Early in the morning on Saturday, September 11th, 2010, approximately one hundred volunteers, actors, local historians, community members, and YPT staff (not to mention the 36,000 resting below) gathered at the historic Woodlawn Cemetery in honor of the National Day of Service. We listened to speakers from Greater DC Cares, the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association, and to YPT’s very own Producing Artistic Director David Snider, then watched as YPT actors read a teaser from our upcoming play Woodlawn, inspired by the oral histories of community members, many of whom watched intently from the front rows.
Then the “fun” began – volunteers got to work cutting branches, mowing grass, and pulling weeds, beginning to bring life back to the space. I worked alongside students, non-profit employees, and community members, speculating about the history below us as we tackled particularly gruesome branches. Even the seven-year-old grandson of a participant in YPT’s oral history project did his part, walking between volunteers to offer bottles of cold water.
As I headed down the hill to leave for part two of my day, I saw an older woman seated by herself where the crowd had watched the performance just moments ago. She looked calm and satisfied as she surveyed the people before her. I sat down and she began to explain her connection to the space. Her grandparents and aunt were buried at Woodlawn, and though she used to visit frequently, the lack of upkeep made it difficult to continue. She was thrilled that volunteers were caring for the space, and at the same time knew that the weeds would probably return before next year’s Day of Service. Instead of clearing plants, her own efforts to remember and honor her family had turned to recording her family history on paper.
Words are powerful things. For all the clearing of brush, it is ultimately the stories we uncover that matter, and the sharing of these experiences that bring life to the cemetery and meaning to the people who listen. The work volunteers did on this Day of Service was incredibly meaningful, but the true worth of the experience is in the connection people will now have with Woodlawn because they have heard and built their own story there.
This was made clear in the afternoon, when a new audience of people met at Sidney Harman Hall to view a scene from Woodlawn as part of Arts on Foot. They reacted with laughter, shock, and curiosity, clearly intrigued by the stories they heard. When the last (cliffhanger) line was spoken and the lights when dark, there was a brief pause before an eruption of applause. Though most of these people had never set foot at Woodlawn Cemetery, the words spoken by the actors had built a bridge of meaning.
Telling stories is crucial, but having an audience is what gives the stories meaning. Though it is far away, I hope you can join me on February 7th to listen and participate in the conversation that is history, and build your own story about Woodlawn Cemetery.
Community Engagement Associate