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MahoganyBooks Begins a New Chapter

By Nyah Hardmon

This article was first published August 4, 2021 in Washington Independent Review of Books here.

The DC-based indie opens a second store at National Harbor.

With summer in full swing, Anacostia-based MahoganyBooks is set to expand its colorful impact on DC’s literary scene with the opening of a second location, at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Maryland, this Saturday, Aug. 7th, at noon.

According to owners Ramunda and Derrick Young, the new outpost will capture the same intimate spirit of their charter store, while also tapping into novel ways to connect with their community of readers.

“We want people to feel like they have to go to both stores because there’s something unique at each location,” says Derrick.

Along with having nearly double the space of the original venue, this new location will also feature distinct additions like coffee from Jirani Coffeehouse, a fellow Black-owned business. As the Youngs adjust to this transition, they recognize that a brand-new space comes with a brand-new clientele.

“I’m excited to try a new path,” Ramunda says. “There hasn’t been a Black bookstore in [the National Harbor] area, so it’ll be interesting this next year to see what that looks like and what kind of changes we’ll make along the way to really service our customers.”

Both Derrick and Ramunda have taken a hands-on approach to everything in the new space, from fabric selection to interior design. The owners insist that the end result will be a domain that customers can come to know, love, and, most importantly, feel safe within. Thus, the Youngs will continue to follow pandemic-related safety procedures like hosting virtual events, adhering to capacity limits and sanitation protocols, and expanding the use of their curbside-pickup service, Black Books to Go.

“We still want to make sure people feel comfortable,” Derrick explains. “It’s a community bookstore, so we wouldn’t be doing our job if we weren’t there for the community.”

While putting community first means putting a momentary pause on in-person initiatives like their monthly book club, the Youngs are confident that they’ll soon get back to the group gatherings they’ve grown fond of hosting.

Until then, MahoganyBooks has begun to revive smaller in-person events like meet-and-greets as a way to ease book lovers back into the swing of things. Still, because personal contact has been a pillar of the shop since its inception in 2007, both Derrick and Ramunda agree that nothing can compare to face-to-face engagement with customers. 

“The energy from our events was amazing and it really fostered community in a great way,” says Ramunda. “I can’t wait until that time and space comes again.”

As the Youngs look to their future, they also look back to the foundation that started it all. Originally an online platform, MahoganyBooks was created to give people across the country access to literature centered around the Black experience. Even before a physical space was a viable option for the business, the Youngs became a consistent neighborhood presence via pop-up events and school engagements. Now, the once-digital platform has not only one brick-and-mortar place to call home, but two.

“Opening up this space really allowed us to create that community that we longed for,” Ramunda says. “It was important for us to have a sacred space where we could just get deep on topics that other people may shy away from.”

Despite the pandemic-related chaos and stress of their new journey, the Youngs remain optimistic and excited for the days to come.

“It’s like giving birth. You have this short amount of time where you’re doing these things that will never happen again, and then for the rest of your life, you’re dealing with the growth,” Derrick says.

“I try to take a step back and enjoy some of these nuanced moments because this is not something people get to do often.”

[Image courtesy of MahoganyBooks].

Area arts organizations every writer (and reader) should know.

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published July 1, 2021 in Washington Independent Review of Books here.

Even throughout the pandemic, we were reminded of the resilience of the arts. Now, with the world beginning to open again, read how a few local nonprofits are contributing to the arts and literary scene in DC.

826DC

Under the storefront of Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company in Columbia Heights, 826DC provides free writing and publishing opportunities to young people in the District.

According to incoming Senior Manager of Communication and Development Sarah Richman, nonprofits like 826DC are essential in serving DC’s youth.

“Too often, literary spaces only feature adults, and that is such a disservice to young people who have incredible and powerful things to say, but also to us,” Richman says. “We’re missing out on magnificent stories, on important points of view, and on a really valuable slice of the human experience.”

826DC focuses on creating relationships both with the writing community and among writers. Supporting newspaper clubs at schools in DC is one way it encourages aspiring journalists to identify what is important to them within their own communities and nationally. Students not only find mentors in 826DC volunteers; older students get the opportunity to mentor younger ones.

The organization also hosts programs like the “Young Authors’ Book Project,” which gives students the hands-on experience of writing, editing, and publishing their own book. This year’s project is “Sometimes I Have to be Brave,” which includes personal narratives and poems about community written during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though the pandemic shifted 826DC’s operations to fully online, Richman says it gave the organization another unique opportunity to foster space for young people to cope with and process difficult changes in the world.

Day Eight

An artist and writer himself, Robert Bettmann created Day Eight as a way to further connect the world of the arts and creative projects. According to Bettmann, the “left and right hands” of the organization are its poetry publishing and arts journalism work.

Day Eight offers opportunities for local poets through publishing and performance. The organization is currently working on a nature-themed anthology featuring the work of 16 poets and four visual artists.

For the past six years, Day Eight has also hosted the DC Poet Project — one part poetry reading series, one part open-mic contest. Accompanying the competition is the DC Poets for DC Schools Project, where finalists and winners of the contest are invited to perform and teach in local schools.

Day Eight’s work with students doesn’t stop there. They also host an Arts Writing Fellowship, which is designed to support early-career arts writers. The program is often sought out by college students, and Bettmann says that this kind of experience is particularly important for young journalists entering such a competitive field.

“By creating this program where we make the decisions for who is included based on the quality of the writing, we feel like we can actually affect that trajectory a little bit,” he explains, “helping people stand out as having been recognized as one of the best writers in the area and also make actual connections with editors and mentors who could possibly hire them.”

The Inner Loop

When Rachel Coonce and Courtney Sexton moved back to DC in 2014 after college, they struggled to find a literary community that wasn’t affiliated with a school or specific program.

Soon after, they launched the Inner Loop, whose mission is creating connections between local writers and the community. With around 75 attendees at their first event in April 2014, Coonce and Sexton realized that there was an empty space in the District that needed to be filled.

Years later, the Inner Loop is operating with that same mission. The organization has five distinct programs. Their writing series brings both established writers and beginners in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry together each year. “The Inner Loop Radio” is a podcast hosted by the pair. The Inner Loop also hosts a summer writers-in-residency program and fall retreats, and their author’s corner project works as a publicity campaign for newly published writers by partnering with local restaurants to promote their work.

During the pandemic, this project became especially important as the arts and food-and-beverage industry struggled to adapt to a newly virtual world.

“How can we engage and support them and our writers at the same time?” Sexton recalls asking. “The idea there was this ‘side of literature’ with your order, essentially. Encouraging people to patronize the restaurants where our writers were being featured.”

They started an “inspiration series” on the podcast, too, speaking to authors about coping during lockdown, and they launched a writing contest in partnership with District Fray. Surprisingly, Coonce and Sexton say event enrollment did not suffer during the pandemic. The need, evidently, persists.

[Photo of future authors courtesy of 826DC]

Day Eight fellow Clare Mulroy is a rising senior at American University studying journalism and minoring in both sustainability and women’s, gender, sexuality studies. Her freelance work appears in the Hill, Cape Cod Health News, and Tagg Magazine. Clare is also an intern at NBC News’ Washington Bureau. She lives in Washington, DC, but hails from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In her free time, you can find her searching for something new to paint or picking up a good book.

An enthralling story of love in ‘Berta, Berta’ from Everyman Theatre

I could not help but root for these two lost and lonely souls to find solace in each other.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published June 10, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Every 17 years, cicadas emerge from underground and swarm the earth, searching for their mates. Their long incubation leads to a relatively short — yet loud — existence aboveground. Though they are here only a short while, they make their presence known. In mythology, the cicada is known for themes such as immortality, resurrection, and ecstasy. As we attempt to heal from a pandemic that has shaken the global center, the cicadas are here to remind us of the inevitability of life and death, shouting a promise that no matter what, the world still turns.

This thematic underpinning undergirds Angelica Chéri’s Berta, Berta, currently running at Everyman Theatre. The play is a two-hander following the entangled lives of Leroy (portrayed by Gabriel D. Lawrence) and Berta (portrayed by Myxolydia Taylor) as they try to heal their broken selves through each other. After being estranged for three years, Leroy arrives at Berta’s door, bloodied and scared, having committed murder against someone claiming to have “had” Berta. What follows is a story of mysticism, passion, and love all over the backdrop of the early-20th-century American South.

Gabrielle D. Lawrence as Leroy and Myxolydia Tyler as Berta in ‘Berta, Berta.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I first became acquainted with Chéri’s work through her and Ross Baum’s musical, Gun and Powder, which had its world premiere at Signature Theatre Company after enjoying development through the new-musical laboratory SigWorks. Like Gun and Powder, Berta Berta is a period drama — perhaps indicative of Chéri’s artistic oeuvre. Set in Mississippi in 1920, the play feels like an eternal flame; that is, the passion is palpable throughout the production. Both Lawrence and Taylor give tenacious, laborious performances, and by laborious, I mean it admirably. In their impassioned deliveries of Chéri’s poetically written script, one could literally feel the two actors working. Even streamed virtually, their chemistry is felt from the very first moment they are together on stage right until their very last moments holding each other.

Under Reginald L. Douglas’s careful direction, what could end up strained and forced was, instead, lyrical and heartfelt. Coming in at just over 80 minutes, Berta Berta is well-paced, stacked with just enough moments of humor and lightness to balance out its dark subject matter. Ironically, while viewing the play, I found myself both consciously and unconsciously reminded of August Wilson and his signature blend of realism and mythology — only to read an interview where Chéri cites The Piano Lesson as influencing this play, particularly in hearing the prison work song, “Berta Berta.” Chéri notes that this song currently has no known originary moments; despite its being a love song, no one knows who the man and woman were. “I had to write an origin story,” Chéri says.

As enthralling as the script, performances, and direction were, these choices were further framed gorgeously through light and sound. Where we were forced to step in and out of reality (sometimes in Berta’s head, other times in Leroy’s), the aesthetic devices supported it dramaturgically and helped to communicate these moments to the audience. The collaboration of Sarah Tunderman’s lighting design and Lawrence E. Moten’s set design staged the moments of mysticism in ways that differentiated them throughout. I was particularly drawn to the strategic and skillful employment of sound. Knowing that the play serves as an origin point for a song, it seems intentional from Chéri that sound would play an operative role in the production. Chéri contends that “sound has a reverberation,” and those reverberations rang throughout Berta, Berta. It wasn’t simply songs or music that provided the critical sonic moments, but the screams of the cicadas, the rustling of the trees, the banging of steel when Leroy would be reminded of his trauma from his crimes.

Gabrielle D. Lawrence as Leroy and Myxolydia Tyler as Berta in ‘Berta, Berta.’  Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Berta, Berta, ultimately, does an incredible job with a lot of heavy subject matter. Yet, in the hands of Chéri and Douglas, the narrative seems even. Though the tension begins and remains palpable throughout and the audience knows the inevitable is going to happen  (they can never be together), I still could not help but root for these two lost and lonely souls to find solace in each other. The play is yet another gorgeous entry into a genealogy of Black Southern gothic. The cicadas may be here for a short while, but after watching this production, I am looking forward to Berta, Berta’s long life.

A close look at ‘City in Transition,’ Theater Alliance’s love letter to DC

Artistic Director Raymond O. Caldwell and Playwright Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman share insider insights on the company’s exemplary community engagement.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published May 24, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Transition as a noun means “the process or period of changing from one state to another.” As a verb it means “to undergo or cause to undergo a process or period of transition.” Both definitions, from the Oxford Dictionary, point to transition as a site of possibility—defined by its errant and unfinished nature but moving toward something, whether positive or negative.

This feeling is captured in Theater Alliance’s City in Transition: The Quadrant Series, a group of pieces that explore Washington, DC’s four quadrants — Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast — in order to stage the disparate and interconnected histories and ongoing stories of Black life in the District. Playwrights Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie, and Leslie Scott-Jones were commissioned to represent one quadrant of the DC area and generated four stories as diverse as the region itself.

Kelsey Delemar and Daniel Young in ‘Child’s Place’ (Northwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Child’s Place by Shalom Omo-Osagie, representing the Northwest quadrant, and tells the story of an intergenerational dilemma: a Black family quarreling over whether to transform its long-standing restaurant into a lounge. Besides conflict across generations, the play wrestles with gentrification and class politics. Avery Collins’s Big Fish, speaking to the Southwest quadrant, follows the journey of rapper Wizard Kelly and his untimely death. Incorporating music, the piece uses the tradition of hip hop theater. The Northeast quadrant play, Thirty-Seven by Leslie Scott-Jones, delves into interracial politics as it details the fraught relationship between a Black DC resident and a white census worker. The Southeast quadrant play, Khadijah Ali-Coleman’s Fundable, tells the story of a game show (which I’ll discuss later). Each play speaks to the others while diverging creatively to present a portrait of contemporary Black DC life.

Like Theater Alliance’s previous virtual production A Protest in 8, City in Transition employs film in creative ways. But rather than presenting a linear composition like its predecessor, City in Transition fragments the narratives and sutures scenes together out of order. What this creates is an abstract, experimental cinematic and theatrical style. I was fascinated by this generative blending of content and form. It forces the viewer to really pay attention to follow where each piece leads.

Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour, Morgan Charece, and Charles Franklin IV in ’Big Fish’ (Southwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

As a company Theater Alliance continues to be a leader in community-engaged work — tuned in to not only the artistic desires of leadership and staff but also a complex understanding of the inclusion of the surrounding neighborhood. This can be seen in initiatives such as Radical Neighboring — a group of tickets set aside for residents of Southeast DC, a program dating back to the previous artistic director, Colin Hovde  — and has continued with recent productions such as A Protest in 8, the company’s fall digital collection, which featured the original plays and nonprofit activist organizations of the playwrights’ choices. In a social and political climate heavily attuned to issues around equity and justice, Theater Alliance seems to be doing what they have always done: modeling the convergence of community engagement and artistic practice.

But something else has been intriguing to me with the work being done at Theater Alliance, especially by its artistic director, Raymond O. Caldwell. I find, as a Black theater artist, that Black theater — and Black art at large — is often discussed for its activist or political merit and not also for what it contributes artistically and creatively. I am annoyed when critics simply write about how “important” Black art is rather than also illuminating its innovations in style or form. It’s something I always look for when I watch any work of theater but especially productions with a Black creative team. Not to devalue the political contributions that are being made, but I want to honor the artistry involved.

Charles Franklin IV and Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour in ’Big Fish’ (Southwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Due to the stalling of in-person performances because of the pandemic, Theater Alliance, like theaters across the nation, turned to digital platforms to produce. While many people have questioned what this digital turn has done to the fundamental agreement of what theater is (a live form of performance that is based on a bodily exchange among both performers and audiences), Caldwell has instead embraced the affordances of the virtual landscape. This question — “What is theater?” — remained central to Caldwell’s artistic considerations with the creative team as they were putting together City in Transition, he told me; he was not interested in simply making a film. Caldwell defines theater as “seers and doers,” as he believes “theater happens everywhere.” One of his favorite pastimes is sitting in a coffee shop and observing all the theater occurring around him. He doesn’t discount what makes theater special — its liveness — but “we have to be together for that to happen.”

Raymond O. Caldwell

This relational component is at the center of Theater Alliance’s ethos of producing artistically challenging yet communally engaging work as Caldwell realized that connecting with other people and bodies in a shared space is crucial to theater. But there is a unique component to Caldwell’s artistic and directorial style, a creative signature that I recognize: His work often incorporates play and games, specifically the device of the game show. It’s clear from both the fall 2019 Day of Absence and the more recent A Protest in 8 that Caldwell is interested in what games do and can do for intense political conversations.

“I love games,” Caldwell told me; “I think gameplay draws out some of the ugliest in us in really evocative ways.” Admitting to being a competitive person himself, Caldwell noted that people often return to a sense of play because it’s “the first way we experienced the world.” In City in Transition, Khadijah Ali-Coleman’s Fundable, representing the Southeast quadrant, harnessed the narrative and aesthetic device of a game show whose winner gets funding for their nonprofit of choice. This not only presented ample opportunity for socially relevant commentary on gentrification and the toxic nonprofit world but also gave Ali-Coleman space to explore her humorous side.

Melissa Carter in ‘Fundable’ (Southeast) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Fundable originally had an entirely different tone, plot, and characters, Ali-Coleman told me. As the process of creating City in Transition was underway, Caldwell encouraged her to focus her play more. Retaining the character of Natasha and her desire to open a nonprofit, Ali-Coleman also told me that her tonal transition to Fundable was partly inspired by seeing Day of Absence at Theater Alliance. The theme of “games” was important to exploring the nonprofit industry because, as Ali-Coleman detailed, “it’s all a game.” As is displayed in the play — which features two Black contestants, a white contestant, and a Black host — it is revealed that the game show was rigged from the beginning. Referring to her experience working in DC’s nonprofit sector, Ali-Coleman remarked on how she observed what got funded, who got funded, and why they got funded: it was all a game.

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Confessing to being “very serious,” Ali-Coleman nonetheless welcomed the challenge to incorporate comedy into her work. “I think I’m funny, but if my purpose is to really say something, then I’m starting to realize that the comedy aspect makes it more digestible.” While she also went on to add that she found it sad that it takes shrouding something in a humorous tone for it to be legible to audiences, I was fascinated by her observation. Humor and comedy are certainly bridge-building tools for conscious coalition and solidarity, but they can also be a double-edged sword based on who is laughing and why.

Returning to the idea of transition was important in my conversations with both Caldwell and Ali-Coleman. Transition struck me as a peculiar word because it could be considered neutral and apolitical, as opposed to maybe City Gentrified or City Stolen, which all the pieces imply the project could have been called. So why transition? I asked them both what transition meant to them, especially in the context of City in Transition and DC writ large.

Kevin E. Thorne II and Molly Shayna Cohen in ’Thirty-Seven’ (Northeast) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Ali-Coleman — DC-born and -bred (like many of the quadrant playwrights) — told me that many of the communities, organizations, and even people who were around in the early 2000s are no longer there. This has affected DC’s political structure, as observed by Ali-Coleman, where even local governments and local activism have been transformed due to the transition. Ali-Coleman, however, does see DC’s youth being more active than ever, with campaigns such as #DontMuteDC — which protests white gentrifiers complaining about the consistent playing of gogo music — attempting to preserve what is left of DC’s Black social structure.

But Ali-Coleman also made a poignant observation about transition — its meaning as signifying death, the ultimate transition. “What’s left if there is no community to come back to? To give back to?” she questioned. Our interview also revealed the depth of Ali-Coleman’s personal ties to her hometown of DC and the pain that gentrification has intimately caused her. Being from Atlanta and seeing a similar thing beginning to happen there as has occurred in DC, I see that gentrification is no laughing matter. It makes Ali-Coleman’s ability to tell that story through humor, irony, and pastiche even more resonant.

Morgan Charece and Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour in ’Big Fish’ (Southwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Like me, Caldwell is a DC transplant from the South and, similar to me, he also heard stories prior to moving here of the famed “Chocolate City” — where Black people were said to be living and thriving unlike anywhere else in the world. However, when he arrived here thirteen years ago, “Chocolate City” was nowhere to be found. After reading Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove’s Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital at the top of the pandemic, Caldwell said he was led down a path of DC history.

“Black folks have been able to create community here in really dynamic and drastic ways. And that idea of community is constantly in transition,” Caldwell noted. Washington, DC’s Black history is truly rich — given how this city was a place of mobility for Black people, inasmuch as it was a place of subjugation. Caldwell is interested in (and simultaneously concerned about) “the aesthetics of Blackness” that is “on the rise” in DC, communicated visually and artistically through things such as murals and programmed Black artists. But rather than ending a conversation by claiming something like “gentrification” in the title, Caldwell recognized that Theater Alliance’s goal has always been to start conversation.

Ultimately, I find Caldwell’s, Ali-Coleman’s, and the creative team’s artistry to be inspired. Their Quadrant Series sparked what can be considered a love letter to Washington, DC, a city ever in transition.

Rainbow Families 2021 Conference to Feature Indigo Girls, Conversations on Parenthood, and Programming for Kids

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published May 17, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here

Rainbow Families is embarking on their second year of online conferencing due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Vice President of the board Liz Dean is confident that this year’s festivities will be a hit.

The Rainbow Families 18th Annual Family Conference will be held on May 22 and 23. The two-day event will feature Congressman Mondaire Jones (D-NY17) as keynote speaker and recipient of the Rainbow Families Hero of the Year 2021 award, as well as a performance from the Indigo Girls.

This conference has been a staple with the non-profit organization since 2003, where it began as a full day conference of workshops, educational speeches, and panels. When in person, the conference is typically held at a D.C.-based vendor and marketed to LGBTQ families in the DMV.

But when last year’s virtual conference skyrocketed attendance numbers with a more accessible platform, Rainbow Families transformed their marketing to reach families all over the country.

“We are lucky to be in Washington, D.C. because D.C.’s super gay, D.C. is super liberal, and D.C. has health resources and reproductive resources,” says Dean. She adds, “However, if you’re in a smaller city or in a state that’s anti-trans — there’s a lot with legislation that’s anti-trans especially for a trans youth — I think the need is definitely there, which has helped us to be able to meet this need and the kind of rise to the occasion.”

On the virtual platform Hopin, participants will be able to attend workshops and Expos via a virtual room where you can move your icon from booth to booth. Parents can attend parenting workshops, and prospective parents can learn about the fertility journey. There will also be a coffeehouse feature where attendees can chat with other attendees and meet new people. There will be two different programming paths for kids — stretching activities for 4-7 year olds and pilates for 7-12 year olds.

The theme of this years’ conference is “Forward, Together…” which emphasizes resiliency.

“The last four years were hard for people,” explains Dean. “And this theme just shows we’re here together, we’re moving forward together. We’re in this: you have a community, you have people you can talk to, you have other families you can learn from.”

The conference caters to all different kinds of LGBTQ families — it doesn’t matter what “makes you rainbow.” Many of the conversations will address diversity in the queer community.

“We don’t expect that everyone comes in [as] two moms and two dads and that’s their family,” she says. “We’re very open to and cater to families that are of all family structures.”

Another prominent conversation topic at this year’s conference is mental health. For parents-to-be, the fertility journey can be difficult mental health-wise.

“It’s been a rough year,” says Dean. “And I think that [in terms of] mental health just in general in the queer community, it’s hard to find a good therapist, it’s hard to find competent care that’s inclusive, and that meets the needs of the queer population.”

Capital Fringe’s new digital series highlights community, climate and culture through local artists

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published April 30, 2021 in The DC Line here

Capital Fringe’s new digital, audio and video project “Down to Earth” highlights local artists as they explore the intersections of climate, sustainability, history, culture and community in Ward 7’s Kenilworth neighborhood.

Capital Fringe, a DC-based arts nonprofit, is partnering with Candoor Labs, a creative media organization, and Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to produce a web series, a podcast and eventually a magazine about the initiative. The project documents different artists across four seasons as they depict life in Ward 7 and participate in efforts to clean and renovate Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens.

This is a “new type of storytelling,” says Capital Fringe’s founding director Julianne Brienza. While Capital Fringe is most known for its annual Fringe Festival highlighting live performing arts, “Down to Earth” is entirely digital and focuses on an array of art forms like painting, fashion design and music production. The series will feature a different local artist (or artistic collective) each season who will work on pieces intersecting climate change, race, the Kenilworth neighborhood and DC history.

“We wanted to make sure [each] artist was doing something that was new, that hadn’t been done before, and wasn’t a recycling of a previous project,” Brienza said. “Everything that we’re doing really does require a specific focus and the ability to change from season to season.”

From left, Glen Gordon, Tariq Arshad Ibrahim and Julianne Brienza record the first episode of the “Down to Earth” web series. (Photo by Moss Belkessam)

Brienza, who founded Capital Fringe in 2005 and currently lives in Southwest DC, said she has always been passionate about issues relating to climate change and environmentalism. The project’s name comes from a 2018 book of that title written by French climate justice philosopher Bruno Latour, and its website includes a bibliography with links to information on the subjects being discussed.

“There’s so much history of community,” Brienza said. “Humans have been here, and humans have moved the [Anacostia River] around. And we’re going to keep this conversation going because, in eight years, Kenilworth is going to be underwater,” referring to an online mapping tool that shows a large swath of the park is expected to face annual flood risks by 2030.  

“This project is a little bit about bringing awareness to climate while also honoring the bad and the good about the communities that have used the land,” she added.

Rik Freeman (Photo by Dionne McDonald)

The first artist featured as part of the project’s winter season was Rik Freeman, a 64-year-old narrative painter who has lived in Washington since 1985. Freeman is best known for his murals that can be found around DC, like one at the Benning (Dorothy I. Height) Neighborhood Library.

Freeman lives in the Kenilworth area and often takes his dog on walks through the aquatic gardens.

Freeman’s three-part mural is called “Breakfast on the Anacostia,” and it depicts natural life from 1200 B.C. to the present day.

“I’ve done pieces with this community before, and even before I lived here [in Ward 7] I did a mural in 1992,” Freeman said. “I’m very interested in the history. History isn’t just about what’s in the book you learn from at school. History is our own personal histories. I just looked at this project and thought, ‘What hadn’t I depicted?’ I looked at what nature in and of itself means to me. I listen and look to nature a lot — the beauty and the horror, and how do I depict it.”

Freeman worked with Brienza to research the Kenilworth neighborhood and found that humans have been living and impacting the land for tens of thousands of years. One end of his new mural depicts animal life from the prehistoric age, while the other end shows the Anacostia River as it is now, with beautiful walking trails as well as piles of trash.

“I hope viewers get the appreciation for what the world is going through,” Freeman said. “This planet, it’s one home, and they can put whatever they want on Mars, the moon, but you know what? I’m here. I want to explore this. I just hope it goes through to where there can be that appreciation of this planet, and some eyes open.”

Nikki Hendricks (Photo by Dionne McDonald)

“Down to Earth” is featuring Nikki Hendricks for its spring season. Hendricks was born and raised in Takoma Park, and her parents were very involved in the Congressional Black Caucus. Now she owns a DC-based small business focused on sustainable fashion. Hendricks said as a Black designer her fashion unites different influences, like her family’s ties to the cultures of Japan and hip-hop. 

“I think it is much more meaningful and powerful when the conception of the garment was rooted in bringing people together,” Hendricks said. “I try to make my clothing more meaningful so the wearer wants to keep it, to maybe pass it down to your children.”

For “Down To Earth,” Hendricks has also been researching the Indigenous populations who used to live in the Kenilworth area, like the Algonquin-speaking tribes. She is using their symbols and culture to inspire her sustainable designs, to highlight Native American history, and to represent the land that has been used and misused.

“It’s a lot about people not being treated equally here, the land not being treated equally,” Hendricks said.

The first episode of the “Down to Earth” web series, featuring Freeman, premiered on March 22. New episodes will be released throughout the year.

“Artists, advocates, they want to express, they want to have a mode of expression — and that’s Capital Fringe’s mission, to give a mode,” Brienza said. “We’re getting into how the people in our community tell stories. We’re getting into the issues of how these things affect any person who will ever live here. The cleanup of Kenilworth will affect everyone here, and we have to document that.”

DC-based producer snags Academy Award nomination for Pixar film

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published April 24, 2021 in The DC Line here

Washington, DC, may bring home an Oscar this Sunday.

Mike Capbarat, currently a producer for the DC-based storytelling studio Duke & Duck, is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film as a producer of “Burrow” from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios. Capbarat worked with director Maddie Sharafian from 2018 until the film’s release in 2020, when it premiered Dec. 25 in conjunction with Pixar’s feature film “Soul.”

“In making a short film, especially an animated short film, the big win is just finishing,” Capbarat said. “It was just a story with the message to warm people’s hearts and families. … You never expect to be nominated for anything.”

“Burrow” follows an independent, even stubborn, rabbit attempting to dig her perfect home, away from her neighbors who offer their assistance and friendship. After struggling to realize her dream on her own, the rabbit finally learns the simple lesson that it’s OK to ask for help.

Pixar Animation Studios

“Burrow” was part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, which Capbarat described as an “incubator system” that allows new storytellers to get assistance from small teams of animators and artists throughout the studio. As participants in the SparkShorts program, Sharafian and Capbarat knew they could ask for help from their teammates.

“It feels like we experienced the lesson of the movie while making the movie with our team,” Capbarat said. He recalled times when he and Sharafian didn’t know exactly how to execute their vision for the story, so they turned to other Pixar teammates for support. “We kind of learned the lesson of the movie ourselves. … Everyone at Pixar was gung-ho to have your back especially if you have that vulnerability.”

“Burrow” was Capbarat’s last project at Pixar, where he spent 12 years working on films like “Coco” and “Toy Story 4.”

Capbarat moved to the District in early 2020, making his new home official last year when he got his DC driver’s license on Feb. 18. He now lives about two blocks north of the Lincoln Memorial with his wife, who is doing her medical residency at George Washington University Hospital. It was Capbarat’s wife who insisted they both watch the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. Capbarat said he jumped over his chair when “Burrow” was the first film called.

Caparat is relishing in his work with Duke & Duck, especially on a project for the American Red Cross writing short-form stories about emergency preparedness for kids.

“Everybody has a story to tell, and we want to tell that story. It doesn’t matter what the project is, big or small,” Capbarat said. “Getting to work on a project that means something, that’s the most exciting thing for me.”

Capbarat has rented a tuxedo for his night of stars on Sunday, when for the first time ever the Academy Awards will be hosted outside at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Capbarat and his wife will be attending alongside other nominees like Frances McDormand and Aaron Sorkin, both of whom Capbarat said he’d love to meet.

“I grew up staying up to watch this stuff on TV,” Capbarat said about the Oscars. “It always feels so far away, like a dream. Does that really happen? Do movie stars really get together to celebrate movies, the thing that I love? It’s almost like meeting your hero.”

Capbarat has prepared a brief speech should he and Sharafian win for Best Animated Short Film: “A little bit of me wants to call out to our younger selves and say, ‘You can do this. Making movies is in reach for many, more than you think.’ I would want to tell my younger self that.”