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Jason Williams

Harlem Fine Arts Show in D.C. for Four Day Exhibition

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

The traveling Harlem Fine Arts Show will stop in D.C. from Thursday through Sunday to showcase nearly 80 artists’ galleries over a four-day event. Launched in 2009, the Harlem Fine Arts Show aims to inspire, display and honor the art of the African diaspora. The exhibit space at 101 Constitution Avenue NW will house much more than just an art show, with a full slate of artist talks, lectures and special programming focused on youth engagement.

On Thursday, the Howard University Alumni Club of Greater Washington, DC, will co-host an opening night gala. The attire for the evening is business chic. In addition to a live jazz band, special tributes will honor several prominent African-Americans in the field of medicine.

On Friday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., youth empowerment programs will be open to local students for a discounted rate. The show will be open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Both days will offer a variety of artist presentations as well as the opportunity to purchase amazing works of art that are coming from as far as South Africa.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harlem Fine Arts Show is how the traveling production seamlessly integrates local artists at each stop, providing them with an incredible platform. One of the local artists featured in D.C. is visual artist Nicole Banks, known professionally as Nikki Lavi. A second-generation artist, she taught herself to draw and paint after being introduced to the medium by her father.

Although Lavi is now a full-time artist, it was a lack of fulfillment at her previous job that inspired the first piece in her “CandyGirl” series, titled “$ucka.” The “CandyGirl” series — which has been translated to prints and even cellphone covers — displays vivid color and detail and is both sensual and thought-provoking. Her works include pop culture fan art, murals of her favorite artist and quick pieces done in her preferred acrylic paints.

Lavi will display her seven-piece “Sun Benefits and Moon Offering” collection at the Harlem Fine Arts Show. More subdued in tone than many of her creations, what is striking about these works is the level of intricacies that the artist weaves into each piece. Many of the figures display beautifully renderings of dreadlocked and natural hair; then there are delicate, easily discernible patterns on the sun and moon.

“It is truly an honor,” she said of being included in the Harlem show. “To be in the same space with art lovers, amazing artists that I have heard of and those I haven’t, is a blessing.”

Make sure to look for some of the other local artists selected for the show, particularly Batimore’s Larry Poncho Brown, who has developed a line of clothing that features his artwork; Dr. Yemonja Smalls, who is not only a dazzling painter but has created her own children’s book; and Tiffani Sahara, a talented painter who created tremendous drama in her faceless murals.

Tickets are available at, with options for single-day passes and weekend packages as well as discounts available to seniors and students. If you have an interest in the African diaspora or just great art, the Harlem Fine Arts Show is a worthwhile addition to your to-do list this weekend.

New Cleveland Park Library Exhibits Community’s Storied Past

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

When the Cleveland Park Library reopens its doors Saturday after two years and a $20 million rebuild, the sparkling-new facility will prominently display 10 glass panels that pay tribute to a neighborhood icon’s definitive work. These glass panels connect two generations of artists, and library supporters.

Construction of the new library at Connecticut Avenue and Macomb Street NW was a joint venture by Perkins Eastman Architecture and Gilbane Building Co. to replace an aging structure that debuted in 1953. The D.C. Public Library system’s data show the Cleveland Park branch to be the busiest neighborhood library in the city.

The story of the art within the new library starts with Catherine Cate Coblentz, who graduated from George Washington University in 1930 and went on to write 12 children’s books over the next 20 years. The most acclaimed of the dozen, “The Blue Cat of Castle Town,” earned Coblentz a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and a Newbery Honor. As Coblentz established herself as a noteworthy author, she also became deeply invested in raising funds for the parcel of land that would ultimately house the Cleveland Park Library, as explained in a branch history prepared by the Friends of the Cleveland Park Library in the 1990s.

Although Coblentz died before the 1953 opening, the Connecticut Avenue Citizens Association (now known as the Cleveland Park Citizens Association) recognized her contributions by commissioning 10 glass carvings for the library that would feature illustrations from her catalog of books. Harriton Carved Glass and then-partner Anthony D’Attilio created the carvings, which were placed in the original Cleveland Park Library. As time passed fewer people knew the story of the glass panels.

As the design team for the new Cleveland Park Library thought through ways to pay homage to the original library, Jill Bogard, the longtime president of the Friends of the Cleveland Park Library, had the idea to more prominently feature the glass panels. Bogard — like Coblentz, a lifelong resident of the Cleveland Park area and a staunch supporter of its library — went so far as to track down the son of the artist who had overseen the project.

“We should not forget the beauty and the importance of the past particularly as we face the future,” she said, explaining why she felt compelled to make sure Coblentz was honored in the new design she said.

Anthony D’Attilio’s son, Lawrence, is an artist who has worked in constructed photography, among other artistic mediums. He plans to visit the new Cleveland Park Library, where he’ll see a family legacy that stretches beyond his father. While his father was an important figure in the creation of the Coblentz panels, his uncles Dominick, Ralph and Phillip were also key contributors to the work that was produced by Harriton Carved Glass. Although he can’t make it to Saturday’s reopening, D’Attilio has committed to come back and share his knowledge of the subject of sandblasted glass and his family’s role in its development.

“The work done by Harriton Carved Glass walked that fine line between fine art and applied art,” Lawrence D’Attilio said in a recent interview. “It was fine art because of the process and what was produced, but it was also applied since the work started as window signs and had a very practical purpose.” As the doors reopen on Saturday to a brand-new facility that features conference rooms, study spaces and expandable meeting rooms–as well as the carved glass panels–the Cleveland Park Library is acknowledging and honoring its past and embracing what is on the horizon.

Zenith Gallery asks ‘What’s Real to You?’

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

The tall bronze figures that puncture the quiet upper Northwest neighborhood of Shepherd Park signal that this space is much more than a residence. As you pull up to the Zenith Gallery, you are greeted by one of two sculpture gardens to this reclaimed artistic repository.

Margery Goldberg’s Zenith Gallery has been a D.C. arts staple for nearly 40 years. Goldberg’s keen eye for sculptures and studio art can be seen across the city, as she is curator for one location in downtown D.C. and another at 1429 Iris St. NW. At the Iris Street location, a new exhibit that opened last month focuses on one of art’s community longest and most productive movements: realism.

If you are thinking of the cliché of a room full of painters trying to re-create a bowl of fruit or a semi-nude model, yes, that is realism — but, no, that is not what is on full display at this exciting new exhibit. “What’s Real to You?,” which will be in place through May 12, features artists Davis Morton, Ron Schwerin and Gavin Sewell moving the known to a new level of study.

Morton, Schwerin and Sewell all bring different vantage points to their works and evoke vastly different responses. The interplay between their work is muted because it is displayed alongside the rest of Goldberg’s current collection, but with some careful guidance, the tangential connections among the three artists come more into plain view.

One of the ways Sewell’s work differs is his incorporation of mixed media. There is a metallic, nearly golden finish on many of the works he has displayed. All conformed to a traditional canvas, the two-dimensional objects give the works a depth and texture that is difficult to create otherwise.

Sewell’s take on realism is farther out on the spectrum than his peers’ views: Yes, these are objects we know, but his treatment of them demands we look at them in different ways. One example you should see for yourself is Sewell’s “Five Thousand Opinions.” The base is a $100 bill. Somewhat obscured by well-placed overlays is Ben Franklin’s gaze; at the top and bottom corners, cutouts reveal machinelike interworking below the surface. The suggestion that our currency is a tool and a part of a bigger machine is inescapable. Yet with all the details, you are drawn back time and again to Franklin’s eyes — a familiar image that now seems much more calculating.

There is a similar arresting glare in Morton’s “The Stranger.” If a singular trait runs through the displayed work of Davis Morton, it is the incredible use of shadow and muted tones. Morton captures people and often pairs them with treasured companions to show their shared connection. In “The Stranger,” however, there is a mirror-like connection between yourself and the painting. The scene is a bar, where several patrons — rather than enjoying their drinks — seem to be engulfed by items that have drawn their attention in several different directions. At the rear of the oil painting, a few people are looking out the door; as you move closer, the bar’s only female guest is looking to the left. Then at the center of the image, a single decently dressed man stares straight into where the viewer would be standing. Neither friendly nor fearful, his expression leads you to imagine that a beat later he would turn his head back to either his drink or whatever it is that has captured the consideration of everyone else at this pub.

Last are the works of Ron Schwerin, who is more in the wheelhouse of traditional realism. Schwerin has re-created oil paintings of people in various stages of dress, and the exhibit also features his textbook arrangements of fruit and vegetables. Still, Schwerin is able to capture the vibrancy of everyday objects and the vulnerability of human subjects.

In “Cindy on Green Drape,” you first see the nude but tastefully covered model, and then details of the work; the shimmer of her golden bracelets, the delicateness of the hair raining down her neck, and the nearly-matching brown hues of the sofa, her hair, and brow. The painting can be taken in as a conversation starter or just enjoyed for the merits of its execution. Once again it reminds of the familiar but pulls the audience for a deeper look.

All of the works are up for sale. Already framed, the prices range from $950 to $12,000.

The Washington Ballet Presents Three World Premieres

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

In the armed services how you identify yourself (rank, branch, tours of duties) reveals critical information about the length and depth of your military career. In the world of dance, particularly in ballet, there is similar identification shorthand that gives insight into a dancer’s proficiencies. What can never be quantified is the human element, the fact that no two people–even those who have the same experiences–will experience them the same way. That human element was on full display as The Washington Ballet, under the artistic direction of Julie Kent, presented Three World Premieres March 14-18 at the Harman Center.

Three World Premieres was a showcase of three veteran dancers Clifton Brown, Gemma Bond, and Marcelo Gomes, as they pivot from their work as performers to creators as choreographers. The two-hour performance had intermissions after each act. Clifton Brown’s Menagerie opened the show.

Brown, who started his professional dancing career in 1999 as a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) is a Bessie Award winner, a founding member and rehearsal director for Jessica Lang Dance.  Additionally Brown has performed on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. Menagerie features 10 dancers and was set to Gioachino Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major. Cellist Suzanne Orban and Bassist Marta Bradley brought the piece of music to life; their playing added another rich layer to the performance.

Menagerie, as its name suggests, was free-flowing and light. Comprised of three dances, each had corresponding openings and endings. The start of the piece has two male dancers with their backs turned to the audience, heads high as if looking at a horizon. The lighting designed by Robert Fabrizio was subtle throughout, starting in a pale blue that shifted to deep copper before returning back to blue. The two male dancers were soon joined by two female dancers, with a slow rhythmic interplay prior to a pairing off.

Menagerie seems very aware of the audience. Commonly with four dancers two men and two women, the pairing would be gender balanced, but often that convention was brushed to the side. And there were at several turns facial expressions just as important as the body moments in regarding to the feelings of the dancer. As all ten dancers arrived on stage there were still moments where groups clustered, but more of the movements were in long clean lines facing the audience. The syncopation of the dueling cello and bass added drama, and even the moments when the music was less intense the natural rhythm of the dancer’s steps filled the sound void. As Menagerie draws to a close all ten dancers are on stage against a golden orange backdrop, creating a flower-shaped silhouette. It reminded one of a formation we’ve seen performed by the Ailey Company, but the transition out was joyful movement filled with laughter, encapsulating Brown’s genius and station as a creative.

Gemma Bond hails from Bedfordshire, England, and she is currently a corps member of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Bond’s choreographic career goes back just as far as her dance training; her first piece was staged at the age of 13. The 2017-2018 Princess Grace Foundation- USA Choreography Fellow has created three ballets for ABT’s Choreographic Institute and her next commissioned work with a premiere at the Ballet Sun Valley. Performed this evening was Myriad, set to the music of Henry Purcell. The dance features six female dancers and one male counterpart. Whereas Menagerie did not reduce to a linear narrative, Myriad is presented as a story, with a clearly defined being, middle, and end.

As the curtain rises a white-hot backdrop stings your eyes. Thankfully it softens as six women dancers in long flowing pastel-colored dresses move to center stage. Through the opening, the dancers are commonly interlocked, each taking turn coming to the forefront. One after the next, each establishes her own tempo while the rest sway in the rear. Seeing these performers, and knowing there will be a seventh, it was hard not to think of themes like creation and completion. As the male dancer arrived–on this evening Brooklyn Mack–those earlier thoughts are solidified as he dances with each woman individually. Each dance had some overlap, but was distinct. And as Mack and Ashley Murphy dance you begin to see a more pronounced contrast in the styles of the women dancers. As Mack leaves the stage the lights are lowered to the point that you cannot tell the remaining women dancers apart. Their long elegant outlines become elongated as their movement slows, and the bright light that opened the dance is long gone as dusk and darkness settle over the stage.

The final premiere of the evening was choreographed by Marcelo Gomes, from 2002 until 2017 a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Gomes started his training at age 5 in his native Brazil, and in 1993 was awarded the Revelation Prize that sponsors his travel to the states to continue his dance education. The Outset, which is set to the music of Antonin Dovrak, was played this evening by a quartet including violinists Sally McClain and Mayumi Pawel, Jennifer Ries on viola, and Suzanne Orban on the cello. The Outset is the most story rich of the three premieres, and not just because the dancers have character names in the program. Created by eleven dancers, The Outset tells a very particular story and does it really well. The dance segments are episodic and easily flow into each other. Penny and Martin are a young soon-to-be-married couple who live in a small town. While they are excited about the prospect of starting a new life together, Martin yearns to explore life beyond his small town limits. The struggle of loving and leaving is the central tension of this work.

The costume design (by Judy Hansen) accentuates the authenticity of The Outset. The women dancers wear long prairie dresses while male counterparts are in dark colored pants and button-down shirts. As the dance moves to a more formal setting, accents like ribbons and bolo ties are added. The dancing in The Outset generally was in one of three varieties: celebratory but controlled line dances, multi-tiered formations, and couple paring. The line dances were joyous and well executed as they used showcased the company’s well-practiced coordination. The multi-layered formation that often included all eleven dancers drew your eyes all over the stage, giving the impression of organized chaos. From a story-telling perspective, it allowed the protagonists to appear out of the center of the action, which played well into the overall theme of questioning ones place at home. Much of the couple dancing was performed this evening by Maki Onuki, and the aforementioned Brooklyn Mack. The two performed wonderfully together, taking advantage of Mack’s dexterity and Onuki’s powerful grace. It was a pleasure to see Mack’s skill showcased in two of the three premieres.

As the final curtain fell there were two obvious takeaways. Brown, Bond, and Gomes’ years of dedication to the craft of dance have translated into three unique works of choreography. Menagerie, Myriad, and The Outset were each distinct, yet very much in the evolving tradition of modern ballet. The gifted dancers of The Washington Ballet and the artistic supportive environment that director Julie Kent is prioritizing there will be an opportunity for more dancer-turned-chorographer works in the future.  

Between The World and Me

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current

Witnessing the meteoric rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates from a relatively unknown journeyman journalist to a multiple New York Times list best selling author, the easier narrative to follow was Coates.

It did not matter that Coates eschewed the spotlight at first, then tried his best to redirect his newfound celebrity to the issues and the people that needed the attention. There was a segment of his readership that wanted from Coates what we typically request from all brave, new, voices that challenge the status quo – more.

With the presentation of his “Between the World and Me,” adapted for the stage by Lauren A. Whitehead under the direction of Kamilah Forbes and scored by Jason Moran, the places, people and experiences Coates so incredibly illuminates through this work are drawn to the forefront again.

The audience filed into the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to a musical mix of Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone among others. Promptly at 2:15 p.m. the music was lowered, as were the house lights. The dark curtains were pulled back and the stage revealed.

In the foreground were three clear podiums, stage right, with nine chairs and accompanying music stands. Behind them stood a tall, rectangular media screen. On top of the screen sat Jason Moran at his piano, as he was joined by Mimi Jones on bass guitar and Nate Smith on drums. The trio played softly as the cast entered on both sides of the stage.

Behind the band was a similar media scene that was synced with a larger one under it. The first image shown was cracked pavement similar to the one displayed on Coates’ 2008 debut novel, “A Beautiful Struggle.” As the actors found their seats, the music came to close when Joe Morton came out to open the production.

The book version of “Between the World and Me” is a tightly-written 152 pages without a table of contents. At its heart, the book is a letter to Coates’ then-teenage son, Samori. The power of the story is how Coates expresses his understanding of how his physical body, like the one of his son and all people of African decent, fit in the larger context of American history.

Morton opens as the book does, with setting primes for this discussion. It was a response to an interviewer’s question about what it meant to lose his body. What is clear from the outset is the pairing of the actors with the parts of the text they presented was intentional, not just for tone and annunciation, but for the history each actor brought to this work.

For example, Tariq Trotter, who is professionally know as Black Thought of The Roots, was called upon to express the difficulty of navigating urban America, being it the Baltimore of Coates’ youth or his first venture into Brooklyn after college. Trotter, only four years older than Coates, has often written about the difficulties he faced growing up in Philadelphia.

The production began to pick up steam as it entered what would be the second part of the book. At this phase, Coates is questioning, discovering and re-questioning the vast amount of history he is consuming during his studies at Howard University. This is also the time when Coates is laying claim to one of his first heroes, Malcolm X. In a beautiful convalescing of words, music, lighting and the media screens, Greg Reid and Michelle Wilson duel in rhythm and tell how Coates came to appreciate and adore Malcolm X. As they tell the story, the jazz trio played forcefully in the background. As two spotlights beamed down on Reid and Wilson, the iconic photo taken by Don Hogan Charles of Malcolm X with a rifle in his hand came into focus on the lower screen, while a picture of him smiling appeared on the upper screen.

Next, Susan Kelechi Watson, who is an alumna of Howard University, told of the cultural education Coates received at The Mecca. Dressed in black, Watson expressed with incredible joy and energy what Coates saw, heard and felt while walking the yard of D.C.’s oldest Historically Black College. There was moment when Watson beat on the podium, recreating the beat of hip-hop cyphers that happened on campus. It is then you realize that despite the seriousness of what Coates is expressing to his son and to us, this is not a tale of sorrow or fear, but rather a complicated reconciliation of the reality of being black in the country.

The moments when the actors read as an assemble where carefully used and punctuated important passages. Marc Bamuthi Joseph channeled the anger and pain of Coates as he tried to make sense of an officer-related killing of his dear friend Prince Jones. Balanced against that rage was Dr. Mable Jones, Prince’s mother voiced by Pauletta Washington. As Washington and Reid recreated this heartbreaking conversation, the audience was forced to understand why this entire venture had to happen. If not for anything else but to acknowledge the countless Prince Joneses this country creates and the mothers who are left behind.

As the performance came to an end, Morton returned to close the circle he had started with words of wisdom for Samori. They were neither overtly hopeful nor dismal, for the times we live in are far too nuance for extremes.

As Morton ended, the rest of the cast joined him at the front of the stage to a loud wave of applause. After a quick turn to thank Moran, Jones and Smith, the cast exited.

Then, a scroll of names of people lost to state-sanctioned violence rolled across both screens. The applause turned to silence while some in the audience recorded on their phones. Virtually no one left his or her seat until the last name left the screen – that of Saheed Vassell.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is Breath-taking as Ever

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in the Northwest Current.

In a town where long-standing institutions are increasingly contouring themselves to contemporary audiences, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to Washington to present new works that remain true to the company’s roots.

On Feb. 6, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts hosted an opening night gala and fundraiser for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. For the last 19 years, the dance company, founded in New York City, has traveled to Washington as part of its annual tour. These tours showcase the tremendous talent and skill of the dancers, and also inform and educate communities across the country.

The event opened with remarks from Chris Womack, the president of external affairs for the Southern company. Womack said that after their stint in D.C., the company would be heading to Alabama, where they will perform on the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge (the site of the infamous 1965 police attack on peaceful civil rights protesters). Later, Robert Battle, the artistic director of the Ailey Company, reminded the audience that it was performances like the one they were about to witness that inspired him to purse his dance dreams, and it was the generosity of donors that allowed him to attend Ailey programs in his local community.

Battle pointed out that at Ailey, dance performance is only half of the job, saying, “we step off the stage and into the communities we serve.” Battle highlighted that the D.C. area has produced a number of Ailey dancers and rattled off several homegrown members, each name drawing thunderous applause from the audience.

The performance was in three acts – two repertory works and a premiere. The newest work, “Members Don’t Get Weary” was choreographed by Jamar Roberts and set to music by Jazz legend John Coltrane.

The number opened with a deep blue background, shadowing 10 dancers set in two groups. Half of the dancers were clustered together in the foreground, while the remaining members stood in a straight line across the back of the stage. All were wearing wheat-colored wide brim sun hats.

There was an exchange between the two groups, beginning with elongated slow movement in the foreground and stillness in the rear. As all 10 dancers arrived at center stage facing the audience, a shift in formation revealed that one dancer was down. The other nine looked back while another member joined the fallen dancer on the floor. The one used his own back to try and prop up the other as the remaining members encircled them, paying tribute to the effort of the fallen.

Duets emerged from the pack, with a beautiful symmetry to the movements that built from methodical and firm, to flowing joyful patterns, to a frantic tempo that gave way to an exhausted release. In this context, “weary” was not burdensome as much as an acknowledgment of where physical limitation started and kinetic, spiritual, energy began.

After a brief intermission during which the majority of the lower bowl audience, in their black ties and ball gowns, resumed conversations and refreshed their drinks, the show resumed with “The Golden Section.” Created in 1983 by choreographer Twyla Tharp, the section featured 12 dancers. The costumes, by Santo Loquasto, fit nicely with the music by David Byrne (of “The Talking Heads”). The look and sound was disco-era.

The majority of the action occured at the wings of the stage as dancers jet in from the sides, often leaping onto the stage and into the arms of other dancers. The lighting was bright and took full advantage of the golden costumes and metallic skrim. The piece was light and fun, and served as a great break between the artful heaviness of the opening act and the historical heft of the evening’s third act.

“Revelations,” choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960, is without question the company’s most recognized work. The piece broke down into three major sections – “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me To The Water” and “Move, Members, Move” – but 10 separate dances threaded through the section in this tour de force. The piece carried the reverence of a national anthem, and individual dancers functioned like stanzas, pointing back to the difficult times of a people’s past, then looking forward to a hopeful future.

The lighting and music were integral to the sensation of time and space the piece conveyed. The lighting by Nicola Cernovitch started in shades of brown and copper, evoking native Africa, then hints of red suggested the new native land of southern American fields. The music featured traditional hymns and work songs. “Take Me To The Water” was lit in tranquil blues and hot white. “Move, Members, Move” started in a deep red that gave way to bright yellow.

While all 10 dancers were exceptional and unique, three stood out.  Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts’ performance of “Fix Me, Jesus” was breathtaking. Much of the dance has the two interlocked, moving as one. Their holds and lifts were executed so tactfully that the dancers appeared like chiseled granite.

Clifton Brown’s performance of “I Wanna Be Ready” was equally moving. Much of the piece has the dancer center stage on the floor, contracting and reaching out while looking up at a white light, which beams on him the entire dance. Brown’s presence, strength, poise and dexterity were mesmerizing.

The finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” featured the full cast with the women dressed in antebellum-era yellow sundresses and matching hand fans, while their male counterparts were in matching yellow vests and dark pants. There was clapping, twirls and an overall feeling of jubilation and rebirth.

As the piece wound down there was a false ending where the company bows, followed by an encore. It was strengthening to end on a joyous note, even within the serious tone this particular performance was raising funds to train, teach and develop the next generation of Ailey dancers – some of whom may have been in the audience.

The Ailey company’s present, history and future are a strong reason to see this group perform year after year.

An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Woolly Mammoth Theater

This article was originally published on UrbanScrawl.

It was not their most popular skit featuring an impression of President Obama, but the fourth season of Key & Peele found Jordan Peele as our 41st Commander and Chief greeting a line of constituents. The joke starts small but is clear from the outset. President Obama greets the white supporters on the line very formally, almost to the point of being standoffish, while each successive greeting with a black person is more familiar and joyful. As the President Obama character reaches Keegan-Michael Key’s character he pauses, unsure how to greet him; just then a secret service member leans in to whisper, “octoroon.” President Obama’s response is a confident, “afternoon, my octoroon” to Key, with a handshake that turns in to an awkward hug. The subtext of this particular charade connects to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon, currently playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, as both are built on a truism that even predates the formal founding of this nation: genetic connection supersedes social connection.

An Octoroon is defined as someone who is one eighth black by descent, a child of a person of white ancestry and a person who is one quarter black by descent. The play An Octoroon, which has a running time of two hour and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, is an adaptation and updating of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon. Under the direction of Nataki Garrett, Jacobs-Jenkins’ remains set on a Louisiana plantation. The action is set in motion by the unexpected death of the plantation owner which leaves the estate in disarray. Immediately as the action starts the adaptation also takes hold, leaving Boucicault’s universe well behind.

Born in Ireland in 1820 Boucicault moved to New York City in 1853. His The Octoroon premiered in New York six years later, two years before the start of the U.S. Civil War. Much has changed in race relations since 1859, but as the Key and Peele skit highlights, The Octoroon’s central concern of identity updates easily.

Jon Hudson Odom in An Octoroon at Woolly Mammoth Theater

Jon Hudson Odom in An Octoroon at Woolly Mammoth Theater

This cast is led by Jon Hudson Odom who plays all three lead characters: the villainous M’Closky, the play’s flawed hero George, and the defector narrator/author. An Octoroon begins with Odom emerging from the shadows, from behind a dark curtain, wearing only a pair of dark briefs. He peers into the audience and begins telling us about the pains and trials of being a modern-day black playwright. The dialogue—masked as a conversation—plays on the ideas of intention, duty, and truth, and by the end of the first speech we know Odom will be playing a bigoted white character in the antebellum South and simultaneously know that not every word from this black playwright is an edict on race.

This adaptation forces the three lead characters to wrestle with each other’s identity. What is it to be a modern black playwright? What is it to be a slave owner? What is it to be a free black man in the time of slavery?

An Octoroon is plagued by an issue that confounds many stories about the mid-Atlantic slave trade: how deeply can one delve into the brutal history within a narrative that enlightens and informs? How do you avoid the easy traps of sympathizing with people that committed horrible, yet common acts? How do you show the right tone of resentment among the enslaved without making them stereotypically angry?

Where An Octoroon genuinely soars is in the portrayal of identity of the last house slaves on the planation, Minnie (played by Shannon Dorsey) and Dido (played by Erika Rose.) Dido and Minnie’s senses of self draw the clearest lines in the production, reflecting on why the forced-upon identity-rendering of any individual slave or playwright is a profound indignity. The two women laugh not because they are aloof or seeking a different situation but because they are aware of the danger in the midst of which they persevere. Their sense of self shames the apparatus of slavery.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon succeeds in many ways, but fails in two.

The choice to have Odom play both the villain (M’Closky) and the hero (George) is a little too clever. Odom is an exceptional performer but in the scenes where he is playing both the inquisitor and the denier the play’s creative juices overwhelm the text.

The title character, played stirringly by Kathryn Tkel, undergoes a massive shift in status, but doesn’t seem to be transformed by it. The character’s inability to confront those that have wronged her leaves her in an unsatisfying purgatory.

Still, Jacobs-Jenkins saves for her some of the best lines of the play. In a moment when Zoe is struggling with a loss outside her control she utters, with so much compassion, “I rather be black than ungrateful,” crystallizing one of the undersold ravages of slavery: the loss of identity outside of the machinery of servitude.

An Octoroon will run at Woolly Mammoth Theater through June 26; tickets are available through the Woolly site here.