America has never quite made up its mind about Mary Todd Lincoln. Honest Abe was a hero. His wife, on the other hand, has been variously accused of being bipolar, overly decadent, a Confederate supporter, and a rube. January 23 through February 22, Ford’s Theatre offers a fresh perspective on the Civil War’s most famous spouse with the world premiere of The Widow Lincoln, written by James Still and directed by Stephen Rayne.
The two first collaborated in 2009 on Ford’s The Heavens Are Hung in Black, about the President during the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Rayne says he and Still had always planned a follow-up, which evolved into the story of Lincoln’s widow, whom Rayne sees as “one of the most maligned and misrepresented women in history.”
The play—featuring an all-female cast—stretches across a 40-day period after Lincoln’s assassination in which Mary shut herself in a room in the White House and refused the company of all but a trusted few. Still’s work, while based in fact, isn’t a retelling of history but, Rayne says, “an imagining of what occurred psychologically during that period and what happened that ultimately led to her being able to leave the room.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a drama about a woman’s innermost thoughts to come from two men, but Rayne says his and Still’s perspectives provided a good balance; workshopping the play with women scholars and actors also helped. And though Widow chronicles a devastating period in Mrs. Lincoln’s life, it also reflects that “she was an extremely ebullient, lively, intelligent, witty woman,” says Rayne.
Ultimately, the director thinks focusing on Mary Todd Lincoln helps paint a richer portrait of the former President. “His wife was the person who grieved him the most on a personal level,” he says. The Widow Lincoln will, he hopes, help audiences “understand him better through understanding her.”
Tickets ($15 to $62) are available through Ford's Theatre's website.
Even casual listeners enjoy complaining that today’s pop is repetitive. Turn on the radio and it can be easy to confuse one artist for another, this week’s hit for one from two months ago. Helping combat that aural fatigue is Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox, a rotating cast of musicians led by New York performer Bradlee who are reinventing the pop wheel one song at a time.
The band, which plays the Birchmere January 19, has become famous for its YouTube channel featuring Top 40 songs recast in various historical styles—a ragtime “Call Me Maybe,” “No Diggity” as sultry jazz. (A doo-wop cover of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” has garnered more than 11 million page views.) “It’s about finding contrasts,” Bradlee says of deciding which tune to take on and what the sound will be. “By changing the genre, we change the meaning or the context of the song.”
The concept brings to mind “Weird Al” Yankovic, though Postmodern Jukebox’s songs aren’t parodies but playful homages. Bradlee filmed many of the videos, which feature performers dressed to match the era and musical style they emulate, in his Queens apartment using a fixed camera on a tripod—until noise complaints got him kicked out, inspiring him to name the band’s current gigs the Eviction Tour.
The relatively low-cost setup allows for a quick turnaround so the group can stay current with what’s on the radio. Bradlee cites another benefit: “The honesty of such a method draws people in—we’re doing everything live, not dubbed videos.” So far, they’ve turned their songs into four albums, including the aptly named Historical Misappropriation, released in September.
As for the critique that all modern music sounds alike, Bradlee says it’s not new: “You can recognize a ’50s song or a ’40s song because there are elements evocative of the specific era. In a sense, you can look at any musical period and see how it reflects the culture.” That’s certainly true of Postmodern Jukebox’s live act, which incorporates dancers and a theatrical element—or as Bradlee puts it, “The Lawrence Welk Show with more twerking.”
Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox play the Birchmere's Flex Stage January 19. Tickets ($25) are available online.
This article appeared in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The Head and the Heart
DAR Constitution Hall
The Seattle folk-rockers released their second album in October 2013, featuring songs inspired by travels they embarked on after their self-titled 2011 debut. $34.
The singer/songwriter’s 2014 self-titled album is her first collection of entirely original tunes in 13 years. Never one to shy away from exploring the boundaries of her sound over her long career, she’s nailed what might be her most fully realized work. $55.
Some of the TV projects she’s been involved in have been panned (Smash; Sean Saves the World), but her musical talent (Broadway’s 9 to 5) has never been in doubt. Hilty applies the latter to Christmas music from the Great American Songbook. $65.
Zion’s Muse: Three Generations of Israeli Composers
The Ariel Quartet explores Israel’s relatively young but rich musical legacy, stretching from the 1930s work of composer Paul Ben-Haim to contemporary pieces by Menachem Wiesenberg. $44.
Guaranteed you’ve heard at least one of their electric-guitar-driven holiday tunes—now watch them perform their “rock opera” The Christmas Attic live for the first time. $42 to $73.
He’s shed the impressive beard but not the eclectic reggae sound that earned him a Grammy nomination. Hear tracks off Akeda, Matisyahu’s fifth album, which came out in June. $35.
Chuck Brown Band
Bethesda Blues and Jazz
The backing band of the late Godfather of Go-Go performs some of Brown’s greatest hits. Frank “Scooby” Sirius, formerly of the local band Lissen, joins the lineup. $25.
December 28 (December 27 sold out)
After six studio albums, the gypsy-punk band sounds more raucous than ever. Same goes for its frenetic live show, which has been known to involve crowd-surfing. $35.
The Brooklyn duo of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser gained a following for their synth-soaked remixes of tracks by Cut Copy, Moby, and LCD Soundsystem, among others. Holy Ghost’s original tracks are equally worth a listen, as their sophomore effort, September’s Dynamics, proved. $20.
The Rhett Miller-fronted Dallas band celebrated its 20th anniversary this year by releasing its 16th album, Most Messed Up. The new tunes reflect on two decades in the music biz. $35 to $85.
Ballet West’s The Nutcracker
This version of the holiday classic—created by the Salt Lake City company’s founder, William Christensen—is a Washington favorite. $56 to $165.
Cirque de la Symphonie
A kind of Cirque du Soleil designed specifically for concert halls—with acrobats, jugglers, and cortortionists performing feats choreographed to the music of the NSO Pops. $20 to $98.
Observe the weeklong holiday with this event featuring dancers from the contemporary West African company Coyaba and its related academy, along with other special guests. $25 to $30.
The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker
Hailing from the same country as The Nutcracker’s composer, this company has brought the production to Washington regularly since 1993. $28 to $88.
If you’re a fan of The Daily Show’s early years, there’s a good chance this Georgetown Law grad wrote some of your favorite lines: He won an Emmy for his work with the show’s original writing team. Hear him deliver his jokes his own way. $17.
A John Waters Christmas
Not to be confused with the 2004 album compiled by Waters, this show gives the kooky director a platform to poke fun at holiday memories and traditions. $49.50.
Good for the Jews
Writer Rob Tannenbaum (I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution) and David Fagin of the indie band the Rosenbergs team up for this tongue-in-cheek show of musical comedy. $20.
Broadway director Ethan McSweeny returns to the theater that gave him his start, helming the Bard’s magical comedy, with Helen Hayes Award winner Geraint Wyn Davies as the sorcerer Prospero. Shakespeare Theatre Company; December 2 through January 15; $20 to $110.
Kids these days may be all about the Whisper app, but PostSecret is what put anonymous secret-spilling on the map. Founder—and Washingtonian—Warren talks about his new book, The World of PostSecret, sharing some things even he couldn’t put in print. Sixth & I; December 3; $30 (including book).
Yo La Tengo
The critically adored indie-rock band reissues its 1993 album, Painful, this year in celebration of its 30th birthday. It’s safe to assume the show will include classic songs (“From a Motel 6,” “Autumn Sweater”) as well as material from the group’s newest album, Fade. 9:30 Club; December 5; $30.
Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company
Here’s your chance to see the next generation of comedy kings and queens before they make it big: The sketch-and-improv group is responsible for launching the careers of Amy Poehler, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry, among others. Sixth & I; December 7; $20 to $25.
The singer/songwriter’s 2014 self-titled album is her first collection of entirely original tunes in 13 years. Never one to shy away from exploring the boundaries of her sound over her long career, she’s nailed what might be her most fully realized work. Lincoln Theatre; December 10; $55.
Guaranteed you’ve heard at least one of their electric-guitar-driven holiday tunes—now watch them perform their “rock opera” The Christmas Attic live for the first time. Verizon Center; December 17; $42 to $73.
Amanda Palmer is the first to admit she’s had a career many would call bizarre.
She got her start as a living statue called the Eight-Foot Bride in Boston. She created the “punk cabaret” band Dresden Dolls and its follow-up, Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra. She has a penchant for crowd-surfing naked and sometimes employs the F-word as a middle name. And she’s known to contact fans via social media for practice space or a couch to crash on when touring.
That DIY ethos came back to bite her in 2012 when she briefly became the internet’s most hated artist after raising $1.2 million through Kickstarter to fund a new album, then asking musicians to back her on tour—for free. Palmer defended her decision on her blog and broke down exactly how she’d spent the money; she also announced later that year that she would begin paying her “volunteer musicians.”
The 38-year-old has condensed the lessons gleaned from these experiences into her first book, The Art of Asking—a “memoir slash manifesto,” she calls it—that she discusses November 12 at Sixth & I. The kernel of the book began during a TED Talk Palmer gave last year, ostensibly to tell how she launched the most successful music crowd-funding project in history but also to explain her philosophy of requesting help without shame.
“Everybody at some point finds themselves in the position of needing to ask for a certain kind of help, and everybody finds themselves in the position of offering help,” she says. “Friends, time, energy, love, space, listening, talent—there are so many levels of asking for help that I think we just block off from our reality.”
A book had been in the back of her mind for some time, but the TED Talk—and a “dominatrix editor”—pushed her to commit words to page. The result is part autobiography, part business manual, part feminist statement, with an exploration of her marriage to fantasy author Neil Gaiman thrown in, all filtered through the idea that learning to trust and lean on others is a welcome necessity and an inescapable part of the human experience.
How Palmer’s hippie-ish theory plays in hyper-competent, type-A Washington remains to be seen, though she insists the “ask and ye shall receive” concept is universal. “Human beings like to help each other, and to feel connected and useful,” she says. “Sometimes they just need a way in.”
Purchase tickets ($15 to $18) at sixthandi.org.
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Translating the ugliness of war into dance is never easy. In creating Colin: Son, Marine, Hero, Manassas Ballet Theatre artistic director Amy Grant Wolfe found her work made even more difficult by the subject: her own son’s death from a roadside bomb in Iraq. Six years after Colin died, composer Mark Menza, a friend of Wolfe’s, asked her to collaborate on a patriotic ballet. “I told him, ‘I’ve done patriotic pieces because of Colin—I don’t want it to be the same old thing,’ ” says Wolfe. “Then I thought: What if we make it about Colin?”
A one-act debuted at the Hylton Performing Arts Center to so much positive feedback that they decided to develop it into an evening-length dance, at Hylton November 7 through 9. The work follows Colin’s life, beginning with the young boy, then depicting his decision after 9/11 to join the Marines; his visit to the graves of ancestors who fought in World War II; his first love and Jewish faith; his military life; and his death and loved ones’ reactions.
To expand the piece, Wolfe asked Colin’s fellow Marines, friends, and family to share memories. She also decided that his death, originally not depicted, would likely be shown onstage—and she might dance her own part: “I’m teaching it to myself, though it may be too much emotionally.” In the end, Colin is a macro story told on a micro level: “When we say thousands have died, our minds can’t grasp that sense of thousands of boys loved by their family and friends, but when it’s presented as one story, we can.”
Purchase tickets ($15 to $45) at hyltoncenter.org.
Not that many comedians today can say they have a puppet version of themselves. Wyatt Cenac is a member of that rare and envied class. The Dallas-raised funnyman is best known for his stint as a writer and correspondent on The Daily Show, where the aforementioned Puppet Cenac came into being, but his low-key standup is equally hilarious: His 2011 special, Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person, explored the peculiar minutiae of modern life such as why you should never accept a friend’s invitation to Medieval Times and the fact that cat videos are more popular on YouTube than messages from the President. He also had a stint on Netflix’s excellent animated series Bojack Horseman as the voice of Wayne, a BuzzFeed writer with a secret agenda.
Cenac visited Washington earlier this month to perform in BYT’s Bentzen Ball, and returns November 23 for a show at Black Cat in support of his second standup special (also featuring puppets). Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn, Cenac’s directorial debut, is now available on Netflix and as a limited-run vinyl album; we chatted with the 38-year-old about the “more personal” sophomore effort, why he likes Washington audiences, and the nefarious appeal of Shake Shack.
You were in DC recently for the Bentzen Ball—how did it go?
It was fun. I felt bad because I got into DC like an hour before my show and I left right after, so I didn’t really spend any time in the city. I took a 3 PM train down and went straight to the 9:30 Club, did the show, and got on the train to head back. I ate Shake Shack in Union Station because the lines in New York are too long.
I guess going to Shake Shack is at least sort of a DC experience.
Shake Shack is great; I don’t get it that often, but I think if I was a person that did that New York to DC commute, I would be tempted every time. I would get logy and fat from all the fries.
As someone who covered politics a lot on The Daily Show, do you feel like you have any kind of special connection to Washington?
I always enjoy DC crowds because there is an awareness of what’s going on in the world, in part because many of the audience members are working for people who are influencing what’s going on in the world. There’s something kind of nice about that. I imagine there’s also a bit of catharsis for those people to get to be in a room and laugh at the stuff they see closer than the rest of us do.
There’s currently a big appetite for satire, but on the other hand places like Facebook have started identifying articles as satire because so many people weren’t picking up on it.
I don’t spend much time on Facebook, but I read something about that. It kind of reminds me of how in magazines, they have the special advertising sections where it’s always a giant three-page ad, but they doll it up to look like actual journalism. On some level that’s a satire of its own, because it’s trying to fool you into thinking boner pills are that important. It’s a matter of healthy living and good exercise—that’s what Sting always said.
Does knowing that people might not understand that something is satire affect how you approach comedy? Or is it the audience’s responsibility to figure it out?
I think it depends on the place where you’re doing it, and on that particular audience. If you say something in a show and it feels like audience doesn’t get it, you kinda know right away and you have to decide in that moment whether to double-back and explain it or just keep going. That’s kind of the joy of doing this stuff: You do something and you hope to find something that audience will relate to and find funny and be amused by, and if they don’t, you take it back into the garage and tinker with it and hopefully fix it up, and then you take it back out and try again.
It seems like noawadays some people have made a habit out of being outraged over social media. Do you think there are more subjects that are off-limits now in terms of what you can joke about?
I think people have always been outraged; now it’s just that they are able to find one another online, and if you can get enough outraged townspeople with pitchforks and torches, you can potentially get the subject of your outrage to respond to you.
In the past, there were people saying and doing offensive things, and you never knew. The only side of it you ever saw was if they said something that was outrageous, and an audience laughed, meaning it worked. I may think something is off-limits and another comedian may not, so if that other comedian gets a laugh, then they are right—it works. I’m right, too, in that if it’s something I’m uncomfortable with, I may choose not to put it in front of my audience. It’s that knowledge that we live in a world where everything can be both funny and un-funny at the same time—it just depends on who you are as both the person delivering and the person receiving it. I am not the standard-bearer—what makes me uncomfortable is not necessarily what makes the world uncomfortable—so as an audience member and a deliverer, I have to understand and reconcile that.
What can people expect from your new stand-up special?
This one to me feels a bit more personal, a bit more how I enjoy doing a show. The first special I shot was in a big theater, there were 400, 500 people there, and it was a great experience. But the most fun I have doing shows is in little cramped spaces—places like Union Hall in Brooklyn, where I shot this special. I try to create something that would give the viewer more of an experience of how I enjoy doing a show, the places that are comfortable to me, and hopefully it comes across that I seem more comfortable. It’s three years later, so it’s a similar perspective but slightly different. It’s a little more intimate.
And you also directed it?
I did. That’s part of the personal aspect of it—this was really born out of a desire to put out a special, and rather than sit around and wait for something to come together, I just went on my own and did it. In doing that, it became this sort of do-it-yourself thing: “Oh, okay, I’m making this special happen, and oh, looks like I’m putting it all out together.” It was a fun experience.
Did you always have Netflix in mind, or did you make the show first and then shop it around?
I made it first and presented it to Netflix, a guy over there named Devin Griffin. I also put out a record, and I gave him the audio of that and little of the footage from special, just so he could see that it didn’t look like it was shot on a bunch of iPhones. And he got what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure they’d go for it, so I thought, “Maybe I can take it some other place,” but Devon got it, and we made it happen.
Do you think you’ll get to spend any time in DC after your show in November?
This time, I hope to hang out a little bit. I have some friends in DC, so I’d like to catch up with them, go grab a meal someplace. I can’t remember if I have to go somewhere else after—I think I might have a couple days off, and if so, hopefully I can hang out. I enjoy going to DC; everyone’s always very nice to me there. I heard the folks who went to Bentzen Ball got to take Segway tours, and some of them even went bowling at the White House, so I’m a little bummed out I missed all that.
I didn’t know people really bowled at the White House.
I guess you gotta know the right people! There’s a two-lane bowling in the White House, so maybe I will celebrate the tour by throwing a few gutter balls in the White House bowling alley. Assuming I can get into the bowling alley—I’m guessing security is a little tighter than it was before, so it might not be that easy.
Wyatt Cenac performs at Black Cat Sunday, November 23, at 7 PM. Tickets ($20) are available online.
The motto of the Washington West Film Festival is “Story can change the world.”
From October 22 to 26, the fest, now in its fourth year, brings some 40 independent narrative and documentary films to Reston’s Bow Tie Cinemas, the Angelika Film Center and Cafe in Fairfax, and other Northern Virginia venues. Though fast-growing, Washington West is still a local, intimate affair, so you can interact with filmmakers at Q&As and special events.
All box-office proceeds go to a philanthropic organization or project, and the festival’s work with that group becomes the subject of a short film that opens every screening the next year; this year’s short is about Washington West’s involvement with Shelter House, a facility for homeless families in Fairfax County.
With supporters including Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus—who grew up in Washington—the festival has also helped fund a new school and theater in Haiti as well as relief efforts for Hurricane Sandy victims. Attendees are encouraged to carry forward the festival’s message by volunteering at a featured nonprofit afterward.“The idea is that we’re attaching our audience to the creation of a story that gives hope, that cares or shows compassion for a community in need,” says founder Brad Russell.
Louis-Dreyfus coproduced a documentary in this year’s festival, Generosity of Eye. Directed by her husband and fellow Saturday Night Live alum Brad Hall—who is expected to attend with her—the film explores the decision by the actress’s father, William Louis-Dreyfus, to sell off his extensive art collection to benefit the Harlem Children’s Zone. Other highlights are Alive Inside, a Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner about music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients; Revenge of the Green Dragons, a gangster film starring Ray Liotta and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, among others; and a film-and-TV-scoring event featuring W.G. Snuffy Walden, who composed the music for Friday Night Lights and The West Wing.
Russell’s objective is for audiences to walk away motivated to be a “contributor, not just a consumer.” A community with as much affluence as Washington “can make sizable differences in the world, and in the area, if we come together for good.”
Find more information at filmfest.com.
This article appears in our October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
A century and a half after the Civil War, most Americans know the basics: Bull Run, Appomattox, the Emancipation Proclamation. But finding a personal connection is another matter.
As a step in that direction, Our War—at Arena Stage October 21 through November 9—presents original monologues about the conflict by 25 playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and David Lindsay-Abaire, which the theater commissioned as part of its involvement in the National Civil War Project. (The “theatrical dance piece” Healing Wars, staged in June, also stemmed from the collaboration.)
Director Anita Maynard-Losh and her Arena colleagues looked for contributors with a variety of ages and backgrounds. Most other accounts, she says, are from the perspective of “people in charge of the country at the time—white men. With a collection of playwrights that is more than half women and a great majority people of color, we get quite different points of view.”
To add another layer, 25 notable Washingtonians—including PBS NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff, radio host Diane Rehm, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—will read a monologue of their choosing during selected performances.
While some of the pieces have a historical setting, many focus on ripples that reverberate today—“explorations of what it means to be an American and the repercussions of institutional racism,” Maynard-Losh says. The Civil War “leaves us trying to make impossible connections. We have this urge to understand something that’s so much bigger than anything we’ve experienced.”
Meshing the disparate voices and styles presented a challenge for the director: “All these pieces need to be going somewhere, so where do they end up? It’s not until I see how the actors interpret the pieces and hear them all strung together that I understand what the emotional and intellectual impact is.”
Our War potentially serves as a kind of theatrical Rorschach test, with each audience member seeing something different—but Maynard-Losh’s hope is more modest: “I would be really happy if people come away thinking, ‘Oh, I thought this was an absolute truth about the Civil War, and now I see it’s actually an opinion a lot of people share—but not everyone.’ ”
Tickets ($40 to $50) at arenastage.org.
This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Nowadays, when even neighborhood grocery stores can offer an eye-popping variety of foods, including ancient grains and exotic produce, it’s easy to forget it all has to come from somewhere.
The National Geographic Museum turns the spotlight on that idea in “Food: Our Global Kitchen,” which examines the way food—producing it, distributing it, consuming it—anchors every culture.
The exhibit, organized with New York’s American Museum of Natural History and running October 16 through February 22, delves into how what we eat “connects us across geographic barriers,” says Kathryn Keane, vice president for exhibitions for the National Geographic Society.
Visitors travel through history with interactive exhibits exploring the early days of farming and cultivation, the food trade (including a replica of a 16th-century Aztec marketplace), and utensils and grocery-shopping habits in various regions. There’s even a “test kitchen,” cosponsored by Whole Foods, that teaches how certain edibles were prepared—and provides samples.
A discussion of the food industry’s past wouldn’t be complete without a look at its future and the increasingly relevant topics of world hunger and dwindling natural resources.
“There’s a lot of talk about conservation and how the planet’s population is expanding at a rapid rate,” says Keane. “This is an opportunity to learn about the different places and economies that go into supporting the food supply. We tend to forget the importance of farming, but in many ways it’s the most important economy there is.”
The opening of the exhibit—encompassing programs, lectures, and films that look at subjects such as food photography and sustainable dinners—coincides with World Food Day, which aims to raise awareness of global hunger.
The museum is also hosting a free Harvest Day on October 25 with vendors, live music, and tastings. Across all of the exhibits and activities, the goal is the same: to make people reconsider a subject both vital to life and easy to take for granted.
Purchase tickets ($11) at National Geographic's website.