History repeats: Vinegar Hill ushers in Charlottesville Players Guild’s season

Terésa Dowell-Vest says the time is right for a revival of Vinegar Hill, a play she premiered at Live Arts in 1999 to honor the residents of Charlottesville’s razed Black neighborhood.  Terésa Dowell-Vest says the time is right for a revival of Vinegar Hill, a play she premiered at Live Arts in 1999 to honor the residents of Charlottesville’s razed Black neighborhood. 

Two decades ago, Terésa Dowell-Vest embarked on a research project. After attending grad school in California, the actor and playwright set out to collect the oral histories of family and community members in her hometown of Charlottesville. The product of this research was 1999’s Vinegar Hill, a play named after the town’s once-thriving Black neighborhood. Destroyed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal, Vinegar Hill and its former residents are memorialized in Dowell-Vest’s work.

Today, the play is part of Charlottesville history—but it’s about to return to center stage. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s Charlottesville Players Guild, itself a revival of local Black theater, will kick off its 2021 Amplify season with a four-day symposium focused on Vinegar Hill. The symposium will be conducted virtually from January 15 to 18, and includes not just a reading of the play, but also a multimedia presentation of Vinegar Hill histories and a panel discussion about the neighborhood’s destruction.

The Vinegar Hill revival is a natural fit for Amplify’s opening event. All of Amplify’s productions in the 2021 season are the works of Black playwrights who either have roots in Charlottesville or who currently live and work in the city.

This is a break from traditional programming for the Guild—its 2017 revival featured a production of Fences, and programming has consistently included August Wilson’s work. But CPG’s artistic director, Leslie M. Scott-Jones, rejects the ideas of tradition and normalcy. “I don’t like the term ‘new normal,’ because there isn’t a normal,” she says, referring in part to the modified reality COVID has imposed on the world. “We have been conditioned to believe that there is a certain set of circumstances that constitute ‘normal.’”

Normalcy, Scott-Jones explains, is constantly in flux for artists, and especially for Black artists. “We are used to adjusting things about ourselves in order to survive,” she says. In order for the CPG to survive during the pandemic, programming has gone virtual—a shift that Scott-Jones says resulted in her decision to take a break from Wilson’s plays. “I didn’t want to lessen the impact of the work by doing it virtually.”

Dowell-Vest’s play will enjoy its first revival since its initial run at Live Arts. Although more than 20 years have passed, the playwright has clear memories of her preliminary research and what inspired her to start it. “I remember as a kid hearing my grandmother say, ‘It’s a shame what they did downtown,’” Dowell-Vest says. “That’s what I kept hearing over and over growing up.”

When she returned to Charlottesville in the late ’90s, it was as the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ first director of the African American Heritage Center. Dowell-Vest says she had always considered herself an artist and performer rather than a historian. In her new position, “I had tools…I had people who understood research.” She used these tools to delve further into the story of Vinegar Hill, to better comprehend the undercurrent of history that ran through her formative years in Charlottesville.

The project was a difficult and delicate one, Dowell-Vest explains. “People—Black, white, or otherwise—are very protective of their stories.” But through a combination of persistence and patience, Dowell-Vest was eventually able to collect enough stories about Vinegar Hill to fit them into a larger, dramatized narrative.

“I think I was reinvesting myself in my hometown,” she says of the project, as well as giving the city a “reminder” of the community it had physically torn down but failed to spiritually destroy. It’s time for another reminder, Dowell-Vest says.

She lives outside of Houston now, teaching at Prairie View A&M University, but visits Charlottesville occasionally (she’ll be here virtually for the Vinegar Hill discussion panel). Every time she returns, “Charlottesville looks completely different.” She attributes some of the change to “growth and evolution,” but also blames “greed, and sprawl, and decimating communities that have been generationally residential.”

Dowell-Vest sees the Vinegar Hill story played out again and again to varying degrees. She’s reviving her play, she says, to give “younger people context about where they are and the work that still needs to be done.”

Hailed as a local, modern classic, Vinegar Hill will be a hard act to follow. But Scott-Jones has a promising 2021 lineup—one that includes Thirty-Seven, a play of her own creation.

“I started writing it to answer a question for myself,” she says. “What makes a person, specifically a Black person, decide to become an activist?”

The title, she says, refers to the creation of the 9-1-1 emergency call in New York City, spurred by the murder of a Black woman outside her apartment building. “There were 37 people at home in her building who heard her calling for help and did nothing.”

Following Thirty-Seven is Ti Ames’ See About the Girls, a continuation of Amiri Baraka’s classic The Slave. David Vaughn Straughn’s Tanesha focuses on the videotaping of fatal police brutality against a Black person and the protagonist’s indecision about how to use the footage. Aiyana Marcus’ She Echoes on the Vine, the season’s closing play, is an exploration of one Black woman’s ancestry.

Although Scott-Jones is unsure which of these plays will be totally virtual and which might have live audiences—the season runs through November—she predicts Amplify will be a success, and a testament to the power of Black artists in Charlottesville. “[The plays] are all very different, but they’re all…telling the story of Black life,” she says. “I’m really hoping this season is a beacon for any other Black playwright out there.”

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