1. Aretha Franklin
May 13, Strathmore
Aretha Franklin might not tell you what you want to know. She doesn’t talk about her health, the subject of much speculation in 2010 when she had surgery for a mysterious ailment. “I’ve left that behind,” Franklin says. Her granddaughter, Victorie, who sang that lovely tribute to her on BET? That’s off limits, too: “Victorie is mostly into her education at this point.” Oh, and as for recording this phone conversation for Washingtonian’s records? Forget it.
Here’s what Franklin— pictured above in 1970— will discuss: performing in the ’60s at Bohemian Caverns on U Street and downtown DC’s now-shuttered Casino Royal, where she recalls that disco girls danced in large water containers. She also has great memories of her Washington appearances, including President Obama’s inauguration in 2009: “Looking out on the plethora of people was just awesome.”
Then the greatest R&B singer of all time proceeds to complain about the weather. At Obama’s inauguration, you see, it was very cold. “It was in the 20s or 30s,” Franklin says. “It affected my voice terribly.” Later she asks, “Tell me something— what’s the weather like right now in DC?”
She wants to know because she’s performing songs from her latest album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, as well as her other hits, at Strathmore on May 13. She’ll be joined by guest performers and a 20-piece orchestra. Pressed for details, however, the Queen of Soul clams up: “There will be other really nice surprises that I’m sure the audience will enjoy, and it will educate them— the education of Aretha.” $65 to $195. — Emily Codik
2. Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People
May 31, National Gallery of Art
This 90-minute film—part of the American Experiments in Narrative series—looks at the representation of African-Americans through photography. Director Thomas Allen Harris explains that it’s based on one idea: If America had a family album, “what would African-Americans look like” in it? The film contrasts images African-Americans have made of themselves with those popular culture has made on their behalf. True to the name of the series, the film is an experiment in narrative. Technically a documentary, it’s so influenced by poetry that it doesn’t fit neatly into categories. Q&A to follow screening. Free; 4 pm.
3. “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology"
May 14-January 3, National Geographic Museum
Which Hindu goddess did the cult worship in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? If you answered Kali, you’ll love this exhibit. The collection features archaeological artifacts as well as original props (such as the fertility idol above), concept art, and costumes from Indiana Jones films. Perfect for the Indy fan in the family, the show takes you on a quest to uncover the true origins of archaeological mysteries. $15.
4. Scottish Ballet
May 28-30, Kennedy Center
This Glaswegian troupe has shorn A Streetcar Named Desire of most of Tennessee Williams’s language, which seems weird until you imagine how they’d likely pronounce lines like “Hold back the brutes.” Peter Salem’s score helps with the translation, but it’s Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography that flings Stanley Kowalski’s animal habits around the stage. $30 to 108.
5. If Birds Could Fly
May 1, Hill Country
This southwestern Virginia quartet embraces its Appalachian sound through the warm, soulful tenor of lead singer Brittany Carter and the sweet acoustic melodies of guitarist Andrew Carter. If Birds Could Fly strips country music down to its folk roots, relying on raw power to bring its songs home. Free.
6. “Peacock Room Remix: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre’ ”
May 16-January 2, 2017, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Ever gazed at an artwork and had the urge to destroy it? Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre” deconstructs Whistler’s Peacock Room, leaving it with splintered shelves, surfaces dripping with paint, and debris on the floor. Sounds by the band Betty complete the eerie atmosphere.
7. “Reporting Vietnam”
May 22-September 12, 2016, Newseum
Though carnage now buzzes daily on CNN, America’s first televised war began just over half a century ago. The Newseum’s exhibit examines the conflict through the influential lens of media, with film footage, indelible images, newspapers, and music that became “the soundtrack for a generation.” $22.95.
8. Arsenal of Democracy: World War II Victory Capitol Flyover
May 8, National Mall
9. Feria de Sevilla
May 31, Strathmore
Picture this: Flamenco dancers stomping onstage. A couple of guys accompanying them on the guitar. There’s chorizo on the grill and paella bubbling. It wouldn’t be a Spanish party without wine, and at the Feria de Sevilla, you can wash down a mouthful of bocadillo with cold sangría. This is the biggest Spanish bash in Washington, an annual event that draws more than 7,000. “In the States, you live to work, but in Spain, you work to live,” says Maria Brattlof, a member of the event’s organizing committee and president of the Centro Español de Washington, DC. For this party, though, you don’t have to work too hard because, best of all, it’s free.
10. Zombie: The American
May 29-June 21, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Robert O’Hara’s play promises so much more than your average political drama. Directed by Howard Shalwitz, it features the first openly gay President, threats of civil war and invasion, and zombies in the White House basement. Think The Walking Dead meets Scandal. $35 to $75.
11. An Evening with Neil Gaiman
May 1, DAR Constitution Hall
When a bookstore is too cozy for a visiting author, it’s common for a more spacious venue to be pressed into service. Neil Gaiman has so many fans, though, that he’s speaking at Constitution Hall. And we’re betting it could sell out. Easy.
Gaiman’s fiction (American Gods, the Sandman series, Coraline) transcends traditional genres. Dabbling in mythology, fantasy, science fiction, and the bildungsroman, Gaiman may be the closest thing we have to a C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien— he’s highly inventive, unabashedly dreamy, and unafraid of the weird and macabre. Most important, his prose is both entertaining and elegant.
Notorious for his generosity to fans, Gaiman is also a true 21st-century artist, answering readers’ questions on his Tumblr and avidly engaging in conversation with his 2 million-plus Twitter followers (@neilhimself). So buy a ticket in advance. $34.50 to $57.
12. Chuck Palahniuk
May 28, Sixth & I
The first rule of Chuck Palahniuk: You’ll never be bored. Even the Fight Club creator’s book signings take on a bizarre, otherworldly sheen. This event promises to be no different, with a reading to promote the unofficial shock jock of the literary set’s new collection, Make Something Up; games and prizes; and another foray into Tyler Durden’s alterna-universe with the Fight Club 2 graphic-novel installment. Pack bandages. $35. —Hillary Kelly
13. Dior and I
May 1-7, Landmark E Street Cinema
When’s the last time Anna Wintour attended your first big presentation at a new job? That’s the situation Raf Simons (above) faced when he took over for the disgraced John Galliano at Christian Dior. This documentary’s director, Frédéric Tcheng, provides a window into the whirlwind that is turning ideas into garments, lingering on Simons’s otherwise stoic face in moments of triumph and breakdown. It’s a terrifically intimate look at a terrifically intimate process.
14. Shortcut to Europe: European Union Embassies’ Open House
May 9, euopenhouse.org
Greece’s fight with Germany may yet tear the European Union apart, but on this day, 28 member countries’ embassies are united—presenting activities such as Romanian folk dancing and a quiz about Estonia. A shuttle moves you across borders.
15. Georgetown Garden Tour
May 9, georgetowngardentour.com
The soil is fertilized, the fig trees are espaliered, and the Georgetown Garden Club is hosting its 87th annual tour of the neighborhood’s best-manicured plots and beds. For those who’d rather stay indoors, afternoon tea is served inside Christ Church from 2 to 4. $30 to $35.
16. “Vanessa Bell’s Hogarth Press Designs”
May 11-November 13, National Museum of Women in the Arts
Bell’s art hung at the revolutionary Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912. Her weekly salons allowed the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists to continue meeting after its early years. And the care she lavished on her sister, Virginia Woolf, helped Woolf remain stable enough to write. But Bell is too often a footnote in her sister’s biography. That changes with this small but lovely exhibit, which includes a rare first edition of Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday. $10.
17. Lila Downs
May 1, Lisner auditorium
Lila Downs grew up in Minnesota and Oaxaca, and she croons about oil drilling, kidnapping, and violence in an exploration of social justice that mashes Mexican ranchera music with American hip-hop and jazz. Her new album, an explosion of politically charged lyrics and Mesoamerican sounds, is called Balas y Chocolate (or Bullets and Chocolate). As its title suggests, her music is lively enough to dance to but serious enough to contemplate over mezcal. $40 to $60.
18. Lee Fields & the Expressions
May 2, Howard Theatre
Fields’s voice recalls James Brown’s, and he’s part of the same soul-revival scene that spawned Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, but he’s no nostalgia act: Fields began recording in the ’60s, and the handkerchief that could keep his brow dry hasn’t yet been made. This show marks the birthday of Big Tony, bassist/singer of the DC go-go act Trouble Funk. $30; ticketmaster.com.
19. Yoga on the Mall
May 9, Sylvan Theater
A thousand bodies with arms reaching to the sky in vrksasana (tree pose) and the Washington Monument in the background. Metro DC Yoga Week features free or discounted classes at many studios, ending with this massive all-levels class. Come for the workout, stay for the corpse pose. Free.
20. “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze”
May 22-July 10, 2016, National Portrait Gallery
America practically invented fame, so it’s only right that the Portrait Gallery should present these images of pop-culture figures. An airbrushed Katy Perry and Annie Leibovitz’s famous shot of Renée Fleming onstage join R. Luke DuBois’s portraits of Google’s founders—stars of a slightly different sort than Brad Pitt, whose image is also here.
21. Queer Queens of Qomedy
May 17, Jammin’ Java
What comedian Poppy Champlin (above) brings to every Queer Queens of Qomedy gig: an excruciating misspelling, some OMG-did-she-just-say-that jokes, and a guest comic or two. Here she shares the stage with Karen Williams, who has said she likes to play for lesbians because they’re smart: “The gay guys wound up with the money, and we got the books.” $20 to $30.
22. “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection”
Beginning May 8, National Museum of American History
While the National Museum of African American History and Culture is under construction, you can see part of its permanent collection next door, telling the stories of trailblazers, innovators, and history-makers from Harriet Tubman to Althea Gibson. Artifacts on display include James Brown’s electric organ and his red jumpsuit. And who doesn’t want to see James Brown’s red jumpsuit?.
23. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
May 12-June 21, Folger Theatre
Tom Stoppard’s 1966 comic riff on Hamlet places two minor characters from the Shakespeare tragedy as his protatgonists. Hamlet’s childhood companions want to reveal what’s got the Prince of Denmark so bothered, eliciting laughs along the way through their encounters with an array of equally absurd characters. If you like surprise endings, this might not be the play for you: The title gives it all away. $30 to $75.
24. Virginia Gold Cup
May 2, The Plains
Break out your straw hats and Nantucket Reds for the 90th running of the venerable steeplechase races. Not into horses? This event is a great excuse to graze on a picnic, try your luck with small wagers on the horses, and soak up the country views. $85 (per car) and up.
May 9-May 21, Washington National Opera
Rossini’s opera strays from classic rags-to-riches fairy tales: Bracelets stand in for glass slippers, and a philosophy tutor makes for a wiser fairy godmother. This whimsical production also includes six dancing rats, dudes in white wigs, and ladies caught in their unmentionables—which, in the case of an opera from 1817, means corsets and some seriously colossal bum pads. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard takes the lead in a show that WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello describes as something “you’ve never seen before.” $25 to $300.
Where & When was written by Andrew Beaujon, Emily Codik, Caroline Cunningham, Sherri Dalphonse, Kristen Doerer, Benjamin Freed, Hillary Kelly, Emma Foehringer Merchant, John Scarpinato, Harrison Smith, Noah Weiland, Ryan Weisser, and Sarah Zlotnick.
HBO, April 12
Veep’s fourth season opens on a peculiar note: The HBO comedy closed out last season by giving Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) an unexpected promotion to President even as she campaigned for the job. But will Armando Iannucci’s comedy of unforced errors be able to stay true to its jet-black outlook on the White House when its star is sitting in the Oval Office, juggling the nuclear codes and a campaign schedule? “The country’s in a lot of trouble,” says Tony Hale, who plays Meyer’s emotionally crippled footstool, Gary. “The stakes are just entirely too high for these people.”
If Meyer—a role for which Louis-Dreyfus has won three Emmys—is as rotten a chief executive as she was a second banana, this could be the most hilarious fictional US presidency in recent memory. But after a generation of idealists like The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, adulterers like Scandal’s Fitzgerald Grant, and murderers like Frank Underwood of House of Cards, a dunce who achieves nothing will be a welcome, and somewhat realistic, relief. Expect the Meyer presidency to receive additional self-administered kicks in the groin with the return of her inner circle of self-centered staffers, from the constantly apoplectic chiefs of staff (Anna Chlumsky and Kevin Dunn) to the bumbling press secretary (Matt Walsh) to the backstabbing lackeys (Timothy Simons and Gary Cole). Even if Iannucci has bigger failures plotted for his characters, you can never count out Veep’s real-world political skill: The series, which shoots around Baltimore, gets 37 percent of Maryland’s entire budget for film and TV production incentives. — Benjamin Freed
2. Neil Diamond
Verizon Center, April 4
Diamond’s new album, Melody Road, is pretty good. But let’s face it: You’re not here for the new stuff. You’re here to feel his voice shake your bones like a dirty old subway train on “I Am . . . I Said.” You’re here to take part in a “Sweet Caroline” sing-along louder than Fenway Park during the World Series. You’re here because Neil Diamond has always been here for you, his heartlight blinking. $65 to $175; ticketmaster.com.
3. New York City Ballet
Kennedy Center, April 7-12
George Balanchine’s company performs two programs that encompass past—three Balanchine works set to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Bizet—and present: pieces by Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Justin Peck. “Everywhere We Go,” choreographed by Peck, features a score by indie-rock star Sufjan Stevens. $25 to $98; kennedy-center.org
4. "Watch This!: Revelations in Media Art"
Smithsonian American Art Museum, April 24- September 7
A lot of technology had to be created before our culture could develop Instagram and Vine celebrities. This exhibit surveys that journey via 44 multimedia works incorporating film, video games, and other genres to explore how technology and artistic expression have shaped each other over the decades. americanart.si.edu.
5 & 6. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Arena Stage, April 3- May 3
Uncle Vanya; Round House Theatre, April 8- May 3
Two riffs on Anton Chekhov’s works: At Arena Stage, Aaron Posner directs Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a goofy satire about three middle-aged siblings reunited at their family home, where they confront personal demons along with one another. Round House Theatre offers a new version of Uncle Vanya by Annie Baker, who reinvents Chekhov’s lines to resonate for American audiences the way the original did for Russians. $45 to $90, arenastage.org; $35 to $50, roundhousetheatre.org.
U Street Music Hall, April 2
This Athens, Georgia, band’s live show packs in as much rowdy fun as could be expected from a group named for a rampaging dinosaur in a TV show about precocious cartoon babies—that is to say, a lot. Hear songs from Reptar’s second album, Lurid Glow, out March 31, and wear comfortable shoes: The relentlessly upbeat tunes demand an energetic crowd. $18; ustreetmusichall.com.
8. The Blood Quilt
Arena Stage, April 30- June 7
Arena resident playwright Katori Hall penned this funny, poignant tale of four sisters with very separate lives who reunite to make a quilt for their late mother and end up reading her will. Hall won Britain’s Olivier Award in 2010 for The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King. Witnessing her distinctive vision applied to strong female characters is well worth the price of a ticket. $45 to $110; arenastage.org.
9. Spirited Republic
National Archives, through January 10
With their bottomless brunches, daily happy hours, and other alcohol-soaked events, it might seem Washington’s millennials drink a lot. But they’re lightweights compared with their 1830s counterparts. Back then, Americans consumed more than three times the alcohol per capita than they do today. In this exhibit, the National Archives looks at those hedonistic days of imbibing as well as other phases in the US’s complicated relationship with the hard stuff. “In many people’s minds, it’s simply a part of everyday life—but you have another strain of thought that says alcohol is intrinsically bad,” says Bruce Bustard, the show’s curator.
“Spirited Republic” gives the latter point of view its due by examining not just the now-unthinkable period of Prohibition—which Bustard calls the “800-pound gorilla” in the room—but also artifacts that speak to modern times, such as a 1939 first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and a 1930s prototype of what eventually became the Breathalyzer, called the Drunkometer.
Bustard’s favorite is a set of glasses and a shaker owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt while New York governor and President, which featured in the daily cocktail hour he had with staffers that became known as “children’s hour.” The set symbolizes FDR’s way of relaxing and enjoying himself unaffected by his disability—though his wife, Eleanor, was the daughter of an alcoholic father and was a rare imbiber.
Bustard’s aim is to remind visitors of both sides of the issue: “There are some lighthearted moments, some things that will make people smile, but this is a serious look at alcohol and drink in American history.”
10. “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists”
National Museum of African Art, April 8- August 2
Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a sort of Rorschach test in this exhibit, which examines how contemporary artists interpret the epic poem’s themes. africa.si.edu.
11. Judah Friedlander
DC Improv, April 16- 19
You may know this Gaithersburg native as trucker-hat-wearing slob Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock, but he has performed standup nearly nightly since 1989. His shows involve a hefty dose of improv based on audience suggestions, so you’ll have to go to Hulu if you want to see him do the same jokes twice. $17 to $20; dcimprov.com.
12. Special Installation of 19 American Masterworks
Smithsonian American Art Museum, April 17- August 16
Thanks to Chevy Chase collectors Thelma and Melvin Lenkin, for a few months the museum beefs up its permanent displays with 19 works by Gilded Age, Impressionist, and Ashcan School artists including Bellows, Sargent, and (above) Cassatt. The loaners are arranged chronologically within the existing collection, meaning you’ll not only get to see rarely shown paintings, but also take in a visual summary of the larger context in which they were created. americanart.si.edu.
13. Diarrhea Planet
Black Cat, April 8
With four shredding guitars, the Nashville pop-punk group has been playing packed, frenetic DC shows since it started touring. And while the Planet still makes new listeners wince before it squeezes out a single guitar lick, its music is actually starting to sound a bit more serious. The new EP, Aliens in the Outfield, features lyrics like “It’s all about the drugs, money, power, and getting off,” as Jordan Smith shouts on the three-minute blast “Spooners.” The only things fans will wipe away are sweat and spilled beer from the loud, raucous, fist-pumping garage anthems. $15; blackcatdc.com.
14. Blitzen Trapper
Black Cat, April 18
In October, the Portland rockers performed Neil Young’s classic Harvest in its entirety during a concert. This year, they hit the road with songs from the resulting album, Harvest Live, sprinkled in among their own hits for those too young to remember Young. $20; blackcatdc.com.
FilmFest DC, April 16- 26
Bethesda Literary Festival, April 17- 19
Arlington Festival of the Arts, April 18- 19
Smithsonian Craft Show, April 23-26
Georgetown French Market, April 24-25
20. Lights Rise on Grace
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, April 3- 26
Chad Beckim’s drama has just three characters—shy Grace, the daughter of Chinese immigrants; Large, the African-American man she falls in love with; and Riece, the white man Large becomes involved with during six years in prison. But those three become conduits for exploring a host of issues: familial pressures, racial tension, sexual orientation, how incarceration can change a life irrevocably. The nonlinear timeline demands close attention, and—even when grappling with questions of race—Beckim never allows the issues to be simply black and white. $45 and up; woollymammoth.net.
21. Bowen McCauley Dance: Victory Road
Kennedy Center, April 10- 11
The Arlington company shows its commitment to unconventional storytelling with the world premiere of Victory Road. Part dance performance, part concert (the dancers share the stage with roots-rock heavyweights Jason and the Scorchers), the piece tells the story of a young boy who leaves home in the ’80s to pursue dreams of rock stardom. $40 to $45; kennedy-center.org.
22. Julie Andrews
Strathmore, April 25
Andrews won’t sing at this show—a botched throat surgery in 1997 permanently marred her range. Instead, the star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins will show clips from her films and discuss them with Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks. If her reaction to Lady Gaga’s glorious Oscars tribute to her was any indication, expect Andrews to exhibit superhuman grace as she revisits the heights of her career. $65 to $175; strathmore.org.
23. “The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi”
Smithsonian American Art Museum, April 3-August 30
Kuniyoshi is now mentioned in the same breath as Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper, but the Japanese-born artist was prohibited from becoming a citizen and classified as an “enemy alien” after Pearl Harbor. His brightly colored, often quirky paintings and drawings capture tensions between his native and adopted countries. americanart.si.edu.
24. They Might Be Giants
9:30 Club, April 24
They Might Be Giants has a side career making kids’ music, but this concert is aimed at its original demographic. Indeed, the show features no opening act so the group can “play a little longer and you get home a little earlier.” The band has also revived its Dial-a-Song project, uploading new tunes to multiple platforms each Tuesday: on a website, via YouTube, to a radio network, and, yes, to an old-fashioned phone number. $30; 930.com.
25. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Pictures at an Exhibition
Strathmore, April 18
The BSO takes on Mussorgsky’s dramatic, colorful work, sharing the bill with Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto. Bonus: Those looking for more background on the pieces should arrive early for a free discussion led by Levine school of music’s Melinda Baird and Joel Friedman. $40 to $100; bsomusic.org.
26. Simply Sondheim
Signature Theatre, April 2-19
Signature has presented many revivals of Sondheim’s works in its 25 years, most recently Sunday in the Park With George, which garnered six Helen Hayes Award nominations. To celebrate that partnership, artistic director Eric Schaeffer and collaborator David Loud cooked up a new revue with songs from Into the Woods, Follies, A Little Night Music, and others. Fans would do well to snap up tickets posthaste. $90; signature-theatre.org.
27. Citizen Cope
Lincoln Theatre, April 9
Citizen Cope—a.k.a. Clarence Greenwood—could pass for a member of Kings of Leon’s Followill family, but the Washington-raised singer’s sound is far more roots-inflected R&B than arena pop-rock. This show is solo and acoustic, so expect an intimate vibe and a staging that keeps the focus on his melodic drawl. $46; thelincolndc.com.
28. Gallim Dance
Lansburgh Theatre, April 16- 17
Gallim’s Blush takes place within a boxing ring, where the music of Arvo Pärt and Wolf Parade serves as soundtrack to a series of takes on blood rushing to the skin. Andrea Miller’s company uses exaggerated movements and humor between the turnbuckles—sometimes the dancers even look like goths at a high-school disco. CityDance Conservatory students open the show with a performance of Gallim’s 2010 piece “Wonderland,” a meditation on group psychology. $30; washingtonperformingarts.org.
29. Delta Rae
9:30 Club, April 10
The North Carolina six-piece manages to make hand claps and foot stomps feel primal rather than precious when it plays live. The band has made only two albums, including the new After It All, but its ferocious stage presence has drawn comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, a major influence. $25; 930.com.
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.