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Kelly McDonnell

First virtual Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony celebrates the ‘district of creativity’

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published November 23, 2020 in The DC Line here.

Since 1985, the Mayor’s Arts Awards have offered a chance to highlight notable DC venues such as the Lincoln Theatre, a sprawling auditorium on the historic U Street Corridor and a frequent host to the annual event. But the 2020 awards, presented on Sept. 30, relocated to a virtual format like most other celebratory events this year. 

Though the 35th annual awards ceremony couldn’t be held on the historically Black-centric U Street, most of this year’s winners produce work that focuses on Black creativity and empowerment, and many performers showcased Black Washingtonian pride. 

“There’s never been a time, there’s never been a day, like this in our city or in the world,” said Chaz French, a DC-based recording artist and featured speaker at the awards. “Overall, it’s the perfect time to show the rawness of our city, our flaws, our beauty.” 

Award categories ranged from nightlife creativity to arts education, encompassing the many aspects of DC’s “creative community.” The mayor’s Creative Affairs Office — part of the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment — took over administration of the awards in 2019 when the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which used to host the event, became an independent agency.

The night’s award winners, presenters and performers repeatedly voiced solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraged Washingtonians to vote in this year’s elections.

Virginia Ali, the co-founder and owner of restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl — a U Street staple — accepted the Mayor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Honor. “I want to take this moment to thank our extraordinary mayor and her extraordinary team,” Ali said. “We expect to be at Ben’s Chili Bowl another 62 years.”

DC Black Broadway, which hires exclusively from the DMV area and produces Black-centric theatrical shows and television programs, won an award for Excellence in Performing Arts.

Indya Wright, a photographer, graphic designer and producer who goes by “Icy the Artist,” won for Excellence in Media Arts. “All of the art I’ve ever created is for the love of this city,” Wright said as she accepted her award.

Wright has done production work for the film Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the television show The Colbert Report. She currently works as the director of content development at Artiste House, a public relations and branding organization that centers on Black design and storytelling.

Purify Love — an activist and a poet who has written more than 600 poems, raps and songs — won the Larry Neal Writers’ Award. As the leader and founder of the Purify Love Movement, she uses motivational speaking to spread her belief that sharing peace and love are the best way to “create lasting change in any society,” according to her website.

Other nominees for this award included Karen Zacarías, an award-winning playwright and the founder of local education nonprofit Young Playwrights Theater, and Randon Billings Noble, an essayist. 

The virtual event also featured many pre-recorded segments from performers such as drummer and America’s Got Talent contestant Malik Dope, 9-year-old rapper Zyah, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC., a collaborative music project that highlights musicians in DC, performed in both Spanish and English. In separate Zoom boxes, the artists played drums and guitars, and sang lyrics about unity: “I know that everything will be alright as long as we are united.”

The Chuck Brown Band dedicated their song to the homegrown culture of go-go, which became DC’s official musical genre in February. “You can never mute DC,” the band sang over images of Black Lives Matter protests. The phrase refers to a 2019 dispute that arose when T-Mobile forced a Shaw Metro PCS store owner to turn off the go-go music that emanated from his store after a nearby resident complained about the noise. Local residents rallied around store owner Donald Campbell, and T-Mobile reversed its decision, allowing his store to play the music. 

The resulting #DontMuteDC movement highlighted challenges faced by DC’s Black community, such as displacement, and has helped spur new policy initiatives. In July, the DC Council voted to allocate $3 million in funding to go-go music programs and musicians that have been especially struggling during the pandemic.

The Mayor’s Arts Awards also featured short clips of famous native Washingtonians like Grammy-nominated rapper Wale and Laz Alonzo, who stars in the Amazon Prime series The Boys. They praised Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC, which host and comedian Tommy Davidson dubbed the “district of creativity.”

The complete list of winners:

  • Distinguished Honor: Virginia Ali
  • Excellence as a Community Arts Advocate: Ron Moten
  • Excellence in Arts Education: Rain Young
  • Excellence in Media Arts: Icy the Artist
  • Excellence in Performing Arts: DC Black Broadway
  • Excellence in Visual Arts: Rodney Herring
  • Excellence in the Creative Industries: Nelson Cruz
  • Excellence in the Humanities: Joy Ford Austin
  • Excellence in the Nightlife Economy: Hendres Kelly
  • Visionary Leadership: Tiara Johnson
  • Emerging Creative: Artbae
  • The Larry Neal Writers’ Award: Purify Love

Say Their Names: Honoring Black Trans Lives lost in 2020

By Kelly McDonnell and Becca Damante

This article was first published November 21, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

As of November 2020 there have been at least 21 murders of Black trans people this year. Let’s take the time to honor them by saying their names remembering their legacies.


Monika Diamond was a 34-year-old Black transgender woman killed on March 18, 2020 in Charlotte, NC. According to HRC, Diamond was “active in the Charlotte LGBTQ and nightlife community” and was “co-CEO of the International Mother of the Year Pageantry System—a pageant that honors LGBTQ mothers.”


Lexi was a 33-year old Black transgender woman who was killed in Harlem, New York City on March 28, 2020. Her friend Lavonia Brooks noted Lexi’s love of poetry, fashion, and makeup and said: “I really looked up to [Lexi] because of her tolerance and respect. Lexi had a beautiful heart, she was very gifted.”


Nina Pop was a 28-year old Black transgender woman killed in Sikeston, Missouri on May 3, 2020. Pop was well- known in the area, and a friend shared that she was “always happy.”


Tony McDade was a 38-year old Black transgender man who was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida on May 27, 2020. Friends shared that he had “such a big heart” and his “energy would lift [their] spirits.”


Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells was a 27- year old Black transgender woman who was killed in Philadelphia, PA on June 9, 2020. A friend shared that “Dom was a unique and beautiful soul who [they were] lucky to have known personally.”


Riah Milton was a 25-year-old Black transgender woman who was killed in Liberty Township, Ohio on June 9, 2020. She was a home health aide and a loving sister and aunt.


Brayla Stone was a 17-year old Black transgender young woman who was killed in Little Rock, Arkansas on June 25, 2020. In honoring her memory, people have said that “Brayla was someone who always held space for others to be themselves and express their identities.”


Merci Mack was a 22-year-old Black transgender woman who was killed in Dallas, Texas on June 30, 2020. According to her Facebook page, she was a restaurant worker and loved baking cookies and relaxing in the jacuzzi.


Tatiana Hall was a 21-year old Black transgender woman who was killed in New Jersey on or near June 30, 2020. Not much is known about Tatiana at this time.


Draya McCarty was a Black transgender woman who was killed in Baton Rouge in late June or early July 2020. Not much is known about Draya at this time, but she was from Hammond, Louisiana.


Shakie Peters was a 32-year old Black transgender woman who was found dead close to Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 1, 2020. Shakie’s friend shared that Shakie was “a very independent person and very loyal to her friends” and was also “full of laughter and an abundance of life.”


Bree Black was a 27-year old Black transgender woman who was killed in Pompano Beach, Florida on July 3, 2020. Not much is known about Bree at this time, but local activists set up an altar for Bree and are hoping to get in touch with her family.


Brian Powers, also known as Egypt, was killed in Akron, OH on June 13. Powers, 43 years old, was a passionate chef and worked for a catering company. He also had a love of dance.


Queasha Hardy, 24 years old, was killed in Baton Rouge, LA on July 27. Hardy owned a hair salon business, “So Federal Styles,” that she had recently started. Friends said she was unapologetic about her identity.


Tiffany Harris, who also went by the name Dior H Ova, was 32 years old when she died in the Bronx borough of New York City on July 26. Her Facebook page noted her hometown as Kingston, Jamaica, and showed a love for fashion.


Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears, also known as Rocky Rhone, was 34 years old when she was killed at a vigil for a homicide victim in Portland, OR on July 28. She had studied at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and she was the owner and founder of her own clothing brand in Portland. She was active on social media against racial injustice.


Isabella Mia Lofton, 21 years old, died on September 7 in Brooklyn, NY. She was originally from Chicago, IL. Her sister said she was kind to everyone despite hardships.


Aerrion Burnett was killed on September 19 in Independence, MO at 37 years old. She died several days before her birthday. At a vigil, a friend said, “She was a goddess.”


Mia Green, 29 years old, was killed in Philadelphia, PA on September 28. A friend said, “Her smile was so perfect and so contagious.”


Felycya Harris was killed in Augusta, GA on October 3. The 33-year-old was an interior decorator with her own business. Her social media showed her love of dance and fashion.


Brooklyn DeShuna, a 20-year-old who also used the name Brooklyn DeShauna Smith, was killed in Shreveport, LA on October 7. She studied cosmetology at Bossier Parish Community College. A friend described her as a “genuinely a good person.”

Local theater company to release its first audio play this week

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published November 16, 2020 in The DC Line here.

DC theater company Edge of the Universe Players 2 will release its first-ever audio play — a production of Anton Chekhov’s comedy short, The Marriage Proposal.

Adapting a stage performance to an auditory-only experience, director Stephen Jarrett says, is a welcome challenge. “The fear is not a bad thing,” he said.

The show — which will be available through Dec. 2 — will feature local actors Kim Gilbert, Jamie Smithson and Cody Nickell. Rehearsals and recording, which will take place over Zoom, are occurring in the span of just one week.

Smithson has done several Zoom productions during the pandemic, but this is his first audio play.

“I’m very eager to see this podcast because it’s just a different way of approaching the art. I think a lot of companies are going to do it,” said Smithson, whose area credits include shows at Arena Stage, Folger Theatre and Signature Theatre, among others.

Moving a stage production into an audio-only format presents challenges for actors as they attempt to connect to the audience and to the other actors.

“The choices that I make as an actor are going to change a little,” Smithson said. “With a farce like this, so much of it is physical, especially the clowning and all that. The vocal choices will have to be more important.”

“You want emotion to be seen,” Jarrett said. Now, “everything has to be put into the voice.”

Jarrett said rehearsing and recording audio over Zoom will allow the actors to react to each other organically and convey emotion for the listeners. If audience members can imagine the characters’ facial reactions, they will be more engaged with the play, he added. 

Jarrett has directed two previous shows for the theater company, Entertaining Mr. Sloane in 2015 and The Summoning of Everyman in 2013. Jarrett was supposed to direct a third show at this past summer’s Capital Fringe Festival, which celebrates independent artists in DC, but the festival was shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the cancellation, Edge of the Universe Players 2 still wanted to mount a production, and an audio play, which many theater organizations have been producing for years, seemed most accessible, Jarrett said.

“There is no replacing the live theater,” Smithson said. “Artists have to make art, and what’s happening is that everyone is finding their own way.”

The Marriage Proposal is a 22-minute, one-act comedy about three Russian aristocrats who argue about everything from polite manners to property ownership to hunting dogs. The characters’ attempts to control the arguments are what make the play so funny, Jarrett said.

Amid so much uncertainty and contention across the nation and world, Jarrett said this may be the ideal time to produce a comedic play. “The whole purpose of art, for theater, is to make time stand still,” Jarrett said. “For 22 minutes, maybe that will relax some people.”

A free podcast of the show will be available on Edge of the Universe Players 2’s website, with listeners encouraged to donate to the theater company.

LGBTQ History: Compton Cafeteria Riots

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published October 20, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

Three years before the Stonewall Riots, transgender activists fought police brutality in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, 1966, transwomen resisted police intimidation and brutality outside of a popular LGBTQ gathering spot and all-night diner.

Gene Compton’s restaurant chain was a popular spot for transgender women, who had been denied entry to gay bars, to hang out, but management frequently called police on transgender patrons. Police arrested transwomen for the crime “female impersonation” because cross-dressing was illegal.

Transgender and gay people picketed police injustice and the restaurant’s management outside of Compton’s Cafeteria. Police arrived and attempted to arrest protesters, then one transwoman threw coffee at the police. A multi-day riot began, though it’s unclear for how long or how intense the protests were since police records of the year no longer exist, and the event wasn’t covered by newspapers.

A plaque at the former Compton’s Cafeteria site says, “Here marks the site of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria where a riot took place one August night when transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights and fought against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination.”

Many people involved in the riot were part of the first American gay youth organization, Vanguard, founded in 1965. Vanguard and the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church organized multiple equal rights protests against businesses that refused to serve LGBTQ people.

Documentary filmmakers Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman interviewed riot survivors and local transwomen of the San Francisco Tenderloin District for her 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.