The audience was treated to Sis’s potent Special Sour drink before and after the show and a 60-minute brutally honest portrayal of segregated Prince George’s County between servings. The racially diverse audience at Joe’s Movement Emporium went back to Jim Crow Maryland, yes Jim Crow Maryland, to relive the racial divide between North Brentwood and Brentwood.
North Brentwood, located about a mile from the D.C. border and Ward 5 was the first African American incorporated town in Prince George’s County. Welcome to Sis’s portrays North Brentwood as a self-contained community out of necessity. That necessity was driven by the Jim Crow surrounding them in communities like Hyattsville and Landover. Sis’s Tavern served as a beacon for the community as well as a spot popular entertainers like Duke Ellington and others would visit after their shows at the Howard Theater.
Ivana (Tai) Alexander (Sis) opened the play with a strong monologue depicting how North Brentwood was a strong, self-sustained community with doctors, teachers, and merchants providing the services their neighboring communities wouldn’t.
Sis’s dove into the restrictive covenants that reinforced segregation by preventing blacks from buying in white neighborhoods. This was a common discriminatory practice even in DC (Mapping Segregation in Washington DC). The audience seating helped to highlight this practice by deliberately reserving the floor seats, closer to the stage, for black audience members only. White patrons were unknowingly restricted to sitting in the rear of the theater even though there were vacant seats on the floor.
As you would expect from any play set in a 1950’s black-owned tavern there were some lighthearted moments including when members of the audience were invited to participate in some dancing and card playing with the cast. The most creative audience-cast interaction came at the end of the play. The cast returned to the stage, out of costume, to engage the audience on their remembrances of Sis’s Tavern and growing up in North Brentwood.
The most vivid recollection came from a gentleman who remembered his childhood climbing a tree with his friends to watch the goings on at Sis’s. He also remembered the fine clothes the patrons wore from their designer hats to Stacy Adams shoes. Alexander adds to the story by recalling that there were plenty of stories about the “highfalutin” clientele of Sis’s. She added that “Ms. Sis” as the gentleman says she was referred to, was also known to buy a new Cadillac every two years.
It was an evening of entertainment, hard truths, and discussion. A formula that should be replicated through the city and the country. As promised by Tamieka Chavis (Margaret) who served drinks to the audience before the show started, Sis’s Special Sour turned out to be a strong drink.