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DC African-American Artists Challenge Stereotypes at Phillips Collection

During a recent panel at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.-based art collector Henry Thaggert asked the public to consider an ongoing debate in the art world: whether or not art shows that only showcase artists of one race are “good” or “bad.”

Historically, African-American artists have been disenfranchised from the gallery/museum system, but new efforts at inclusion also create new complexities. Even writing about these issues is complex. Are we talking about Black artists, or African-American artists?

Does it matter if a work of art is made by an African-American? Broader still, does the identity of any creator matter to the artwork?

Organized by D.C.-based organization Millennium Arts Salon the panel June 11th focused on the issue in relationship to contemporary visual art. Founded by the wife and husband team of Juanita and Melvin Hardy, the vision of Millennium Arts Salon is to “advance cultural literacy,” and the Salon manages a collector’s club focused on the collection of African-American artists.

Thaggert was joined on the panel by Phillips Collection curator Vesela Sretenović, artists Sheldon Scott and Amber Robles-Gordon, and moderator Jessica Stafford Davis (of The Agora Culture.)

Thaggert posed his question in the context of the well-regarded 2013 exhibition 30 Americans, which featured 30 African-American artists. Thaggert, a patron of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, noted he was “instrumental in bringing 30 Americans to the Corcoran.”

“The exhibition fed a certain hunger and a certain interest,” Thaggert said.

That exhibition received broad coverage not only for the included artists and artwork, but as a call for galleries and curators to stop overlooking and undervaluing art by African-Americans.

However, as a thought experiment, Thaggert raised a number of potential concerns presented by single-race exhibitions like 30 Americans. Single-race exhibitions can become complicit in diminishing the universal power of art, can force art to serve as an ambassador for racial issues, and can over-simplify the diversity of included artists.

According to Thaggert, some critics describe 30 Americans as being “enslaved by generalizations.”

Playing devil’s advocate, he asked the audience, “Why should a Kara Walker painting hang next to a Kehinde Wiley painting when these artists and the objects themselves have virtually nothing in common, except the most general of generalizations?”

He continued by noting that several commercially successful African-American artists have subsequently expressed ambivalence and even anger about their inclusion in the show. “These black artists felt like they lost control of their own narrative,” he said.

“All That I Am”, 2015, by DC artist Amber Robles-Gordon

Panelist Amber Robles-Gordon stated that her racial identity is an essential part of her narrative as an artist. Robles-Gordon’s fabric creations sometimes suggest the braids of a young woman, or traditional African artworks. On close inspection the individually torn strips of fabric from which she creates indicate trauma, but the completed works – tethered to the wall of a gallery or the side of a building – are more elevated and nearly-religious.

“My artwork is an intricate part of my identity…. It is an expression of myself as a whole person; art is a reflection of the artist who is producing it,” Robles-Gordon wrote.

Phillips Collection curator and panelist Vesela Sretenovic argued that though the artwork should be central, the context of history and the artist is nearly as important. “[Y]ou cannot decontextualize a work of art,” she said. “You have to be responsible to your community, so you have to factor in the historical conditions.”

Art collecting regularly intersects with unresolved and complex issues of race and identity. Highly-coveted pieces of classical and contemporary art have inadvertently celebrated racist stereotypes and imagery. Curators have questioned the segregation of “indigenous” art from the commercial mainstream. And artists of color have been notoriously neglected by major museums.

The effects of racial identity are not always obvious, according to Amber Robles-Gordon. “While, I have never been explicitly told you didn’t get this award, grant money or get into this exhibition because you are a black woman, I have found that the signs have been relayed in the subtext, micro aggressions, tone of voice, choice of words and or body language.” Even worse, she adds, is “being utterly ignored.”

With the presentation and collection of art nearly saturated with issues of gender and racial identity, it’s hard to believe that an artists’ race will be unimportant in the near future. African-American art collector and curator Dr. Kenneth Montague expects fewer general surveys like 30 Americans and more exhibitions of individual African-American artists. Rather than a future with an inhibited focus on the racial identity of the artist, he sees a future that is able to study the many different ways of being African-American.

Montague suggests the problem with general shows like 30 Americans is that it can cause the public to believe that those are the only African-American artists worth collecting, but went on to note that in the last 10 years he’s seen awareness of African-American artists, and the value of their artworks, increase.

“[10 years ago,] you didn’t see them in magazines and journals. You didn’t see a lot of articles written. I would save the articles because they were so few and far between, but now I can’t keep up,” Montague said.

To maintain this trend and ensure it doesn’t eventually fall off, Montague said that there need to be more African-American curators, gallery directors, and collectors.

Robles-Gordon, however, questioned whether curators, gallerists, and collectors are the right authority to determine art’s organizing principles: “The fact that we give the perceptions that collectors, critics or commentators have more value [than artists] is a metaphor for the structure of our society.”

This post has been updated (7/6/16) to clarify panelist Henry Thaggert’s position on single-race exhibitions, and involvement with the exhibition 30 AmericansThe post was originally published on UrbanScrawl.com and features reporting by Michelle Goldchain. 

Musicians at The National Orchestral Institute Perform Two Dances and a Titan


The lobby is packed. The line for ticket pick-up is a few dozen deep. The lobby is filled with plush lounge furniture and lit with low-hanging, contemporary chandeliers. While this could be a scene from an evening at the Kennedy Center, it actually describes the pre-performance atmosphere at Saturday night’s National Orchestral Institute (NOI) concert at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.

The NOI is a summer orchestra program for musicians aged 18 to 28 selected from across the country through a competitive audition process. The NOI provides these promising musicians with a month of professional training including regular performances in The Clarice’s Dekelboum Concert Hall.

The two-hour program began with Debussy’s Jeux and Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, two pieces composed for ballets. Both works are bright with strong narrative threads. Jeux was a bouncing delight and the orchestra skillfully navigated the piece’s shifts in speed and rhythm. La Valse lost some of its tension in contrast to Jeux, but still concluded with great energy.

While listening to these two pieces I read about them using the new Octava app. In development by UMBC professors Linda Dussman and Eric Smallwood, the app can replace a printed program, delivering program notes to your phone as the music is played. Orchestras are fighting for relevancy and experiments like Octava may help cultivate younger audiences for classical music. While there are still kinks to work out, Octava brings depth and relevance to the real-time orchestra experience for the social media generation.

Image of the Octava app in use pre-performance. Octava replaces a traditional playbill. Image by Dylan Singleton courtesy The Smith Center
Image of the Octava app in use pre-performance. Octava replaces a traditional playbill. Image by Dylan Singleton courtesy The Smith Center

Teddy Abrams, the evening’s wunderkind conductor, may himself be a beacon for engaging new listeners. At 29, Abrams is barely older than the musicians he conducted but has already established himself as a conductor, composer, and musician in his own right. As head of the Louisville Orchestra he’s the youngest musical director of a major orchestra in the United States.

Abrams was dressed trendy but sharp in a black sweater and gray skinny jeans detailed with zipper pockets, a far cry from the suit and tails of the traditional maestro. And after the concert he participated in a post-performance “Jazz Jam” with audience members in the lobby. Abrams is clearly a brand ambassador for the hip new face of American classical music.

Abrams skill was apparent though the more challenging second half of the evening’s program, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Titan. The 50-minute symphony has German heft, requiring endurance and strength from both orchestra and conductor, both of whom delivered on Saturday night.

In review of a recent National Symphony Orchestra performance of the same symphony The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette wrote that avoiding emotional cliché is hard to do “with a composer who offers so much temptation and precedent for heart-on-the-sleeve antics.” The horns and percussionists (in particular) met that challenge, executing the bombastic climax without descending into a Thanksgiving Day parade of sound.

The NOI program on Saturday night felt like a celebration of sorts but the virtuosity of the performances soothed any fear of gimmickry. And if the audience’s standing ovation is any indication, America’s orchestras may yet succeed in their battle for relevancy — without sacrificing artistic integrity.

The festival continues through June 25; tickets for the remaining concerts are available here.

This article was originally posted on DC Metro Theatre Arts

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.


DC Poets Write Love Poems for Inanimate Objects

It can be hard to find love, but most of us still try. One group of DC poets is going another route entirely, focusing on inanimate objects as love interests.

It’s an unusual approach, but not without precedent in the poetry world. John Keats lovingly contemplated a Grecian Urn. William Carlos Williams considered a red wheelbarrow. Emily Dickinson praised the aesthetics of a balloon. These object become metaphors for individuals, relationships, and parts of the self. The newly published Unrequited: An Anthology of Love Poems about Inanimate Objects dives head first into the legacy of object poems. It’s both a clever play on and light rebuffing of standard poetic conventions.

Unrequited is the result of an open submission contest organized by editor Kelly Ann Jacobson, a local author, poet, and educator. Self-published by Jacobson last month, the anthology will be celebrated at a launch party featuring several of the book’s authors at Upshur Street Books this Friday, June 17th..

All of the poems selected for the book were additionally evaluated by celebrated local poet Sandra Beasley who selected a ‘winner’ and ‘runner up’. “That Last Summer” by Lucia Cherciu was selected the winner and “Lesser Vegetables” by Sass Brown was selected the runner up. Those poems —highlighted in that way as the best of the bunch—leave something to be desired, in part because of their solemn tone and similarity in form. Both poems consist of a series of unrhymed couplets. They are thematically distinct: Cherciu’s poem is a tightly crafted reflection on personal loss while Brown takes a more omniscient perspective on a county fair. Cherciu’s “That Last Summer” has a sophisticated depth to its storytelling but is neither the most memorable or compelling of the anthology.

Several poems taking a confessional lens stood out, not unlike Cherciu’s winning piece. These poems are not so much odes as exhibits exploring how objects intersect with our most intimate moments. The cover of the recently published "Unrequited: An Anthology of Love Poems about Inanimate Objects"Sharon Lask Munson’s poem “Wash, Dry, Put Away” elegantly captures the fractured memory sparked by an object forgotten: “shred of shadows/ a wink, a flicker/ laughter.”

The anthology is organized using categories of objects. Some object categories –  like Nature – seem like obvious choices, but others – like Backyard Furniture – are more mysterious.

The most unexpected objects in the more mysterious categories are among the most memorable poems. Amy McLennan’s rhythmic, casual language in “A Large Jar of Kosher Dill Pickles Left on My Front Porch” is endearing and funny: “And by large I mean more,/ I’m talking hippopotamic/ whopping, mammoth/ freakin’ flat out huge.”

The anthology’s flexibility with the central prompt (Love poems for inanimate objects) is worth scrutinizing. Certainly “Nature” and “Cities” are inanimate, but can we rightly call them objects? There is something to be said for the freshness that comes with a loose interpretation of limitations but too much slack with a prompt makes one wonder what a tighter net would have fished.

The poetic diversity in Unrequited makes it a lively departure from similar books by a single author. Ed Perlman’s poem “Coin Silver” is a rewarding study for readers willing to engage with its woven rhyme scheme and typography. The dense minimalism of A.J. Huffman’s cheeky “Ode to McDonald’s French Fries” contrasts with the haiku-like simplicity of Jacquelyn Bengfort’s “Fire Triangle:” “Because the lightning loved the tree./ Because the tree loved the house.”

And then there are the singularly peculiar pieces which outright refuse to align with the rest, like the fun, groovy rock lyrics of Charles Leggett’s “Poly-Esther Blues:” “Well she’s kinda ol’ fashioned/  But she’s great for party-crashin’  Polly-Esther/ (Watch her dance now!)”

Once a reader journeys through the anthology’s first twelve categories, she comes to a final poem in a category of its own. “The Earthbound Hymn” by Bethanie Humphreys is a smart and loving ending to the anthology. “Earthbound Hymn” devotes one stanza to each of the letters of the alphabet, simultaneously giving tribute to the objects described and the elements – the letters — which comprise the proceeding works and all poetry ever written. “Earthbound Hymn” provides a forthright sense of thematic closure for this engaging, speckled collection.

Though the sophistication and success of the poems vary, Unrequited is a charming entry-point for the casual poetry reader and would make a suggestive gift for the unrequited love interest in your own life.

The book launch party this Friday June 18 at Upshur Street Books, details here, is an opportunity to hear several DC residents read and to have your own copy of Unrequited signed by the anthology’s editor.

This article was originally posted on UrbanScrawlDC.com

All Come Together: The CooLots

Sometimes you hear about bands that can’t seem to stand each other, that create music through their own frustration and friction. The CooLots isn’t one of those bands. This five-person Washington, D.C-based band clings together on and off stage, and their personal mesh feeds the electricity of their performances. Some people speak with their hands; this group speaks with their whole bodies and, of course, through their music.

The group includes vocalists AwesomeRita, Crys, Dappho, and Huggie, Boomclakon on the drums, Dappho and AwesomeRita on bass, and Huggie additionally on electric. All of the musicians were born and/or raised in the D.C. metropolitan area, and they’re all also artists in more ways than just one. AwesomeRita, for example, works in the visual arts, and Dappho is a poet and radio host.

Almost ten years ago over a period of a few months these friends found each other through a series of coincidences and they’ve been creating their original sound – which they describe as “Rock & Soul” — ever since. Their music is a melting pot of influences including rock, soul, funk, and go-go. It’s raw, and passionate, and they use it as a tool to talk about social injustices, including in the lesbian and African-American communities.

Dappho, bass player and vocalist, said, “We all come together in our different styles of creating,… [and] that’s why I believe folks feel it the way they do because it’s five energies coming together and feelings coming out.”

The band first performed publicly in 2010 and they’re open about the evolution of their sound.

“I think it’s gotten a little more technical,” said vocalist Huggie.

The CooLots is a local band, but they don’t want to be pigeonholed to being just a D.C. band.

AwesomeRita, vocalist and bass player, said, “We love the sound that D.C. produces. We all feel like D.C. has its own original live music style. However, we don’t want to be confined. We’ve worked very, very hard to get away from being classified as a go-go band [just] because we are the birthplace of go-go.”

Dappho added, “We’re not a go-go-band, but we do pay homage, and it’s in us.”

In “Amerikka,” the politically-charged lyrics interrogate and accuse at the same time. “Capitalism is for real. America will make you wanna kill,” yowls the vocalist. In singles like “Chemical,” the lyrics are more romantic, contemplating a relationship not meant to be, with lyrics like, “We were just like moths to open flames … How could we let them win?” There is inevitability to the end of the relationship. In “Doors,” the moody lyrics and vocals echo wailing, making it one of the few songs that encourages you to just sit and listen, rather than get up and dance.

Co-lyricist and vocalist Crys said, “I’m just very inspired by my own life experience. When I write, I try not to just box myself in. I try to also write things that could be perceived or be applicable to other things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a romantic relationship. It could be a work relationship. It could be a friendship.”

The CooLots have performed all along the East Coast, from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to New York, and here in Washington, D.C., you may have seen them at the Rock and Roll Hotel, the Howard Theater, or any number of other venues along the U Street corridor.

That band will be helping to kick off Capital Pride week Sunday, June 5 with a performance at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

“We love the opportunity to play in our community,” said Crys, who added, “I love how all people are represented during Capital Pride. It’s not exclusive to one particular identity or one particular race.”

Expect The CooLots’ next album to release between the late summer and early fall, produced by local House Studio. As of yet, there is no title to the album, but around nine to twelve new songs are expected to appear.

“It will definitely be one to add to your collection,” said Crys.

For more information on the band’s show this Sunday check out the listing here.

Ninth Annual Source Festival Offers Plays, Perspective

It’s summertime again in the District and that means the return of two seasonal pastimes: complaining about the weather and theatre festivals. If you ask two people walking down 14th street about the weather, the first might celebrate it as sweaty perfection while the second might roll their eyes, muttering about swamps and global warming. Elsewhere on 14th street, inside the Source Theatre, a similar study in contrasting perspective is taking place this summer as part of the ninth annual Source Festival.

The Source Festival, presented by CulturalDC and opened June 8th, is a month-long theatre festival focused on developing and producing new works. “Our story, as humans, as Americans, as citizens of the world–it evolves every day and our playwrights are on the front line–taking in our world, adapting it through their own unique lenses and reflecting it back to us” says Source Festival Artistic Director Jenny McConnell Frederick, “Source Festival puts a high priority on seeking out, developing and producing a fresh collection of these stories each year.”

Fully staged productions of three new plays, selected through a national search, is one core of the festival.

SF_Postcard_Front smallGeorgette Kelly’s Ballast, one of the new plays selected, centers on two relationships between cisgender and transgender partners. Over the course of the play, both couples grapple with the process of gender transition (which is not frequently enough portrayed on stage.) The play presented a few challenges for Ballast director Margot Manburg, including casting transgender performers and “maintaining the equal footing” between all of the characters.

Investigating the essential intersections of gender identity and romance inBallast has presented, Manburg observes, opportunities for audience and artists alike. “This play could literally be the experience of someone on the production team or in the audience, or could provide the catalyst or language for a conversation that an audience member hasn’t been able to articulate.”

The festival takes inspiration from the selected plays to identify three overarching festival themes. Based on those themes the festival commissions eighteen ten-minute plays and three cross-disciplinary collaborator commissions (“Artistic Blind Dates”.) In other words: the festival provides twenty-four perspectives on three themes.

If “Heroes & Homes” are not your thing, you need not turn away. The festival is also offering “Secrets & Sounds” and “Dreams & Discord.”

The “Artistic Blind Dates” are one of the most unique aspects of the festival. Once the full-length plays are selected, nine local artists read the plays and then collaborate in teams of three over four months to develop brand new performance pieces.

Entanglement, one of the “Artistic Blind Dates”, was developed by artists Claire Alrich, Maryam Foye, and Britney Mongold based on their reading of Jennifer Fawcett’s full-length play Buried Cities and the theme “Heroes & Homes.”

“Claire, Maryam and I explore our own heroes on a very personal level,” Mongold says. “We selected matriarchs from our own ancestry and are comparing our life paths with theirs.”

Mongold and her collaborators want to keep the exact nature of audience participation a surprise, but shared that by the end of the performance the audience is invited, “to share in moments of reflection and meditation, honoring memories in an immersive, cozy setting.”

Taking stock of both the past and the future is also surely on the minds of the festival’s producers in the rapidly developing 14th street corridor. But for now, they’re excited to support another year of new theater.

“[N]ot everything we do will be to your tastes, but it’s all smart, original work being made by some of the most promising theatre artists in the country”, promises Frederick, “Come sample what’s out there and you’re sure to discover something new and wonderful.”

Amy Austin, executive director of TheatreWashington, added, “By working with playwrights of our time we capture the fragility, the stories, and the wonder of the age we live in. The Source Theatre Festival has long offered to be the place to nurture and honor new work.”

Whether you find the weather unbearable or ideal, the plays brilliant or busted, this summer’s Source Festival offers an engaging escape from the heat. And, not just because the theatre is air conditioned.

The Source Festival runs June 8 through July 3 at the Source Theatre (1835 14th Street, NW). Tickets and showtimes available here.

This article was originally posted on UrbanScrawlDC.com.