REALS, the world-premiere play now running at the H Street Playhouse, explores real-life superheroes: everyday folks who set out to make the world a better place, with the help of costumes and nicknames.
But these costumed, nicknamed heroes weren't something playwright Gwydion Suilebhan dreamed up for his show.
"There really are hundreds of people around the country who are wearing costumes and are doing this all the time," Suilebhan says. "If you Google 'Real Life Superheroes,' your life will never be the same!"
Having done my own "Real Life Superheroes" Googling, it wasn't long before I was in the middle of Dupont Circle, meeting three members of the Maryland Defenders: Stormbringer, Culann and The Bunnyman.
The Bunnyman is more of what Stormbringer calls "hero support," though he doesn't seem too fond of that term.
"That's worse than a 'sidekick,'" he says with a laugh. "Come on, really! I'm not Robin!"
In any case, when Stormbringer, Culann and The Bunnyman arrive from Upper Marlboro, they turn more than a few heads with what they're wearing, since they all arrive "in hero" or "in gimmick."
The whole point of being "in hero" or "in gimmick," they say, is to help you stand out, and draw attention to your cause and your deeds. It helps you become a symbol.
And Stormbringer wants to be a symbol of what she calls the "bridge of understanding" between three important parts of her life: her Native American and Irish roots, and her Wiccan practice.
So she decorates her black- and blonde-streaked braids with leather and feathers and beads. And she wears a Celtic leather bodice, emblazoned with pentagrams and bears, "because the bear is the spirit animal that my character chose."
As for Culann, he served six years in the Marine Corps before creating his persona, so his character is inspired by the military. The guy is covered head-to-toe in military-issued gear: black rain slick, black BDU Pants, black boots and heavy-duty black gloves. And when he's on the job, he says, "I usually will have armor plate on my forearms, upper shoulders, my back, my chest, my thighs, shins."
That's because Culann's "super powers" include rescuing and rehabilitating stray dogs: more often than not, unruly pit bulls.
Fighting for a good cause
The Maryland Defenders' mission is to promote animal rights, which perhaps isn't as POW! KABOOM! BAM! as the acts you'd normally associate with superheroes. But as Stormbringers points out, "there are actually two separate schools of thought when it comes to a 'real life super hero.'"
On the one hand, Stormbringer says, you've got people like the Maryland Defenders, a subgroup of the Skiffytown League of Heroes: a national organization dedicated to using creative play to help kids stay on the straight and narrow. These folks are what you'd call "costumed activists."
"They do homeless outreach," she says. "They do charity work, in general, for the community."
And on the other hand, you've got "patrollers."
"They break up bar fights," Stormbringer explains. "They chase down purse snatchers. They chase drug dealers out of parks. Very dangerous work. And I have a lot of respect for the people that do that."
People like Phoenix Jones, the black-and-yellow-costumed crusader in Seattle. Phoenix claims of the 236 arrests real-life superheroes have brought about, he's responsible for 218 of them.
Phoenix has become notorious for the videos his ever-present cameraman shoots - like the well-known Internet video showing Phoenix breaking up a fight. But not long after this incident, he was arrested after police say he assaulted several people with pepper spray. Other reports say the 23-year-old mixed-martial-arts champion was trying to stop a fight and used the spray after he was attacked."
So it may come as no surprise that patrollers are sometimes referred to as "vigilantes." Stormbringer, however, jumps to their defense.
"Most of these guys that are going out and doing the patrolling have mixed martial-arts training, self-defense training. Many of them carry Tasers or stun guns where that's legal, pepper spray where that's legal."
Though no real-life super hero ever carries a gun.
"It is very much an unwritten rule that we just don't do that," Stormbringer says.
But Culann worries about people who may not know the "unwritten rules" of the R-L-S-H movement.
He mentions the 2010 film, Kick Ass, and how when it came out, "the movement increased, and then quickly decreased, as the younger people that see what they see in the movies, and they're like 'I can do that!' Until they get into real life and they get beat up, not knowing that what they saw on the screen was not exactly accurate."
Because becoming a real life super hero, Stormbringer says, isn't about butt-kicking for butt-kicking's sake; it doesn't even have to be about butt-kicking at all.
"You can help an old woman carry her groceries," she says. "You can catch somebody's stray dog that got loose from them. You can pull a kitten out of a tree. All of these things make you a hero to someone. As long as you affect one person, then you've already made an effective good in the world."
And this idea of what truly makes someone a hero is one of the themes Gwydion Suilebhan tackles in REALS.
"This play is really asking a lot of very complicated psychological questions underneath the butt-kicking in spandex," Suilebhan says. "I am really interested in the impulses we have to change everything in our worlds. Do we need to put on a mask, symbolic or real, to become somebody different?"
For all of their creative nicknames and costumes, the Maryland Defenders I met would say "no." And it's all summed up in their slogan - because hey, every great superhero's got to have a slogan, right? Spiderman has "With great power, there must also come--great responsibility"? Wonder Woman has "Govern yourselves with love, kindness, and service to others"? Well, the Defenders have their own, too: "Be Your Own Hero."
[Music: "Got to be Real" by Cherryl Lynn from The Best of Cherryl Lynn"]