Transcripts

This Week On Metro Connection: Trial And Error

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And today we're picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and trying all over again with a show we are calling, Trial and Error. We'll talk with a Georgetown researcher, who may very well help doctors avoid much of the trial and error involved in treating cancer.

DR. RICHARD SCHLEGEL

Our ultimate goal, actually, is to make cancer therapy a personalized therapy.

SHEIR

And we'll meet a man who was tried and convicted for a crime he didn't commit and has been fighting ever since to prevent other people from going through the same ordeal.

MR. MARVIN ANDERSON

You can only choose to move forward, but that's time that you will never get back.

SHEIR

Plus, we'll engage in some theatrical experimentation with the folks at D.C.'s Studio Theater.

MS. BRYONY LAVERY

It's keeping and trying ideas and it's absolute playwright's heaven.

SHEIR

But first, we'll look at a legal trial that's ruffling feathers all over Maryland right now. The case has to do with pollution on the Eastern shore and who's to blame for mucking up the waterways that feed the Chesapeake Bay. As environment reporter Sabri Ben-Achour tells us, environmental groups are going after some big names in the poultry industry and small farmers say they're getting trampled in the process.

MR. TOM JONES

What I want to do is we'll go down 50 and hit--

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

Tom Jones points out the window while driving through chicken country near Salisbury, Md. Across a green and gold field of soybeans are a dozen long, white, hangar-looking buildings.

JONES

Up to 200,000 to 300,000 birds that can be raised in a year there in that one operation.

BEN-ACHOUR

Jones is a retired biology professor and is president of the board of directors of the Assateague Coastal Trust.

JONES

It's a chicken operation because it's a very long building that's only one story with just a plain, old slanted roof to get the rain off. And inside there is a concrete slab and then feeders all the way up and down that long building there.

BEN-ACHOUR

Jones believes that across the Delmarva Peninsula manure from those chickens is polluting waterways with nitrogen and phosphorus. He gets out by the Pocomoke River, which the State of Maryland classifies as impaired.

JONES

What you see is a lot of brownish-looking water. There could be times of the year when you come by here and it's a solid green because of growth of the algae, phytoplankton. And right back there there's a pond, but it's loaded with what's called duckweed, which is a small plant that floats on the surface. The entire surface of that pond is choked with it, it's covered with it and the reason being is 'cause there's so much fertilizer in the water.

BEN-ACHOUR

His group filed a lawsuit, along with the Waterkeeper Alliance against one farm in particular two years ago. The Hudson Family Farm run by Alan and Kristin Hudson of Berlin, Md.

JONES

And so we've sampled above and below. And above the property did not have any of these excessive amounts of nutrients, but below it, it did.

BEN-ACHOUR

In a community room 45 minutes away in Georgetown, Del., Andrew McLean is quietly fuming.

MR. ANDREW MCLEAN

It's brought the farm community here on Delmarva more together than any issue that I've ever seen.

BEN-ACHOUR

McLean is head of the Delmarva Poultry Industry. He's a chicken farmer himself.

MCLEAN

Every creek on Delmarva, because we are flat and the water does not move very quickly, winds up being high in bacteria just from, you know, the normal detritus of things growing near it.

BEN-ACHOUR

Legal experts say it's extremely difficult to prove whether a farm is actually polluting because it's not like a factory or a sewage plant where there's a simple exhaust pipe you can test. The Maryland Department of the Environment checked out the Hudson Farm and did not find they polluted, just that they could have, but the Waterkeepers are pressing their own case. And that's making McLean and other farmers extremely fearful. They've raised $200,000 to cover legal fees and expenses for the Hudsons.

MCLEAN

The state said okay, you're good. And then somebody else comes in and sues you.

BEN-ACHOUR

The Waterkeepers argue that dust and feathers from ventilation fans and boots, among other things, are spreading pollution. The judge in the case wrote this past spring that if he accepted all the arguments of the environmental groups, every farm on the peninsula would probably be in violation of the Clean Water Act.

MCLEAN

Everybody recognizes there, but for the grace of God go I.

BEN-ACHOUR

A more likely implication of the case may not be whether the Hudsons or any other farmers pollute, but who can be held responsible for such pollution. Pamela Marks is with the law firm, Beverage and Diamond, which focuses on environmental regulation and litigation.

MS. PAMELA MARKS

As a big picture I think this case could possibly speak to the extent to which a poultry integrator might bear some responsibility for environmental compliance at farms that they contract with.

BEN-ACHOUR

The environmental groups are going after Perdue, the giant poultry producer. They want to hold Perdue responsible for the alleged pollution of one of its contractors. That's because large poultry giants like Perdue, supply the grain and the chicks to individual farmers and then come to pick up the chickens once they're grown. An attempt several years ago by the Maryland Legislature to make industrial processors responsible for the practices of their contractors failed.

BEN-ACHOUR

This case is an effort to tie the two together through the courts. Alison Proust is with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She says this would help clean up on a larger scale.

MS. ALISON PROUST

Suddenly, the smaller family farms or small farm operations or large farm operations are gonna have someone else at the table with them contributing financially, taking on some of the burden.

BEN-ACHOUR

Farmers say, when it comes to manure, they want to keep control of it. They can sell it or use it as fertilizer. In any case, the question may never be resolved in this case. The judge has expressed a skepticism towards the arguments laid out by the environmental groups. And in what may be a thinly veiled warning, has pointed out it is well within his rights to make them pay for the farms legal fees if they lose. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

What's your stance on this lawsuit? You can cast your vote by emailing us at Metro@wamu.org or you can find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.

SHEIR

We turn now from a legal case in progress in Maryland to criminal trials that happened long ago in Virginia. The books closed on these cases awhile back and they would have stayed that way, but thanks to a forensic scientist's unusual work habits and a convicted felon's quest to clear his name, Virginia is now scouring old DNA evidence for judicial errors. Over the past decade this massive review has uncovered at least 10 wrongful convictions. And according to a recent study of the data, more exonerations could be forthcoming, along with more information on the true rate of wrongful convictions. Jacob Fenston has the story.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

Back in the '70s and '80s, before the advent of DNA testing, forensic science was limited to things like testing blood stains to see if they matched the blood type of a suspect.

MS. KELLY WALSH

Is this Type A blood? Is this Type B?

FENSTON

Kelly Walsh is with the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. She says one of the analysts in Virginia whose job it was to do this testing, well, she had a peculiar habit.

WALSH

She would take swabbings or clippings from the original evidence and tape them to her files.

FENSTON

The tip of q-tip from a rape kit or the tiny corner of a stained sheet. Now, this was not standard procedure. And this analyst, her name was Mary Jane Burton, she wasn't thinking ahead, planning for the day when DNA testing would be invented, she just liked to keep these little bits of evidence as a prop to hold up in court and tell the jury...

WALSH

This is what I tested.

FENSTON

When Burton passed away in 1999 she left behind this secret archive of evidence, the DNA of thousands of convicted offenders was hidden away in storage.

ANDERSON

During the trial, basically I remember is that she had notes in front of her.

FENSTON

In 1982 Marvin Anderson was on trial for a rape that had occurred earlier that year in rural Hanover County Virginia. It was the summer before senior year of high school, when his life took this abrupt turn. One Tuesday he went into work at his summer job and got called into the office.

ANDERSON

No reason why, just, you know, come to the office. And when I arrived at the office there was two officers from Hanover County and Ashland Sheriff Department standing there waiting on me.

FENSTON

Anderson had no criminal record, but he was identified by photo and then in a line-up.

ANDERSON

From that moment when I was standing in the Hanover jail I knew I was going to prison. Automatic, straight from the bet, I knew I was going, whether I did the crime or didn't do the crime, I knew I was going to prison.

FENSTON

He was put away at age 18 and wouldn't get out of prison for 15 years. When DNA technology came along he wanted his evidence tested, but his lawyer at the Innocence Project in New York kept getting the same answer from the state crime lab.

MS. SHAWN AMBRUST

We don’t save evidence. We send it back to the submitting agency.

FENSTON

Shawn Ambrust with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project says the students working on Anderson's case were so convinced he was innocent they wouldn't take no for an answer.

AMBRUST

Can you just look, you know, these students won't leave me alone.

FENSTON

In 2001 the Virginia Department of Forensic Science finally pulled Anderson's file out of storage.

AMBRUST

Oh, wow, there's evidence here.

FENSTON

Taped inside were the q-tips from 1982, little snippings of evidence Mary Jane Burton had saved. In 2002, then Governor Mark Warner pardoned Anderson, officially exonerating him of the crime that took place 20 years earlier.

GOVERNOR MARK WARNER

What struck me, not just with Mr. Anderson, but a few other folks, was that how little malice they bore, how little bitterness they had.

FENSTON

Anderson was the first, but over the next two year, four more men were exonerated by the evidence Mary Jane Burton had saved.

WARNER

Yeah, I was very surprised.

FENSTON

So in 2005 Warner ordered the state to test every case where evidence had been retained. The Department of Forensic Science began sifting through more than half a million case files. Kelly Walsh with the Urban Institute says this test-them-all approach created a totally unique set of data.

WALSH

What Virginia did is take the traditional methods of looking for wrongful convictions and turn it on its head.

FENSTON

In June, the Urban Institute released a report finding the evidence in Virginia supported exoneration in 38 cases. If you do the math and subtract the cases where the DNA was too corrupted to provide any answers, the report suggests a possible wrongful conviction rate of eight percent in murder cases and 15 percent in sexual assault cases. But Walsh says those numbers come with caveats and further study is needed.

WALSH

Even if reality is half of this, even if reality is closer to four percent or 7.5 percent, that's still much, much higher than any previous estimate from other research.

FENSTON

But Virginia's DNA testing project has been mired in criticism throughout. Shawn Ambrust with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project says in the early years the state was extremely secretive about the whole project.

AMBRUST

I think a lot of the issue is that the project was so overwhelming. And it was given to the State Crime Laboratory itself. And they're good at science, but it was hard for them to sort of conceive of come up with a plan that made sense for the criminal justice system as a whole.

FENSTON

For example, the Commonwealth's clunky process of tracking down convicts who could possibly be exonerated by DNA. In the beginning the state would simply mail a letter to the convict's last known address.

MR. JON SHELDON

Basically, what it's saying is we're the government, we're here to help, contact us if you need us. And this is being sent to people who have been wrongfully convicted by the government.

FENSTON

Jon Sheldon, a criminal defense lawyer in Fairfax, is one of several attorneys who volunteered to help the Commonwealth track people down. Now Sheldon is moving onto the next batch of 60-something names.

SHELDON

Statistically, from our past experience, there should be a couple of these guys who are innocent.

FENSTON

Altogether, the state has to track down more than 1000 offenders from the '70s and '80s. So far, several hundred have been found. Finding the rest could take months or years. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

Time for a quick break, but when we get back, trial and error in the battle against cancer.

SCHLEGEL

And so we were able to screen drugs that we thought might be useful. And we're able to identify one that killed the tumor cells and not the normal cells. And they used it in a patient and they got the same results in the patient that we got in the laboratory.

SHEIR

That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week our theme is trial and error. And thus far, we've been focusing on the courts, you know, legal trials. Well, now we're gonna talk medicine. About seven years ago a university laboratory developed technology for the first vaccine for Human Papillomavirus or HPV. That's the virus that can lead to cervical cancer. The lab is run by Dr. Richard Schlegel at Georgetown's Department of Pathology. And now, Dr. Schlegel and his team appear to have made another big discovery, one that could eventually change how doctors treat cancer. Jonathan Wilson met up with Dr. Schlegel in his office to learn what the lab's latest medical trial has revealed.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

How do you explain what your lab has accomplished most recently with, I believe it's called reprogrammed cells?

SCHLEGEL

Yeah, so the concept of reprogrammed cells or actually the finding the we have come upon is that we have a way to grow normal and tumor cells from a patient very rapidly and very efficiently, which hasn't been able to be accomplished before. The bottom line is, if you try and grow human cells it takes weeks and weeks and months to get them to continue to grow out. And most of those don't develop into stable cell lines. And in our case, we can do that very rapidly.

SCHLEGEL

And so what it allows us to do now is to go in and take a biopsy for example of someone's tumor, with a needle, for example, like a breast tumor biopsy. And within days have tumor cells growing out of there and normal cells, if you have a normal area, so that you can identify drugs that kill the tumor cells and not the normal cells. And that was the ultimate goal that we wanted to achieve in the beginning.

WILSON

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that what you are able to do with these cells, because of the techniques that your lab has developed, was to try different techniques on these tumor cells that then you could be more confident, could work on the patient. Is that correct?

SCHLEGEL

That's right. So the critical thing for us, and in the cast that we published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is taking a biopsy of a patient who had a lung tumor, growing that out, growing out some of his normal lung tissues, and this was a very unusual lung tumor. I won't go into the details, but there was no defined therapy for it. And so we were able to screen drugs that we thought might be useful and were able to identify one that killed the tumor cells and not the normal cells and take that back to the clinicians and say, well, we're not sure if it will work, but in tissue culture it worked.

SCHLEGEL

And they used it in the patient and they got the same results in the patient that we got in the laboratory.

WILSON

If you had not had this technique and up until now doctors haven't, doctors basically try a bunch of different things to see if they'll work. And sometimes it's too late?

SCHLEGEL

Yeah, that's exactly the problem, is that the way it works you may have a drug that's known to say, treat a lung tumor. In most cases you'll get a response, but they come back. And then it becomes a game of oncology experimentation. I hate to say that, but, you know, you don’t know what's going to work, but you try another drug on the patient. And if it works, good. If it doesn't, you go onto another one. The bad thing about that is every time you use a new drug on a patient there's a lot of toxicity associated with it. So with each different round of chemotherapy the patient gets sicker and sicker.

SCHLEGEL

And so what we're able to do with this, we hope, when it gets tested in much larger trials, is to use the laboratory to define the spectrum of drugs that would be good to use in the patient and avoid all of the toxicities.

WILSON

One thing that I've heard mentioned in connection with this discovery is personalized medicine. Is this something that could really further the idea of personalizing cancer treatment?

SCHLEGEL

Yeah, I mean that is our ultimate goal, actually, is to make cancer therapy a personalized therapy. We are not going to just take a drug off the shelf, drug X is best for this population of patients who have lung tumors. We will actually take your tumor and find out what drug is best for you. And that's the ultimate goal.

WILSON

After the Papillomavirus vaccine you thought you were gonna wind things down with your career. Has this changed things?

SCHLEGEL

Yeah, like I said, it's been a dramatic change for me because I thought after the Papillomavirus vaccine we would continue to work on HPV because it's involved in some other tumors that are very important, like oral cancers. But with this developing, all of a sudden it's sort of like -- not a mid-life crisis, but a late-life crisis, where all of a sudden we've got much more to do and it's gonna be very hard to stop.

WILSON

Well, you've got to tell your lab to slow down and stop making discoveries.

SCHLEGEL

That's right.

SHEIR

That was Dr. Richard Schlegel speaking with "Metro Connection's" Jonathan Wilson. And by the way, Dr. Schlegel and his researchers say it could be years before further studies of this technique are completed. So with that caveat noted, if you'd like more information on this new research you can find links on our website, MetroConnection.org.

SHEIR

We move now from the medical lab to the kitchen. If you've dabbled in the culinary arts, then you know they can involve more than a bit of trial and error, but what about when you're trying to experiment on a really tight budget? Well, Chef Alli Sosna is teaching children how to do just that. This Monday in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, Chef Sosna is kicking off an after-school program called MicroGreens. It's designed to teach students how to prepare delicious family meals on a food-stamp budget.

SHEIR

The Chef recently met up with Emily Friedman at Target, Sosna's grocery store of choice to discuss the trial and error involved in eating healthy without breaking the bank.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

So where did the idea come from to start MicroGreens?

CHEF ALLI SOSNA

So over the last four years, I was working with D.C. Central Kitchen, which is a local non-profit. I saw that a lot of the kids would like fruits and vegetables, but then when they got home there's a big disconnect in budget restraints, time and culinary education, just basic know-how. And I wanted to figure out a way to lessen that gap, which would inevitably also make kids more healthy, increase family time and just make people more aware of their health.

FRIEDMAN

Can you talk a little bit more about why kids weren't eating fruits and vegetables at home?

SOSNA

It's easier for folks across the United States to get a hamburger from McDonalds or go to 7-Eleven or whatever and get very high saturated, like, trans fats and processed foods, right. And so the ability to cook and the time it takes to cook was just kind of weeded out.

FRIEDMAN

How did your partnership begin with DCPS?

SOSNA

So DCPS has been great with the outreach that they wanna do in their schools. And the principal at Shaw Middle School was great. And he just said, please, come teach my kids more about food. And just very, very excited about the program. So we're gonna launch there October 15.

FRIEDMAN

So why sixth grade? Why is that the optimum time to teach a kid what to eat and how to cook it?

SOSNA

I mean, the earlier the better, of course, with food education, but we chose sixth graders because they're at an age where they're responsible enough to go home and to cook for the family if they need to. I've found that this age group is--between fifth, sixth and seventh grade they're very open-minded. They're willing to learn. We have an hour a week with these kids, myself, with six other fellows, which are the volunteers that help me teach the kids. And we teach them the recipe of the day.

SOSNA

So the second day--the first day's gonna be knife skills, learning how to hold a knife, proper kitchen etiquette. The second week we go right into trussing a chicken. They cook the meals within the hour and then they go home with food to feed a family of four.

FRIEDMAN

So how do you do a SNAP budget for a family?

SOSNA

In D.C. the most amount of money that you can get for a family of four, about $167 per month, or $668 per month for a family of four is the max that you can get. The average meal that we do is tops, $3.50.

FRIEDMAN

Okay. So let's talk about one meal that you teach.

SOSNA

So we're gonna cook a pork ragu. With all of our proteins, whether they're chicken, fish or pork, you have to work with a large quantity and you have to make three meals out of it. And that is the only way to get the protein to be at the price point that you need to make your budget, right. And there's a brown rice bag that is five pounds. And it's $3.29. You always want to get brown rice because it's literally five cents more than the white rice per serving, but you get significant amounts of nutrients from the brown rice because it's not bleached.3

SOSNA

And then we'll do an onion, we do one onion, but we buy our onions by the bag. Then we do one cup of frozen peppers. And this is important going into the winter season. I live off a ton of frozen vegetables. And when you buy about a one pound bag, which is your standard frozen bag of vegetables in the grocery store, when you do one cup of peppers, it's only 25 cents.

FRIEDMAN

So I have -- maybe it's a misconception, but, like, I have this idea in my mind that frozen vegetables aren't as nutritious as fresh vegetables. Is that true?

SOSNA

Not at all. Frozen vegetables are just as good as fresh vegetables, you just have to know how to cook them. On a SNAP budget it's very, very hard to have, like, say the My Plate example where you have X amount of greens, X amount of fruit, X amount of milk, X amount of whole grains because it doesn't allow for that. And that's the bigger problem, is that I can't go and fill myself up on SNAP budget, tons of fruits and vegetables. I can't. And so right now you have to make sure that that extra and that majority of your plate is a good ingredient.

FRIEDMAN

What are the other things that you just can't have on this budget?

SOSNA

Butter, whether it's salted or unsalted. You don't buy gum. You don't buy any mostly sugar-based items. And so I don't have a ton of money to go buy that Nutella or the processed already made salsa. Like I have to figure out how to make it.

FRIEDMAN

I mean, people on SNAP do buy this stuff.

SOSNA

And then they're left with no money halfway through the month. Or there is promotions going on, right. So if you buy one, you get one free. And really what we teach the kids is, are you full? When are you full? Recognize your body. It's not calorie based, it's not fat based, it's not a nutritional, it must meet this standard. It's recognizing how when you put something in your body, how it affects your body.

FRIEDMAN

Chef Alli Sosna, thank you so much for hanging out with me at Target.

SOSNA

Any time.

SHEIR

You can follow the progress of MicroGreens as Chef Sosna kicks off her pilot program. We have links on our website, MetroConnection.org.

SHEIR

And now our weekly trip around the region. On today's "Door to Door," we visit Mount Pleasant in Northwest D.C. and Forest Estates in Silver Spring, Md.

MR. ANDREW HARTMAN

My name is Andrew Hartman. I am 44 years old and I live in Mount Pleasant in the District of Columbia. Mount Pleasant is right next to Columbia Heights. We're bordered on the south by Harvard Street and on the north and on the west by Rock Creek Park. There's a lot of young people that live in Mount Pleasant, as evidenced by late nights, some of our restaurants turn into bars. And Mount Pleasant Street is really an interesting kind of place 'cause it's like a small town downtown.

MR. ANDREW HARTMAN

And that's really what I guess Mount Pleasant feels like to me. Mount Pleasant was started by clerks from New England that worked on the Hill. And there was a streetcar that came up from the Capitol and stopped right here on Mount Pleasant Avenue. We have a lot of activities in Lamont Park. The farmers market takes place there every week. There have been movies. They put up a Christmas tree every year and decorate a tree. There's a little stage and so there'll be bands and contests Fridays and Saturdays, on the weekends.

MR. ANDREW HARTMAN

And we often have mariachis that are going up and down the street. When I have my windows open, there's nothing like living in Washington, D.C. and hearing mariachi music just coming up from downstairs. Everything you need is right here and so you constantly are bumping into the same people. And people say hello to one another and care about one another. Come visit Mount Pleasant, you'll fall in love, too.

MS. ASHWINI TAMBE

My name is Ashwini Tambe and I'm 42 years old. And I moved to Forest Estates in 2005. So the boundaries of Forest Estates are the Sligo Creek Trail, that's the wonderful woods, a paved trail, a running, hiking, biking trail. And on the other side Georgia Avenue which is probably one of the busiest streets in the entire area. It's not dramatically hilly, but there are gentle slopes and a lot of trees. And I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate these trees. I'm not a very religious person, but every weekend it's almost a worshipful practice for me to go to the woods.

MS. ASHWINI TAMBE

We live across from a family who has a trampoline in their front yard. And it's become our community trampoline because they have very generously offered it to any parents who need to get their kids out of their hair for a little while. And so whenever I step outside my house on a summer day I am greeted by the sight of about three or four kids up in the air, hurling themselves around. I think primarily there's a nice economic diversity. You will see houses that are really, really big with multiple cars and then you'll see houses that are much smaller and more modest and all within a street or two of each other. And we are in conversation with each other. So I think that makes for a sense of being comfortable in your own skin.

SHEIR

We heard from Ashwini Tambe in Forest Estates and Andrew Hartman in Mount Pleasant. If you think your neighborhood should be part of "Door to Door," send an email to metro@wamu.org. And to see a map of all the doors we've knocked on so far, visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

After the break, taking chances in the world of theater.

MR. DAVID MUSE

I want them to know that there's a place they can come with a really open mind, you know, that could be a kind of glorious hit or miss enterprise. And that's the whole idea of the thing.

SHEIR

It's coming your way on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this hour we're engaging in a little Trial and Error. We've met Washingtonians who've gone through trials in the courtroom and the medical lab. And now we're going to focus on a little trial and error in the theatre. So take out pages 89A and 90. So 89A and 90 are being replaced by 89 A and B and 90 and 90A.

SHEIR

We're at a rehearsal at D.C.'s Studio Theatre where literary director Adrien-Alice Hansel...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

(unintelligible) straight replays?

MS. ADRIEN-ALICE HANSEL

Straight replays.

SHEIR

...is sharing script changes for a new play soon to open on Studio's Stage 4.

HANSEL

And then we have new pages 112 to the end of the play, which now ends on page on 127.

MUSE

It feels shorter in my hands.

SHEIR

That's David Muse, Studio's artistic director. He'll be directing this production, a world premiere by Tony Award-nominated British playwright Bryony Lavery. It's called "Dirt."

MUSE

And it's a little hard to just encapsulate in a sentence or two but it has something to do with dirt and dirt in many forms, like, dirt as soil. Dirt as the results of decomposition, dirt as emotional mess.

SHEIR

"Dirt's" first performance is October 17th, but as we just heard, the script clearly is still in progress.

MUSE

Over 50 percent of the play is new since I read it for the very first times. But we're sort of honing in on what we're going to do. And by the time the thing is in front of an audience we expect it to be more or less complete, at least for this production.

SHEIR

See, "Dirt" is the second show in Studio's Lab Series. "Lungs" by Duncan MacMillan, which Studio produced late last year, was the first. David Muse says he dreamed up the Lab Series shortly after replacing Joy Zinoman as Studio's artistic head in 2010.

MUSE

I inherited an institution that hadn't done a lot of new play development. And it's a personal interest of mine.

SHEIR

Because sometimes, he says, you might find a play that you're really excited about.

MUSE

But that's unfinished.

SHEIR

Or experimental.

MUSE

Or noncommercial and it can be hard to find a place for it in a season but you feel passionate about producing it.

SHEIR

So, what do you do? You launch a series outside your theater's regular subscription season.

MUSE

To take the pressure off and to free us up to take chances on things that weren't yet done.

SHEIR

And that, says Tony Award-nominated playwright Bryony Lavery, is what she calls...

LAVERY

Absolute playwright's heaven.

SHEIR

For one thing throughout the development process, Lab Series playwrights are invited to stay in Washington D.C., which by the way, Lavery describes as...

LAVERY

A very handsome city.

SHEIR

So Lavery and her ever-changing script have been in residence in this "very handsome city" for a while now.

LAVERY

The process has been, we'll all discuss it and laugh and try it and do different things in the rehearsal room and then I go away and get up very early in the morning and come in with propositions.

SHEIR

Which she offers to the director and, of course...

LAVERY

These most wonderful actors. So they immediately try and embody what in this case, was we started working on two new characters. And so we kind of cooked them and grew them up, from the ground. I'm slightly gushing because I'm having such a good time.

MUSE

Can we just take a moment and hear these four pages because a lot new on them.

HANSEL

From where?

MUSE

From Seven Deadlies, from Harper's okay.

MS. HOLLY TWYFORD

Okay. I've got a big question, why me? Why me? Me, I was fit and helpful. What did I do to deserve this?

SHEIR

That's one of Lavery's most wonderful actors, Holly Twyford, a Washington-area native who's been gracing stages for, well...

TWYFORD

Well, for a few years now. I don't need to go into details.

SHEIR

The giggler here is actor Matthew Montelongo. "Dirt" marks the fourth time he and Twyford have teamed up on a show.

MR. MATTHEW MONTELONGO

It's such a pleasure working with Holly Twyford.

TWYFORD

There's really nothing like working with Matthew Montelongo.

MONTELONGO

I wake up every morning and I think to myself, I get to work with Holly Twyford again, today.

SHEIR

And Bryony Lavery thought she was gushing. Anyhow, Twyford and Montelongo have both performed in world premieres before. But because this material has been so raw and so malleable, they say the Lab Series experience has stood out.

MONTELONGO

From an actor's point of view, like, it's good for us to develop that muscle, to commit to something wholly and then the next day it might be something completely different that you are engaging with equal passion and fervor.

TWYFORD

A lot of times actors' jobs are as interpreters, which is still really fun and exciting. But this even takes it to the next level of actually being able to help tell the story.

SHEIR

Now, in the case of "Dirt," the story involves a kind of love triangle between a guy named Matt, played by Matthew Montelongo, a waitress named Elle and then Holly Twyford's character, a woman named Harper who actually is a dead body.

TWYFORD

Which is not a spoiler because from the moment I walk on stage I say, now I'm the body?

SHEIR

The play goes on to explore the various characters and, as Bryony Lavery says, various questions.

LAVERY

When we die, actually what happens to us? What we know for certain is that we become dirt. But are we dirt or are we, what's the word, not gods, but spirits? You know, are we low or are we high? Are we base or are we divine?

SHEIR

Sounds like pretty heavy stuff sure, but as the playwright's quick to point out...

LAVERY

It is very funny and very moving, serious, light.

SHEIR

And that's a big reason David Muse selected "Dirt" for the Lab Series. Not only might it engage all sorts of audiences but it could enjoy a rich and full life after this production. Last year's show, "Lungs," has since been produced a number of times in America and Great Britain and it recently received a nomination at The Theatre Awards U.K.

MUSE

But if we tried to, you know, create a play every single time that was going to go for the world then the project in a way wouldn't work. Because we would start to second guess ourselves and focus on the success of the thing, as opposed to what the writer needs in the development process at that time.

SHEIR

Muse says he's pleased to see more and more Washington-area theaters focus on new-play development. But what sets Studio apart, he says, is how the Lab Series allows a play to change so dramatically from the first reading to the first performance.

MUSE

Which is a kind of crazy, nervous-making, exciting, freeing way to work, that could be a kind of glorious hit-or-miss enterprise. And you're meant to come with an open mind and to see what we've come up with so far.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

You were buying flowers.

TWYFORD

I think you just use your brain and you make it up.

FEMALE

You were happy. I pray you were happy, darling.

MUSE

And this is where the bit about her day used to come, right? Snip, snip, okay.

SHEIR

Performances of "Dirt" begin October 17th at Studio Theatre in Northwest D.C. For more information on the show and on the Lab Series, head to our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

While we're on the subject of dirt, earlier this year shovels in hand, archaeologists from the University of Maryland spent several weeks on the Eastern shore where they engaged in some scientific trial and error. They were digging for the first time in Easton, Md., in an African American neighborhood called The Hill.

SHEIR

The very first U.S. census way back in 1790 proves that Easton is one of the oldest African American communities in the nation and as Tara Boyle tells us those university archaeologists are working with local residents to peel back layers of this neighborhood's nearly forgotten history.

MS. TARA BOYLE

When you’re an archaeologist, you get used to digging and digging and digging some more and coming up with not much. But every once in a while, you hit the jackpot.

MS. KATE DEELEY

You can see it's in two pieces here, the bottom which is pretty corroded unfortunately but it's oxidized and turned green, but you can see from the top that at one point it used to be sort of that gold color.

BOYLE

Kate Deeley is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, Where we're standing in a sun-filled lab packed with filing cabinets and boxes of artifacts. She shows me two pieces of what is clearly a very old button.

DEELEY

It’s got the eagle, the seal and the arrows on one side and olive branch on the other.

DEELEY

This button, she says, was produced during the late 19th century.

DEELEY

And would've been an officer in the U.S. Army's uniform.

BOYLE

Deeley and her colleagues believe this button belonged to an African-American buffalo soldier named William Gardner. And until a few months ago it was buried deep in the backyard of a dilapidated house on "the Hill." Now, this tiny artifact is a symbol of how this neighborhood is rediscovering its past.

MR. MARK LEONE

The Hill is a captivating place, I mean, it's beautiful.

BOYLE

Mark Leone has done archaeology all over our region for decades. The professor anthropology at the University of Maryland oversaw the work on "the Hill" and he says it was unlike any other dig he's done before, for one key reason.

LEONE

It was a winner. It was a winner from beginning to end. I've never seen an African-American community own an archaeological site like this. I mean, they grow up on it and around it shooting marbles and there folks who are walking in every day, wanting to know how their archaeology was.

BOYLE

One of those keen to watch this archaeology unfold was Carlene Phoenix. She spent part of her childhood on the Hill and these days she's the president of the preservation group Historic Easton. She recently took me on a tour of the neighborhood.

MS. CARLENE PHOENIX

This was our comfort zone, everything was here. I think we only had to venture out for shoes and clothes. So we had barbers and beauticians and we had grocery stores and clubs for children and taxi stands. Everything was here for us.

BOYLE

As we walked through quiet streets of modest single-family homes, it quickly became clear that those businesses are all gone.

PHOENIX

The vacant lot here was a site of what was known as the Brawn Co. Theatre was an African American movie theater. Unfortunately, we weren't able to save it.

BOYLE

But Phoenix says even with all the Hill has lost, this neighborhood is still remarkable.

PHOENIX

We're family and so when we see one another, we acknowledge each other and we're just overly friendly people here in Easton.

BOYLE

And as with any family, some stories get passed down and others are forgotten. Local historian Priscilla Morris says one of the forgotten pieces has to do with the Hill’s origins.

MS. PRISCILLA MORRIS

If you look at the U.S. Census, the first census in 1790, you see it was a densely populated area with free African-Americans and many of the surnames are the same family names of people who live here now. So it's a long tenure.

BOYLE

That tenure may put the Hill in competition for the title of oldest African-American community in the U.S., a title that currently belongs to the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans. And Morris says there are other intriguing questions yet to be answered about the Hill.

BOYLE

For example, how did such a large community of free African-Americans survive and thrive in a region so entrenched in slavery? And is it possible these free African Americans may have helped Harriet Tubman ferry slaves to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad?

MORRIS

It's going to take qualified scholars to take a look at that question. But it's a question worth asking, given the density of the free population here. It certainly would be a comforting place for someone making an escape to find some help.

BOYLE

Answering these questions will take a fair bit of sleuthing and Morris and other researchers have been poring over land records and genealogical info for clues. In the meantime, Carlene Phoenix says all this interest in the past means a lot for the Hill's future.

PHOENIX

This neighborhood, everybody just considered this the blighted neighborhood, the neighborhood where there's the crime is high and the drug dealers stand on the corner. But now that people know the history and they're seeing the interest, then it just gives them pride to say, okay I'm living in a neighborhood that is not what society says that it is.

BOYLE

Back at the University of Maryland doctoral student Kate Deeley is rifling through clear plastic bags of artifacts collected at the Easton dig. She pulls out a sack full of multicolored marbles.

DEELEY

We have some that are made out of glass, which sound the way you'd expect marbles to sound. And then these two here are ceramic marbles.

BOYLE

Over the winter Deeley and other researchers will analyze all the artifacts they pulled out of the ground in Easton. Professor Mark Leone says they're also building a database with the names of slaves who lived in the area so that modern-day residents can begin to fill in the missing pieces of their own stories and of the Hill's history.

LEONE

Are any of these descendants alive on the Hill? Well, that's for people on the Hill to look for. That's not an assignment, that's a request they themselves have made.

BOYLE

And as residents begin work on that task Leone and his team will return to the Hill next summer, to dig and dig and dig some more in a process that may just uncover some of this area's long-buried secrets. I'm Tara Boyle.

SHEIR

You can link to that database of slave names and see photos of some of the artifacts recovered at the Hill on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

We end today's show with a very personal tale, recorded recently at the Storycorps booth in Arlington, Va. Lizabeth Schuch sat down for a conversation with her boyfriend of five years, Jim Talley. And as you'll hear their conversation took a rather unexpected turn.

MR. JIM TALLEY

You've written a book and I was wondering, why did you write the book?

MS. LIZABETH SCHUCH

Well, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17 and I was a senior in high school, that was back in 1984. And I had pretty serious manic episode. I'd never had any signs prior to that and I was hospitalized for a month, which was pretty traumatic, as you can imagine.

MS. LIZABETH SCHUCH

And some point in there I had this desire, I just knew someday I was going to be able to help people because of this illness and that I was going to able to make a difference.

TALLEY

So you started on a book?

SCHUCH

I did. I started writing a book way back, probably 20 years ago and I wrote about my manic episodes and about how I was able maintain a normal life, you know, in between those. And I wanted to provide some hope for people. But I handwrote, put it in a notebook and then I put it on the shelf.

SCHUCH

In the year 2000 I experienced my first serious depression that opened me to more depressions. But soon after that I realized now I could write the book to the full gamut of the illness, both the manias and the depressions. And now I was ready. And I started typing everything that was in the binder and then I went on further and I wrote that in about a year.

TALLEY

Yes, so what's the status of the book now?

SCHUCH

Well, so I finally decided that I was going to go ahead and self-publish and it's set to be published in November. So it's going to be a reality pretty darn soon.

TALLEY

And what's the title of the book?

SCHUCH

"More Than Bipolar" and the subtitle is "A Memoir of Acceptance and Hope."

TALLEY

So, of course, we've been dating about five years now and one of the things that I told you years ago is that we would get married when you first finished the book. So how do you see our relationship going forward?

SCHUCH

Well, I expect that we get married.

TALLEY

Really?

SCHUCH

Well, the book's almost done.

TALLEY

Yes.

SCHUCH

If you're true to your word.

TALLEY

Really?

SCHUCH

And you've been telling people, you've been telling family, our friends...

TALLEY

What have I been telling them?

SCHUCH

That we're getting married when the book is done.

TALLEY

Really?

SCHUCH

Yes.

TALLEY

Okay.

SCHUCH

So don't you, what do you see for our future?

TALLEY

Well, I'm very proud of you and you are a passionate and compassionate person and we wouldn't have been dating for five years if I didn't think that. So I would like to ask you, will you marry me?

SCHUCH

Yes.

TALLEY

Thank you.

SCHUCH

My gosh, wow. Wow.

TALLEY

Did you expect that?

SCHUCH

No.

TALLEY

No?

SCHUCH

I love you with all my heart.

TALLEY

I love you, too, and I'm very lucky to have you.

SCHUCH

I'm lucky to have you, too.

SHEIR

That was Lizabeth Schuch speaking with her boyfriend and now, fiancé, Jim Talley. Storycorps is the oral history project that gives Americans the chance to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives. For more info about the Storycorps booth that's currently in Arlington, head to our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jonathan Wilson, Sabri Ben-Achour, Tara Boyle, Jacob Fenston and Emily Friedman. Our acting news director is Meymo Lyons. Our managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Raphaella Bennin. Lauren Landau and Raphaella Bennin produce "Door to Door." Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts" and our "Door to Door" theme "No, Girl," are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see all the music we use on our website, metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.

SHEIR

Also on metroconnection.org you can find our Twitter and facebook links, you can read free transcripts of stories and if you missed part of today's show you can hear the whole thing by clicking the this week on "Metro Connection" link. To hear our most recent episodes click the podcast link or find us on iTunes.

SHEIR

We hope you can join us next week when we'll be On the Move. We'll learn the different ways deaf and hearing people interact with city landscapes. We'll find out why the local skateboarding scene is becoming more popular and more diverse. And we'll meet a road-tripping man with a mission, to visit the gravesites of U.S. presidents.

MALE

You know, some kids are real into dinosaurs, some kids are into outer space. My thing was presidents and nothing has changed.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.