Beyond the Stage Takes a Bow

Former DC-resident, the Giant Panda Tai Shan, eats an enormous summer Popsicle in an attempt to beat the DC heat.

Former DC-resident–the Giant Panda Tai Shan–eats an enormous summer Popsicle in an attempt to beat the DC heat.

As the temperature rises and the city slows down, we’re over here in the Theater J offices marveling at the fact that we made it to the end of this amazing, chock-full, stunningly diverse eight-show season. Things slow down just a bit here as well as we catch up on meetings; sort emails; dive into play reading; look at pictures of Cavachons on the internet (wait, what?); and take a minute to step back and look at what we accomplished in our 2012-2013 season.

And what besides those eight main stage productions did we accomplish?

Programming, programming, programming.

With help from our super intern Lauren, I’ve just completed our Programming Spreadsheet for the season (we do this for various record-keeping purposes) and I’m pleased to report that we had a stunning 106 additional events this season. That includes Locally Grown and other readings, Tea@Two’s, a Teach-In, Miriam’s Kitchen visits, talk backs, and panels.

And speaking of panels, we’ve had a few of those to wrap up our season as well.

On Sunday, June 16 we discussed:

Race and Representation: The African-American Artist in the World with

Juanita Hardy, Executive Director of CulturalDC and co-founder of the Millennium Arts Salon
Jennifer Nelson, Theater Director, Playwright and Educator, former Producing Artistic Director of the African Continuum Theatre
Dr. Dianne Whitfield-Locke, Collector of African-American Art and owner of The Locke Collection

<p><a href=”″>Race and Representation: The African American Artist in the World</a> from <a href=””>Theater J</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

And on Sunday, June 23 we turned to:

A Lasting Legacy: The Past, Present and Future of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) with
Sandra Jowers-Barber, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, History Program Coordinator, The University of the District of Columbia
Jim Loewen, American sociologist, historian, and author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
Dr. Leslie Richards, Professor of Urban Affairs, Social Science & Social Work, The University of the District of Columbia
Gerald Allan Schwinn, former Hampton Institute Instructor

<p><a href=”″>Post Show Conversation: The Past, Present and Future of HBCUs</a> from <a href=””>Theater J</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This past week we also wrapped up our second Locally Grown Reading Festival with a reading of a brand new play by Renee Calarco (author of THE RELIGION THING) titled PEOPLE OF THE BOOK.

Adrienne Nelson, Sasha Olinik, Celeste Lawson, and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Bill Petros.

Adrienne Nelson, Sasha Olinik, Celeste Lawson, and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Bill Petros.

As directed by Allison Stockman, PEOPLE OF THE BOOK asked us to consider how far we would go to believe a story that’s too good to be true. Partially inspired by the story of Rabbi Menachem Youlus—the self-dubbed “Jewish Indiana Jones”—the play goes to “some uncomfortable places,” according to Calarco.  “We all yearn for survival stories,” she says, “and I’m obsessed with the stories that we collect and re-tell and believe—beyond the point of reason.”

The very next evening we gathered in the theater for our Locally Grown culminating event, a Playwright’s Town Hall Discussion which gathered the community to talk about the progress we have (or haven’t) made in the past year when it comes to supporting new work, and especially–encouraging opportunities for playwrights based in the greater DC region.

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The Hampton Years Talkback at Miriam’s Kitchen Or: How I Learned the meaning of VerKlempt

verklemptGrace here. Today was my last afternoon at Miriam’s Kitchen as an official representative of Theater J.  And I want to wax poetic, to make a grand declaration so that the people at Miriam’s will know how much I love them, how grateful I am to have the privilege of their friendship. But, to paraphrase a favorite play, “Loving and being loved is unliterary. It’s happiness expressed in banality…”

So for the present, I’ll just share with you some banalities. Who, What, Where, When.

At 2:30 pm today, my colleagues Molly Winston, Director of Community Engagement and New Media, and Alice Magelssen, Development Associate and I met The Hampton Years actors Sarah Douglas, Sasha Olinick and David Lamont Wilson at Miriam’s Kitchen, for a post-show talkback. This talkback follows upon a matinee performance on Friday, June 14, which the guests of Miriam’s Kitchen had attended.

As Sasha summarized the play for those who had not been present at the performance, he described the predicament of Viktor Lowenfeld, trying to fight for the importance of arts education in a trade-based school.  One guest noted how this dilemma reflected the ideological divide between Booker T. Washington (and his emphasis on trade-based education for African Americans)  and W.E.B. Dubois (who emphasized the importance of the arts). We touched on the different philosophies embraced by HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), from Tougaloo College to The Hampton Institute.

We also re-enacted a scene from The Hampton Years (noting, I might add, that Miriam’s Kitchen is harboring some extremely talented actors!) and discussed the process of creating art as an actor, as well as a writer, painter, and poet. The people at Miriam’s Kitchen are all extremely artistically engaged, so everyone at the table could speak to their process, and the extent to which it was ‘haptic’ as Viktor champions in the play, vs. visual. One man described how the words for his poems issue forth almost as if they existed fully formed inside him.

We closed the discussion by going around the circle and sharing a particular piece of art that has meant a great deal to us. In The Hampton Years, it was a Kuba mask. Some of the guests named poems (one even recited his cherished poem). Others named movies; a man who had spent some time in jail referenced  The Shawshank Redemption. Still others talked about novels; one young woman shared that she loved a novel about an autistic young man because her brother was autistic, and the novel was almost a way for her to share the story of her brother. People talked about paintings, monuments and songs, and more. They shared their beloved artwork, and in so doing, they shared what Lowenfeld would call “their truth.”

By the time I left Miriam’s today, I had a new work of art that means the world to me. A very dear guest used wool of all different colors to knit me a warm winter hat that covers my ears, telling me that though she was sorry I was moving, this would keep me warm by the Great Lakes up in Illinois. She conveyed so much with her beautiful creation, and the emotion behind it.

I’m teetering into cliché, so I’ll stop writing now. And really, I’ve veered quite entirely away from my mission of stating the facts of this afternoon clearly.  So, to return to my initial approach.

At 4:00, the discussion ended, and we all went our separate ways. Sasha gave Molly and me a ride back to Theater J, and we discussed the future of the Theater J/Miriam’s Kitchen collaboration. And then I sat down to recount the afternoon, and discovered what it means to be Verklempt.

Programming Updates for THE HAMPTON YEARS

We’re well into programming for THE HAMPTON YEARS and I’m pleased to share some thoughts and updates.

Last night we had a late-in-the-game programming addition:

 The Art and Artists of Pre-War Vienna

  • Ori Z Soltes teaches theology and art history at Georgetown University. He is the former Director and Curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum.
Theater J Council Member Elaine Reuben speaks with Ori Soltes.

Theater J Council Member Elaine Reuben speaks with Ori Soltes.

Ori was fantastic, providing context for the art scene that Viktor Lowenfeld was leaving behind in Austria. He described the Lowenfeld’s as “refugees from an extreme example of people drawing a particular kind of boundary around a particular kind of people”; reflecting on the play itself as it speaks to the human tendency to want to do just that–put metaphorical, and sometimes even literal, boxes around people.

Ori spoke of “degenerate art”, the English translation of the German Entartete Kunst, a term adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany to describe art that was banned because it was “un-German”. Or as Ori put it, because it was “too Jewish”. Thus by the 1930s, the only acceptable art in Germany (and Austria) was likely to be of “classical inspiration…heroic figures…smiling faces”.

In 1937, Nazi officials purged German museums of works the Party considered to be degenerate. Of the thousands of works removed, 650 were chosen for a special exhibit that opened in Munich and traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. In each installation, the works were poorly hung and surrounded by graffiti mocking the artists and their creations. Over three million visitors attended the exhibition.

Hitler visits the Degenerate Art Exhibition.

Hitler visits the Degenerate Art Exhibition.

Soltes also pointed out the irony that “not a single member of the Nazi Party leadership actually looked (like the people they wanted portrayed in these paintings) — the Aryan ideal.”

On Sunday, June 9 we hosted:

A Conversation with Julian Bond: Civil Right Activist and former NAACP chairman, with Tanya Bowers, Director for Diversity, Office of the President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

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Lowenfeld Family Night at THE HAMPTON YEARS

Something wonderful happened at our final preview performance of The Hampton Years last night; a family came and saw their patriarch long since passed, brought to beautiful dramatic life, and the family recognized, identified, spoke back and it was good.

Viktor Lowenfeld is the protagonist of Jacqueline Lawton’s wonderful new play which covers seven years in the life of Margaret and Viktor Lowenfeld at Hampton Institute.  The characters go out of their way to make frequent mention of their son John–or “Johnny”–who grows from age 7 to 14 as an off-stage character in the play.  On Sunday night, Dr. John Lowenfeld  was present at our theater to take in the story of his parents, joined by eight other members of his family.   Dr.  Lowenfeld is a psychologist in Akron, Ohio.  He  was joined on stage last night by his son, David, a project manager at NASA.     The conversation that was shared before a post-performance audience of 70 or so (out of the 140 in the house for the show) touched on wonderful memories of growing up both in Hampton, VA and at Penn State University, where the Lowenfelds moved next.

The Lowenfeld family in the lobby of the DCJCC with THE HAMPTON YEARS playwright Jacqueline Lawton

The Lowenfeld family in the lobby of the DCJCC with THE HAMPTON YEARS playwright Jacqueline Lawton

While the conversation touched on Viktor’s teaching, his writing, and Margaret’s work as physical fitness instructor and singer, the most rewarding part of the warm conversation took place between cast members and the family, principally involving the actors who play Margaret and Viktor on stage, Sarah Douglass and Sasha Olinick.  For the actors, it was perhaps a first time playing real-life characters whose family members were still alive and who could contribute valuable insights and details into what the people the actors were playing were actually like!  “Think back to Hampton,” Sasha asked Dr. Lowenfeld, “what do you remember as a 7 year old most prominently?  What smells?  Tastes?”  John remembered a back yard filled with bamboo, stalks of which would be regularly cut down and sections made into pea-shooters.  The actors and the family members couldn’t get enough of each other, even after the discussion came to a close, the big group lingered for another half hour, not wanting to leave the on stage Lowenfeld home.

The cast of THE HAMPTON YEARS with Dr. John and David Lowenfeld on stage

The cast of THE HAMPTON YEARS with Dr. John and David Lowenfeld on stage, with director Shirley Serotsky, far left

Let’s enjoy a little video excerpt of last night’s discussion, principally moderated by Associate Artistic Director and HAMPTON YEARS director, Shirley Serotsky.