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Kelly McDonnell

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.”

DC Environmental Film Festival’s all-virtual programming features local filmmakers and expresses hope

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published March 19, 2021 in The DC Line here

The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital kicked off its all-virtual programming on Thursday, featuring over 100 films from around the world.

Last year, the festival was canceled just as it was slated to begin because of the worsening coronavirus pandemic and ensuing public health restrictions. Organizers then scrambled and put many of its films online. This year, however, DCEFF programmed a completely virtual festival that still connects with audiences and spreads its message of environmental awareness through film.

Brad Forder, the festival’s director of programming, said the event will promote hope, positivity and movement forward under President Joe Biden’s new administration. 

“We find hope through individuals and their hard work, and a lot of our filmmakers show that,” Forder said. “We have hope from seeing these environmental heroes.”

One featured filmmaker is DC native Annie Kaempfer, who grew up in various Northwest neighborhoods. Her film, The Falconer, follows the story of Rodney Stotts, an African American Washingtonian whose life revolves around birding and falconry. Stotts is one of very few Black falconers in the nation, and he has used his expert knowledge to teach DC youth about nature, environmentalism and conservation. Kaempfer said Stotts brings birds with him when he teaches, and that physical connection has an amazing impact. 

This is Kaempfer’s first feature-length film, and its initial DCEFF screening today at noon will be its East Coast premiere. The film will be available for streaming throughout the rest of the 11-day festival.

“Rodney’s story is universal, but there’s something about the film being homegrown and shown [locally]. … I’m so excited to bring a portrait of a DC native to the public to remind them we’re real people, it’s not just Capitol Hill,” Kaempfer said. “One person has a lot of power to make a difference. … I hope Rodney and this film can be an inspiration to people, that doing one little thing can make a big difference.”

Kaempfer met Stotts in 2013 and began making this film in 2014. She delayed premiering her film last year because she worried how a virtual premiere would impact sales and distribution. She decided to premiere her film in October when she realized that virtual screenings were not negatively impacting film sales.

After winning multiple prizes, like the first-place Storytellers Award at Destiny City Film Festival in Washington state, The Falconer was picked up by PBS to be part of its programming this summer.

Forder said that DCEFF — now in its 29th year — has always looked for local creatives to include in the festival, and organizers have always partnered with local groups to premiere films throughout the District. The screening of The Falconer is co-presented by Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), located in Ward 8.

Accessible films and diverse content and audiences have been a consistent part of the festival’s mission, Forder said.

“We want to replicate that in-person, theater experience as much as possible,” Forder said of this year’s online offerings.

With an all-virtual festival, Forder noted that DCEFF’s programming can now include more international filmmakers and special guests who no longer need to travel to participate. DCEFF has scheduled multiple live events like filmmaker Q&As and post-screening panels that will allow audiences to participate through Zoom or Facebook Live.

“DCEFF has always been better than, I think, every other festival in terms of inclusivity and accessibility,” Kaempfer said. “Virtual screenings have increased that access even more.”

Feature: 2021 Enterprising Women

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published March 16, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here

Alane Freund has always noticed injustice. Equipped with her intersecting identities as a nonbinary lesbian and highly sensitive person—which she sees as her superpower—Freund uses her psychotherapy practice to teach young people how to be themselves and be powerful.

Freund grew up in a conservative community in Oklahoma, but she says her mother was a confident, influential role model who encouraged her to become an activist. Many women in her family also identified as lesbian, so she felt comfortable with and close to the queer community. This combination led her to activism, like joining ACT UP in the 1980s to provide AIDS education to others.

Alane Freund
Alane Freund

For 35 years, Freund has advocated for LGBTQ people and young people struggling with their highly sensitive emotions. Freund says her psychotherapy practice, which includes equine therapy, is activism in itself.

“Every moment has been driven by youth, especially in this era,” Freund says. “The drive to change their identity and the identity of the world—that’s beautiful. We need to give them space to do that.”

In fact, Freund says that talking to young patients who were questioning their gender helped her understand her own identity as nonbinary.

Freund’s goal as an enterprising woman is simple: “I want to show people how their insides and their outsides can match.”

Despite financial hardship, Joy of Motion Dance Center marches forward with new board of directors

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published March 2, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Summer 2020 ignited change for the Joy of Motion Dance Center, a DC-based nonprofit. Financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of two of the center’s studios. The organization’s reckoning with racist experiences faced by staff and dancers of color led to an overhaul of Joy of Motion’s board of directors last fall.

A petition with almost 5,000 signatures called for leadership changes at Joy of Motion. Started in June, the petition cited multiple instances in which leaders had allegedly body-shamed dancers and unfairly discriminated against Black instructors. The previous board of directors stepped down on Oct. 16.

Carol Foster is now chair of Joy of Motion’s board of directors and the first Black woman to hold the position. Foster has also worked on projects with the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She currently serves on the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, which organizes events that mostly take place at the center’s REACH campus.

“People have to trust that there is change afoot at Joy of Motion,” Foster said in an interview with The DC Line. “It’s really critical right now for Joy of Motion, because of the pandemic, because of all of the racial issues that came out, that … you have to be accountable through action.”

Foster said she wasn’t surprised to see the petition or the incidents cited in it, and she doesn’t believe anyone in the Black community at Joy of Motion was surprised by it either. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests of the killing of Black people by police officers following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade were a catalyst for the petition, Foster said.

“What Black Lives Matter did was give [Black] people a way to be comfortable to say what’s on our mind. People need to be called out,” Foster said.

Krystal Odom, who has worked at Joy of Motion for 15 years, is the organization’s new interim executive director. She is the first Black woman in the position.

Odom said the petition was “necessary” for the organization to improve. Odom has taught ballet and hip-hop with Joy of Motion Dance Center, and she wants to include more instruction in dance history in the group’s classes and programming. After having eliminated two locations, Joy of Motion continues to operate a partner studio at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, as it has since 2005. Joy of Motion’s virtual programming for youth and adults includes drop-in classes, multi-week courses and on-demand recordings. The organization will be scheduling events such as webinars, film screenings and guest artist classes, and it recently held a busy slate of President’s Day Weekend workshops

“It’s important for students who come into our virtual space, our physical space to relearn where dance styles originate from. … It helps them to be able to look at [other dancers] in ways they didn’t before,” Odom said.

Since taking over, the new leadership at Joy of Motion has done anti-racism professional development training and created procedures for faculty, staff and students to report “concerns regarding equity, discrimination, and safety,” according to a press release from the organization. Concerns will be addressed using a “restorative justice” model, the press release said.

Odom said conversations about anti-racism, discrimination and privilege hadn’t taken place in the past at Joy of Motion. She’s hopeful that these continuing, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions will improve leadership and studio practices.

Coinciding with the leadership shakeup, Joy of Motion also announced the closure of two of its three centers. 

The Friendship Heights studio and theater, which had been open for more than 30 years at 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, closed in September after the landlord decided not to renew the organization’s lease, Foster said. Odom added that Joy of Motion had experienced a difficult relationship with its landlord in recent years.

The Bethesda studio space at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. closed at the end of November due to financial constraints.

Odom said that the demise of these studios will unfortunately distance the organization from many of its participants. The Friendship Heights studio served Joy of Motion’s largest adult population, while the Bethesda studio hosted three conservatory-style programs for youth dancers.

With only one open studio and pandemic restrictions on in-person classes still in place, Joy of Motion now serves — virtually for now — about 113 students weekly, compared to over 1,200 students before the pandemic began, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The pandemic has hit small businesses and nonprofits particularly hard, Foster said. Joy of Motion has received financial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But the racial issues at Joy of Motion and the financial strain of the pandemic have negatively impacted donations, she added.

“No matter what, you try to keep your doors open,” Foster said. 

In a Dec. 1 post on the Joy of Motion website, the organization reported that “tuition from enrollment, grants, and individual donations have significantly decreased leaving a monthly shortfall of approximately $100,000.” Joy of Motion received only about $500 in individual contributions in September, October and November. The organization didn’t respond to requests for an update about how fundraising has gone since then, but a mid-December appeal on Joy of Motion’s Facebook page said that despite reduced expenditures “our organization is still in desperate need of an infusion of financial support in order to maintain operations.”

It hasn’t been easy making so many changes under such financially stressed, racially charged and socially distanced circumstances, both Odom and Foster said. But the organization is eager to keep rebuilding while incorporating conscious changes that better the community and ensure that “dance is for everyone,” Foster said.

“We don’t want to dwell on what has happened,” Odom said, “but we don’t want to forget.”

LGBTQ Black History: Black Transgender Activist Elle Hearns

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 25, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Elle Hearns has been an activist ever since she was growing up in Columbus, OH. She credits her inspiration from Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Marsha P. Johnson, though she is inspiring all on her own.

Hearns is currently the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which she founded in 2015 and has quickly become a leading organization fighting for an end to violence against Black transgender people through civil disobedience, direct action, and community organizing.

She was also a co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. She also led a GetEQUAL campaign for Tamir Rice, a Black child who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. She advocated for a revised case for Rice and called for the immediate firing of the officers involved.

During the 2020 summer protests for Black Lives Matter, Hearns was vocal about protecting those who intersect with Black and transgender identities, especially after Tony McDade, who was Black and transgender, was killed by police in Tallahassee, FL. In interviews, she called for abolishing the police as the way to abolish anti-Blackness and transphobia.

Under Hearns’ leadership in 2020, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was able to give over 400 Black transgender people in America stipends, totaling over $250,000, for COVID-19 relief.

Hearns has a love for cosmetics and beauty, but she said she struggled to conform to Midwestern beauty standards and protested how her jobs would force her to appeal to customers in a style that wasn’t her own. Hearns still talks about how Black women have power in their beauty alone: “Our beauty is unmatched. Periodt. I remember being a young girl and recognizing the curve in my lip and the curl in my hair and being so fascinated that no one looked like me. It is completely fair to say that we are unapologetic.”

Hearns’ fierce will and political power is active and unshakeable, making her an assured Black History Month figure in the present and future.

DC’s 2020 youth poet laureate finds renewed hope in writing, community, and a new presidency

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 16, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Marjan Naderi, DC’s youth poet laureate in 2020, had long worried that poetry was dying. After years of expressing herself through poems, winning slam poetry contests, and even publishing her own book, Naderi wondered whether her craft was worth the effort anymore.

“We spent the past four years seeing our speech as something disposable, when it’s anything but that,” Naderi said in an interview with The DC Line. “Is this nation even ready for poems? Especially the last few years, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”

And then she listened as Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Gorman was chosen as the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.

“Amanda just really … hit a new wave on the head,” Naderi said. “Welcome poetry! We’re having poetry at the Super Bowl! It really affirmed that the work that I’m doing is worthy.”

Naderi and Gorman are poets who achieved youth laureate recognition through programs created by Urban Word in New York City.

As the District’s youth poet laureate last year, Naderi was scheduled to conduct a performance tour around the city, including speaking engagements at public libraries and multiple Busboys and Poets bookstore cafes. She served on the Kennedy Center’s Youth Advisory Board. 

Chosen annually by the local arts organization Words, Beats & Life Inc., the honoree is a poet, 13 to 19 years of age, who has expressed creativity in language, has served the community through social justice activism and has demonstrated leadership. Amiri Nash, a freshman at Brown University, has been newly named DC’s 2021 youth poet laureate.

Naderi — a six-time Poetry Grand Slam champion and author of the poetry collection Bloodline — was one of six national artists depicted in outdoor video portraits as part of Strathmore Center’s exhibit Monuments: Creative Forces, designed by artist Craig Walsh. Naderi, a 19-year-old University of Virginia student, was excited to be DC’s laureate because it was the culmination of such hard work. Naderi was born in Northern Virginia, so she grew up close to the city. As she started writing in eighth grade, the city and those who live within it became her muse.

Patrick Washington, Words, Beats & Life Inc.’s director of poetry, became acquainted with Naderi while working with her at workshops and seminars for four or five years before she became the organization’s laureate.

“She was lively, she never backed down from a disagreement. She stood her own with adults. I knew she was something special early on,” Washington said. When Words, Beats & Life Inc. looks for a poet laureate, it’s not just looking for a good poet, “but an outstanding human,” he added.

“She was uniquely formed by her experiences as a child of refugees,” Washington said. “That informs the type of person she is, and we like that — we like people who absorb and watch and then respond.”

Naderi was able to participate in some Youth Poet Laureate events early in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic creeped in, but then venues closed and performances were canceled.

“A majority of my poems are blossomed from being out, seeing human beings carry themselves with nuance and joy and stories,” Naderi said. “I love writing portrait poems, going into various spaces and seeing life happen in its rawest form.”

Without the opportunities to observe people and find inspiration, Naderi said her mental health and creative writing both suffered. She also struggled to create poetry spaces online, but Naderi knew she had to keep expressing her feelings.

“I still kept [up with] my writing because I know that is the only thing that gets me through so much of being alive, so much of every day, where every moment can be a boost of joy or absolute agony or suffering,” Naderi said.

The pandemic limited her access to in-person community service, which she had frequently done in the past. Naderi has focused on education, particularly of Afghan children both in the DMV and in Afghanistan.

When the Black Lives Matter protests began, Naderi felt compelled to help. She organized a social media fundraiser that raised thousands of dollars. She used that money to buy food and health supplies for activists who protested for weeks in the city.

During that time, she said, she saw how contradictory DC is. In some gentrified neighborhoods, houses would be blocked off, with roads closed and people reluctant to join the protesting crowds, Naderi said. She added how disappointed she was to see her community splintered.

But Naderi said she also saw great rejoicing and organizing in the Black Lives Matter protests and during Juneteenth events.

“I saw what community meant at its rawest core, to be a tribe and to ever expand that tribe for love, to be human, becoming human at its forefront,” Naderi said. “I saw DC evolve over a span of a few weeks.”

Sensing such a powerful community both at Black Lives Matter protests and during Gorman’s inauguration performance felt like a new wave of hope, Naderi said.

“It was great to see that she was still flying the flag for spoken word, for poetry and expression,” Washington said of her work during the Black Lives Matter protests.

During the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s time in the White House, Naderi said, she and her mother — along with many others in her Afghan community — experienced hate crimes. Naderi recalled a day in 2016 when her headscarf was yanked off her head “by a bigot.”

“As a Muslim, as an advocate, as a writer, as a woman, you lose sense of yourself and how this country holds you. Do they even respect you?” Naderi said.

Gorman’s performance and the ensuing excitement and conversation left Naderi feeling proud again to be involved in the poetry community. She said she was encouraged that Biden chose a poet to usher in a new era of “healing.”

“The poems we write will change nations, so long as we are given the platform,” Naderi said. “These youth poets are the future. We are writing history. We are writing and creating and moving a part of the force. We are the force itself. We come and we bless.”