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Lisa Friday Gets Personal in Trans Am

by Gabriella Soto

This article was first published in Tagg Magazine here.

Lisa Friday takes the stage in Trans Am with nothing more than her acoustic guitar and her story. Told through songs fresh from the vault of original music she’s written over the last 20 years, Friday invites viewers to join her on a rock and roll trip down memory lane. The live, one-woman musical depicts her own transgender experience, raw and real.

Friday’s decision to create and star in her own life story arose as a product of her own self-reflection in the wake of COVID-19. After the cancellation of Keegan Theatre’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which she was asked to play Hedwig, Friday took time to reflect on current events and injustices taking place. She believed that what was important to show at this time wasn’t flashy outward spectacles, but honest depictions of the realities people face in life. Thus, Trans Am was born.

Originally performed for a virtual audience, widespread success of her remote production prompted her to bring the show to life on stage. “The Keegan asked me to be part of their 25th anniversary season and we all decided we weren’t going to change a thing. We were just going to go with it exactly how it is,” Friday explains.

She describes her story as a means of understanding our common human desire for self-actualization. When discussing where this self-actualization comes from, Friday explains that “to go through a gender transition can be a very isolating experience. It takes so much self-examination and so much clarity about who you are to get through that.” Through this process, she realized that “everything in our world is informing us that there are binary laws to gender norms, that we have to fit in to certain categories and certain places. And as you transition, you’re going to have to walk through every single one of those places. To get through that and survive, that takes a level of self-actualization that a lot of people are never forced to go through.”

Friday shares that despite her happy childhood, there was no room for her to truly find this in the conservative environment she was raised in. She admits, “we may not realize our authentic selves are probably not welcome in.” Throughout her show, Friday details how her connection to music allowed her to find new places to express herself.

Through Trans Am, Friday hopes that audiences resonate with the realities of this human experience. “Being trans doesn’t make me something other, it actually makes me very human.” Her goal is that people get to see transitioning as a real-world human experience and adds for anyone struggling with their own personal journey, “We need love and support in our lives, we need to receive and give that in order to fully realize who we are.

Quicksilver resumes some in-person arts activities for seniors after months of physical isolation

by Dylan Klempner

This article was first published The DC Line here.

At a time when the world has been preoccupied with the health of seniors, dancer and choreographer Nancy Havlik has continued teaching an unlikely approach to the physical and mental well-being of people over the age of 65 — dance. 

“We were meant to move. It’s part of our DNA,” said Havlik, who has led Quicksilver, a group of improvisational senior dancers, for the past 25 years. 

The program is sponsored by Arts for the Aging, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit founded in 1988 by scientist, arts patron and sculptor Lolo Sarnoff that offers multidisciplinary arts programs for seniors with a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities. In addition to Quicksilver’s dance classes, Arts for the Aging also offers storytelling, singing, drawing, painting and photography classes. The organization also employs 25 “teaching artists,” including visual artists who exhibit nationally, opera singers who perform at the Kennedy Center, and professional dancers such as Havlik.

“Everyone has a different entry point to art, and if we can cover a lot of those areas and ways of reaching people, you’re more likely to spark that connection,” program director Sarah House said in a recent interview. 

Seniors throughout the Washington area can participate in Arts for the Aging programs — primarily online until a full in-person schedule resumes — through partnering community and residential care settings, including adult day centers, community centers, assisted living communities, nursing homes and senior villages. 

In the District these include Iona Senior Services, East River Family Strengthening Collaborative’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Senior Program, Genevieve N. Johnson Senior Center, and Kingdom Care Senior Village. Other offerings are presented in conjunction with The Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian Institution’s “See Me” program. 

Quicksilver dancers lead a pre-pandemic workshop with participants at Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Stephanie Williams Images courtesy of Arts for the Aging)

Havlik says she happened to launch Quicksilver just as DC-based choreographer Liz Lerman was disbanding Dancers of the Third Age. A number of older dancers from that company joined her group, whose members typically have a weekly rehearsal in addition to their work with seniors. When the pandemic kept participants out of rehearsal spaces and senior centers, a core collection of members continued to meet online.  

 “[Improvisational dance] is a skill set,” Havlik said. “And you learn it by practicing it together.”

Beginning in March 2021, the members of Quicksilver — vaccinated and wearing masks for the first few sessions — bundled up for outdoor in-person rehearsals on a basketball court at the Chevy Chase Community Center. Occasionally the sessions were displaced by a pickleball group. But Havlik said it was still great to see fellow dancers and share space with them again.

On July 19, Arts for the Aging held its first in-person activity since the start of the pandemic. House, who attended the event at the Genevieve Johnson Senior Center on Blagden Avenue NW, said visual artist Marcie Wolf-Hubbard showed seniors and staff how to use drawing materials to replicate nature-inspired stained glass. 

Janine Tursini, Arts for the Aging’s director and CEO, said the organization will continue offering virtual and hybrid options for the time being. Quicksilver began in-person rehearsals (masked and socially distanced) in September, but for safety reasons has not yet facilitated dance workshops with Arts for the Aging’s client sites. Overall, four of the organization’s 24 clients are currently able to host in-person programs.

Research in the field of creative aging suggests regular participation in the arts can have health benefits, according to Tursini. But she is careful to point out that, while the creative activities her artists facilitate can be therapeutic, they should not be considered therapy. Nor are they entertainment, although some may find them entertaining. 

“They’re all about participation,” Tursini said. Teaching artists often stand at the center of a circle, encouraging group members “to dance with one another, talk to each other, imagine with each other.”

Arts for the Aging also trains other artists to use their model when working with seniors. When The Washington Chorus contacted Tursini, its singers were already performing in nursing homes and assisted living communities, but the group contracted with Arts for the Aging to help develop performers’ participatory skills. 

During the training, Quicksilver dancers divided chorus members into small groups and taught them “movement phrases” that they could do along with their songs. For example, Havlik noticed that the singers were already rocking from side to side while they performed. “You can get your group of frail seniors to rock with you,” she recalled telling the trainees. 

The Washington Chorus training was cut short by the pandemic, but the nonprofit plans to continue training artists who wish to work with seniors, in part through a collaboration with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. 

Havlik says the trainings help artists feel more confident about working with seniors. “We kind of take what they already have, and just affirm it,” she said.

Improvisational dance is an example of a multidisciplinary art form in which virtually anyone can participate. Focused movement isn’t just for trained dancers or trained athletes, says Havlik. Inviting people who may be inactive — whether due to illness or limited mobility — to move can appear to wake them up. “You see their essence come out,” Havlik said  

She recalls seeing the simple gestures of a man taking a class at the Downtown Cluster’s Geriatric Day Care Center before the pandemic. His health had been deteriorating, and he could hardly move. During a dance with Quicksilver, the man began tapping his knee with his fingers. 

“And then he had a little shake of his arm. And then his shoulder on the other side would wiggle a little bit,” Havlik said. “It was close to the end of his life, but he was still in the group.”

BETTY’s Back for a Holly Jollypocalypse

by Gabriella Soto

This article was first published in Tagg Magazine here.

In their much-anticipated return to the stage, BETTY recently announced their holiday concert tour. The iconic queer band is back with live performances this holiday season for their “Holly Jollypocalypse.” Trio, Alyson Palmer and sisters Amy & Elizabeth Ziff will be kicking off their performances in Washington, D.C. and closing out their rockin’ festivities in New Hope, PA.

Over the last 35 years, BETTY has released a total of ten albums along with prominent features of their music on radio, film, and tv. Including their iconic tune, “The Way That We Live,” which featured as the running theme song for Showtime’s The L Word. After three decades together, this strong-willed trio has only grown stronger. They credit their long running success with years of lasting friendship and commitment to one another, and the LGBTQ community. She also adds that their loyal fanbase provided them the drive and engagement to keep at it. “We really keep going because of the fans.” The story of how they met can be found on episode one of their podcast BETTY: Girlband, the Podcast.

In the wake of Covid-19—no longer able to do live performances—the unparalleled dedication these women have for one another and their music shined through. While writing individually, the group remained in touch every day. Elizabeth even admitting to walking miles in the snow to just to get to her sister in upstate New York. It was during this time, that the group was able to transition from sharing their songs with live crowds, to reaching audiences online, with the release of several music videos and taking part in live benefits via Zoom.

Now, live and in-person, the group is thrilled to get back to their fans, aiming to bring together all walks of life and inspire fun-filled comradery throughout the tour. Audiences can expect to hear some great music and hopefully, meet some great people this holiday season.

For more information about BETTY’s upcoming holiday shows, visit https://www.hellobetty.com/shows/. 

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.”