting a community that, according to Muller, is often "marginalized and disenfranchised." He stresses that the community should "never doubt these people, or count them out."

The young playwriting duo describe themselves as "renaissance men ... businessmen," and all good businessmen know how to pick the right staff. With cast and crew of predominantly young people -- including 18-year-old director Michelle Orr, a recent graduate of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and 13-year-old associate producer Joseph Melson, whom Muller mentors -- it is nothing short of flattering when professional adult actors like cast member Anne Stuecker state that "the producers [of the play] are doing a good job of being professional."

Surrounded by so much positive energy, it may be somewhat surprising to find controversy.

This play is "controversial within itself," Muller asserted. "The bus is an uncensored environment, and language reflects real interactions that may not occur until a line is crossed ... people can be calloused toward each other."

While those who know McNeil and Muller know that they have vowed to truly portray the youth in the streets, they want everyone to know that "DreamCity doesn't represent the streets -- we are the streets we aren't afraid to put ourselves in different environments."

DreamCity is an arts organization that consists of the DreamCity Theatre Group, DreamCity Poets and DreamCity Productions. "The 70" will be performed at MLK library at 901 G St. NW in auditorium A-5 at 6:45 p.m. July 25-27, Aug. 2-3 and Aug. 8-10; and at 3:30 p.m. July 29, Aug. 5 and Aug. 12. Admission is free.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator