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Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in "Pipeline" // Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Studio Theatre’s Pipeline Depicts Correlation Between Struggles Past And Present

In one poignant scene in Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline, Nya, a black mom who teaches in a resource-strapped city school, shares the poem We Real Cool with her students. The Gwendolyn Books poem used to be a favorite of hers. But now its message hits a little too close to home.  

On another part of the stage, shrouded in darkness, Nya’s son Omari acts out the lines of the poem: “We skip school. We real cool… We jazz June. We die soon.”  

It’s the last line that chokes Nya up.  

When it was time to send her son to school, Nya chose a predominantly white college prep school, thinking this would give him a brighter future than the decaying urban alternative where she has taught for decades. But now Omari is in trouble. He hit a teacher and ran away. Suddenly, Nya fears she has made the wrong decisions for her son. Or worse: That regardless of her choices as a parent, her son will be caught up in a system that has led generations of black boys to live in America’s shadows.   

Pipeline’s title refers to the school-to-prison pipeline many young men of color face in America and the broken education system that feeds into itMorisseau was inspired to write Pipeline after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which traces racism in America with a direct line from slavery to today’s education inequality and high rates of incarceration for people of color.  The play runs through February 16 at Studio’s Mead Theatre. 

“Dominique is such a master at taking very big societal issues and harnessing them into characters’ lives, desires, dreams, and truths,” Awoye Timpo says

Timpo is directing Pipeline at Studio Theatre this month. This is her third time directing a Dominique Morisseau play and it’s this ability to personalize big societal problems through the lens of individual characters that keeps drawing her back to the material 

What makes Pipeline a great, great play, is that it asks some very big questions about who we are, where we come from, what we aspire to be and what stands in the way of us achieving those things,” Timpo says 

And it does so through the lens of a mother and son whose problems are instantly relatable. In Pipeline, we catch the characters in a deep moment of crisis

“From the moment we meet Nya, we are watching her try to figure out if her son’s actions are a result of her own personal failure as a mother,” Timpo says. And the weight of that question is enormous. 

Actor Justin Weaks weighs in on Omari’s struggle.

“This is a young man trying not to be anything but himself, but it’s hard. It’s hard to navigate when you’re operating as a token and feel that from the students, the faculty, everyone. It’s hard to discover who you are when you have so many people telling you what you are or what you should become.” 

As Nya and Omari struggle to connect over the course of the play, Morisseau encourages audiences to reconsider the legacy of America’s past.

If you are trying to save someone, how do you contend with how we got here as you think about how to move forward?” Timpo asks. 

“I think what we have to understand when it comes to educating young people,” Weaks adds, “is that these are complicated human beings who have come to be educated. They are dealing with things at home that we may not know about, things that are very specific to that human. Difficult behavior doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has a source and it’s important to understand where these kids are coming from in order to give them the education they need.” 

Morisseau is known for incorporating the works of African American artists of previous generations into her plays. Gwendolyn Brook’s We Real Cool is a huge presence in Pipeline, as is Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, the story of a young black man whose crimes are portrayed as the inevitable outcome of a society that treats black men as criminals. Through these nods to writers of the past, Morisseau weaves their work into her own writing, creating a sense of legacy and reminding us that the struggles of the past are the struggles of the present.

It’s like she is saying that we have these ancestral spirits who are lurking inside us. The way she lets those writers vibrate in her work is really exciting,” Timpo says.  

“We as black artists now are standing on the shoulders of so many generations of artist who have come before us,” she continues. “The beautiful thing about Pipeline is that Dominique is capturing the sights and sounds of this moment in time even as we can feel the presence of other writers inside her work.”  

Pipeline runs through February 16 at Studio Theatre. Times and tickets vary by date. For more information abut the play, visit Studio’s website.

Studio Theatre: 1501 1rth St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

AYO on left // Photo: Jim Saah

AYO Gets Help And Opportunity At Strathmore With AIR

AYO needed help. That’s the first thing she mentions when discussing her recent inclusion as one of Strathmore’s Artist in Residence (AIR). The program is intended to help them gain opportunities to perform, create and teach workshops at the Bethesda-based arts center.

Being an independent artist while juggling an upcoming EP, singles and performances is a full time job, and if you couple that with limited resources, the life can seem daunting. For a majority of her early life, AYO never even considered the path of a full-time musician, citing that she enrolled at Howard University to study Biology. Despite this, her undeniable talent behind a microphone coupled with her messages of empowerment have made her an artist to watch in the DC area.

At 7:30 p.m. on January 15 and January 29, AYO will take the Strathmore stage with two unique concerts. Before she performs at The Mansion, we got to talk to the artist about the life of a musician, AIR and writing music that resonates.

OT: What made you want to get involved with the Strathmore Artist in Residence program?
AYO: I needed help, that’s what. I needed help.  This program keeps stretching me, and it’s crazy how much help I didn’t know I needed. Creating a strong email list is something that seems common sense, but it wasn’t to me. Being your own music director or pitching yourself to venues. It’s been a lot of things, and it’s forced me to do those things. It’s classes: It’s all six of us in the room with [AIR director Betty Scott]  and one of her assistants and aids, and a presenter. We ask as many questions as we want. For example, we had a grant writing class, and I didn’t know all this money was available for people like me.

OT: What was your reaction when you found out?
AYO:
I screamed when I found out, just YAY, you know. I was really really excited and I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. I was just really honored, and I didn’t know what to expect.

OT: Obviously the AIR participants are all from different backgrounds, what’s it like getting to know your contemporaries from different genres? 
AYO: Yeah, it’s definitely been very encouraging to see, to feel this much support in this music thing. To know that it’s possible to know that other people are on this journey with me. It can feel very alone. Like you’re out here alone trying to make this ting work, to know that other people are working toward the same thing in other genres is really inspiring.

OT: How did your musical journey start? How did you start singing?
AYO: I lived in Nigeria, from five to 11, and my babysitter used to sing songs with me. She heard me sing, and realized oh you have a nice voice. She was also the director of our Youth choir at our church, and she would give me little solos and stuff like that. 

OT: From there, what kind of involvement did you have with music and singing?
AYO: I remember singing a lot of church music, a lot of leading worship. Didn’t really sing anything outside of church. I did a couple of talent shows. My dad listened to a lot of Sunny Adaye, Nigerian artists and afro beats and stuff like that. 

OT: You’re sound is often listed under the umbrella category of pop, so what’s your relationship like with that term?
AYO: For me, pop music happened when I was in high school. I used to go on Limewire and Frost something, all of those ripped music sites, I would go on there and type in artists. At the time I loved Maroon 5, and then I listened to Coldplay, then Plain White Ts. I loved the way those songs made me feel and how they would build. I loved Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. I was obsessed with Pink and Katy Perry. I loved big pop songs, those go to another place type pop songs. Coldplay was really good at that. I loved Journey, a lot of these songs I would hear on the show Glee, and I would go look at it from there. 

OT: Were you writing your own “big” pop songs at the time?
AYO: There’s stuff I wrote my senior year at high school, [and] I’m not saying I was a bad writer, but I definitely wrote different. My freshman year of high school, I would write melodies and I would play the piano by ear. I would just play the harmonies I heard in my head. That made songwriting slow for me, versus now, I can hear a melody in my head and build songs fairly quickly.

OT: What changed about your song writing? Was it the inclusion of the piano as a tool?
AYO: Oh absolutely, for me, it was very much hand in hand. I started playing piano when I was five, but I didn’t really do anything. The guy would try to teach me, and I would run around. In high school, my mom would make us sing worship at night, and I would play different chords on the piano. I tested into the remedial music course in college, and I took classical and jazz piano, and I practiced my butt off and I started to see a difference in my writing. It was really playing piano and theory that fueled me as a writer.

OT: Your music is extremely emotional, which makes sense because of your church backgrounds. Where you always writing songs like this?
AYO: I was a sad child. I wrote about my parents’ divorce, I wrote about being alone a lot. I wrote about liking people, crushes. So yeah. It definitely was there, I wrote about everything I experienced. I basically loved seeing people’s stories and having the chance to tell them. It was very unrefined, when I was raped in college, it took me six years to write about it, but I did. The struggle with depression and anxieties, seeing what children in Baltimore went through when I was teaching them. Despite that, I don’t want the music to sound depressed, or have that vibe. 

OT: How do you strike that balance during the construction process?
AYO: Most of the time I have a theme. If I’m feeling a certain type of way. With my single “Direction,” I remember really liking this guy and I didn’t want to be the one to approach him, I wanted him to approach me. [So], what kind of chord would make it seem like I was moving in a direction? I also thought about what artist I wanted to influence the song, so I used Earth, Wind and Fire and early Michael Jackson. [When] I wanted to write a Christmas song [“Direction”], I love Jazz music, and I wanted to use Nat King Cole, he used a lot of two-five-ones and key changes, and I figured out what sounded Christmas-y, and wrote the lyrics according to that. That’s kind of my process.

OT: You have several concerts coming up, an acoustic performance on January 15 and a larger pop show on January 29, what should people know about those showcases?
AYO: So, the first one couple of concerts is very intimate, very singer songwriter type of vibes. The second one is a very pop show, with huge pop songs, such as “Don’t Stop Believing.” My music is very uplifting and very fun, but it’ll make you think. It’ll make you think about those experiences that you have in life. That what my music will do. 

AYO’s performances on January 15 and January 29, tickets $25. For more information, click here. For links to her music, click here.

The Music Center At Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Photos: Ashley Habeck

Pilates Studio Empowers DC Residents For 21 Years

For 21 years, Excel Pilates DC has been a cornerstone business in DC’s Brookland neighborhood. 

What was just an empty space in 1998 transformed into a full blown Pilates studio when Lesa McLaughlin and former business partner Kerry De Vivo, talked the owner of the space into renting it to them. The two women built out the entire studio themselves, painting the walls and floors, and filling the space with reformers, wall units, chairs, barrels and more. McLaughlin calls the process “a labor of love.”

The term “Pilates” comes from Joseph Pilates, the founder of robust exercises centered around coordination, balance, strength and flexibility. 

“Empower Your Body, Empower Your Mind,” is the Excel Pilates DC motto. With a strong commitment to following the original teachings of Joseph Pilates, McLaughlin says that what makes her studio unique is that its teachings are “authentic.”

Lesa McLaughlin

McLaughlin grew up as a multi-sport athlete and pursued a dance degree at George Mason University. She went on to dance professionally, but was injured in a car accident toward the later part of her career, inspiring her to go to New York to practice and study Pilates. She then became certified in The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning in 1995, under the instruction of Joseph Pilates’ own student, Romana Kryzanowska.

Pilates was a natural transition for McLaughlin, and helped her find her way back to dance in a pain-free way. 

That is the intriguing part about the exercise method to many people. Regardless of fitness experience, McLaughlin said Pilates is for everyone.

“Pilates isn’t physical therapy, it’s exercise. It can be taught in a way that it’s for everybody,” McLaughlin says. “You don’t have to be an elite athlete or dancer to experience the work in a meaningful way.”

Having a meaningful experience with Pilates is one requirement candidates must have to go through McLaughlin’s teacher training program, along with several others. All of her teachings are classical, rooting from the original teachings of Joseph Pilates, which is one reason why Jaqueline Emanuel, an Excel Pilates DC instructor, fell in love with the studio. 

Emanuel joined the studio as a student in 2000, and knew she had the passion necessary to eventually become an instructor.

“What I like most about Pilates, and why I wanted to be a teacher, is because I believe in it so much. Anybody can do it,” Emanuel says. “It’s complete coordination of mind, body, spirit and I find that to be a unique quality in the movement.”

As the Pilates movement has grown over the years, so has Excel Pilates. In 2002, a second location opened in Annapolis Maryland, which is now owned and operated by De Vivo. Just five years ago, Alexandra Adams, a former student of Excel Pilates DC, opened another location in McLean, Virginia. These are the “sister” studios to the DC location.

Over the past 21 years of owning her own business, seeing the community that the studio has created is extremely satisfying to McLaughlin. Clients who frequented the studio when it first opened still travel today from other areas in DC to take classes, and there is something to be said for that.

“To know people are dedicated not only to the work, but to our studio, and to see people experience the work and do things they wouldn’t be able to do, that’s rewarding for me,” McLaughlin says. “That’s why I do it.”

To learn more about Excel Pilates DC and class offerings, visit www.excelpilates.com.

Excel Pilates DC: 3407 8th St. NE, DC; 202-269-3020; www.excelpilates.com

Regina Aquino (left, as Mrs. Page) and Ami Brabson (Mrs. Ford) // Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Folger’s Merry Wives Bring 1970s Girl Power To Shakespeare Classic

When thinking of great feminist playwrights, William Shakespeare likely doesn’t come to mind. Despite this, his famed play The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy featuring smart and powerful women. The text was originally published in the 1600s, but the play’s strong heroines and themes of love, money and deception are so universal that it, like a number of Shakespeare’s other works, can be set in any time period. Need proof? For its final production of the 2019/2020 season, Folger Theatre is set to stage The Merry Wives of Windsor with a backdrop of the groovy 1970s. 

As part of his research, director Aaron Posner used his own memories from living in the decade, as well as listening to some of the top hits and revisiting family sitcoms like The Brandy Brunch. While the script easily lends itself to the comedic stylings of 70s sitcoms, it was actually Posner’s mother that inspired the vintage aesthetic.         

“[I was] talking about my mom who was a housewife in the 1970s as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are in the play [and] talking about her in relation to the play was one of the things that landed us on the 1970s,” he says. “We’re really enjoying steeping the whole thing in the energy of the 1970s, which really fits the play very well. These merry wives are stepping up into their own power and choosing to take matters into their own hands. It fits the rebellious and fresh spirit, where new things are possible.”

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page plot against the villainous Sir John Falstaff as he attempts to seduce them for their husband’s wealth.They prove they are not to be trifled with by hilariously thwarting Falstaff’s plan. All the while, Mistress Page’s daughter Anne Page, is being pursued by three suitors, wherein she shuts down two, while angling to marry her true love.

Shakespeare was far ahead of his time when writing females characters, despite the fact that women weren’t permitted to act on English stages until the 1660s. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are not one-dimensional characters who are written to advance a male character’s storyline. Rather, they have their own unique arcs. Part of what draws Posner to The Bard’s work is his ability to write deep and complex characters of both genders.

“In a number of his plays, the smartest, most aware, most clear-sighted people in the plays are the women,” Posner says. “I would say he’s a humanist more than a feminist, certainly because he will share the best and worst of all people. It does feel very contemporary in the way [the female characters] respond to what they take as an affront. They don’t withdraw, they don’t run to their husbands.” 

This is Posner’s 21st production with the company, but this play holds a special place in his heart as he portrayed Falstaff in his eighth-grade production. He notes that this production is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays.

“If I am evangelical about anything in the world, it’s that Shakespeare is accessible to everyone when done well. I try to make sure that while I hope Shakespeare scholars will enjoy the shows, I always feel that if a relatively intelligent 12-year-old can’t follow the play, moment for moment, then I haven’t done my job well. [The Merry Wives of Windsor] holds a lot of delight for anyone because it’s mostly in prose and not poetry, the language is rich but not dense. The plot is easy to follow. This is a perfect gateway drug to Shakespeare.” 

To go along with the show’s Girl Power theme, the theater is hosting Folger Friday: Hysterical Women on January 31. This program will feature DC female comedians, including Washington Improv Theater’s all-female identifying ensemble Hellcat, and performers Elahe Izadi and Kasha Patel. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor will be the final production staged in the historic Folger Theatre space before the Folger Shakespeare Library’s multi-year renovation. During the construction, Folger Theatre will be offsite at various DC theaters.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is on stage from January 14 through March 1. Tickets are available online

Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-544-7077; www.folger.edu     

Wanda Hernandez, Catherine Lopez, Ingrid Ortega and Vanessa Fuentes // Photo: courtesy of Creating Casa

Placing Latinxs On The Marquee: Creating Casa Celebrates Diversity In DC Art

DC has an incredibly vibrant art scene, from the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, to the small independent galleries and pop up shows, art is seemingly everywhere. Yet despite that, the women of Creating Casa couldn’t help but notice that there was a strong lack of representation of Central American, Latinx art in DC.

They were determined to change that.

Together, the group has organized pop up art shows and art exhibitions featuring up and coming Latinx artists, as well as spoken at numerous panels about being Latinx creatives in the District, ensuring that the Central American Latinx perspective is both seen and heard. Their latest project takes things even further by making it a truly collaborative community effort. The project “Siempre Aqui,” asks for photo submissions of everyday life memories of growing up in the DMV. These photos will then be considered for a two-fold project, including wheatpasting, and an immersive gallery experience.

Read on to learn more about the brilliant women of Creating Casa, and their mission to highlight and celebrate the Latinx diaspora in DC!

On Tap: Who are the faces behind Creating Casa? Do you each have a specific role, if so, what are they?
Catherine Lopez: I am a first generation Salvadoran-American born in Falls Church, VA. My professional background is in public health, but at the center of what I do is the role of community. From translating documents for my parents or family members [at] a young age to working with vulnerable immigrants or teaching children of immigrants, I have seen the need to create space and give voices to those who feel they do not have one. My interest in the arts has a very similar core and I find my role in Creating Casa aligns nicely with this. My role includes that of supporting and coordinating our programs, fundraisers and continuously searching for funding along with supporting the rest of the team in our endeavors. 

Wanda Hernández: Similar to many of my colegas from Creating Casa, I was born in Arlington, VA to Guatemalan immigrants – shoutout to my beloved parents Elda and Julio – and grew up in the neighboring Falls Church. My professional background is in museums and I am currently pursuing a PhD in American Studies at the University of Maryland. I have found that my lived experiences shape all of what I do professionally as an educator, curator, scholar and cultural organizer. Creating Casa allows me to artistically explore questions that formulate about identity and belonging, which often leads me to be the one that researches and connects with artists, galleries and other like-minded organizers. 

Ingrid Ortega: I create our graphics, event flyers and post to our Instagram (@creatingcasa). As a team, we are committed to expand Latinx dialogue through all art mediums by representing and empowering emerging underrepresented artists in the DMV area. That is a passion we all share. We, as a team, work very collaboratively and we’ve never defined roles. We all have our strengths and we utilize all our strengths to make our events a reality!

Vanessa Fuentes: I am a second-generation Salvadoran-American born in Arlington, VA. I am passionate about my involvement in the Latinx community. 

OT: What made you come together to create ‘Creating Casa’?
IO: It came out of frustration, really. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed a lack of Latinx representation, specifically Central American in the DMV area. Since 2018, I’ve seen a positive change. I knew something had to be done about the lack of representation of Latinx people, but I didn’t know what. I always dreamt of curating an art show featuring Central American artists in the DMV area. I had no idea where to even start, but I knew who to call – Wanda Hernandez. Wanda listened to this idea, provided input and ended the conversation saying, “I’m 110 percent in.” A week or two later, I told Catherine Lopez and Vanessa Fuentes about this idea, and without any hesitation – they wanted to be apart of it, too.

For almost a year, we had meetings at NorthSide Social, countless phone calls and a very “poppin” group chat. We came to be because of the passion and love we have for our community. Our first self-titled art show, “Creating Casa,” was so special to us, our guests, the artists, etc. 

OT: I love how passionate you are about highlighting and bringing focus to the Latinx creatives in the DMV! Do you think that DC area Latinx artists are under-represented?
WH: Absolutely. In high school I wanted to be a fashion designer. However, I thought, “What are the odds that I’ll make it as a fashion designer?” So, in college I decided to pursue fashion merchandising, which I saw as much more practical but I ultimately dropped that major because it did not fuel me. I think that growing up in a working-class, immigrant family, as well as a first-generation Latina in college, I was looking to pursue something that was likely to give me a job. I think this strays Latinxs and other people of color away from pursuing a career they are truly passionate about, which leads to the overall underrepresentation of Latinxs in the industry. 

OT: Who are your current fave local Latinx creatives?
CL: Luis Peralta del Valle is at the top of my list. I was introduced to him as we were planning our first show. I think he has paved a way for himself and has created avenues to showcase his work throughout the DMV area.

IO: I believe we’re all fans of Luis Peralta del Valle! C’mon! His art alone is so breathtaking, but if you’re fortunate enough to talk about his art with him – you’ll seriously be blown away. We [Creating Casa] were very fortunate to have him featured in our first show back in March 2019. 

WH: I cannot disagree with Catherine or Ingrid. Luis is amazing. He’s been such a guiding light for me as I entered the DC art world. To mix it up a bit, however, I am really excited about Cielo Félix-Hernández. They’re currently in school in Richmond, VA, however, I hope they make their way back to the DMV after graduation. Also, I have to shoutout two amazing women: DJ Beleza and J’Nae Morrae.

On Tap: How did the concept of your current project, “Siempre Aquí” come about?
WH: The idea behind “Siempre Aqui” came about right after our first show. Upon attending the show a friend of the collective, José Centeno-Melendez, shared photographs of himself when he was young in the 90s. They depicted him visiting the national monuments for the first time and busting a piñata on the sidewalk for a birthday party in Hyattsville, MD. I thought, “Wow! How many of us have pictures just like this?” We wanted to create a huge photo album, if you will, of our experiences in the DMV. And from there, the show began to evolve. 

If you would like to submit to the “Siempre Aqui” project, click here. Creating Casa will be accepting submissions until January 18. For more information on their initiatives and future projects, follow them on Instagram @CreatingCasa.

Photo: courtesy of Step Afrika!

A Step Above the Rest: Step Afrika! Returns To Strathmore

Step Afrika! was created in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, who wanted to honor the African American ritual of stepping – a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument – and preserve, expand and promote the art form. 

“We were the first professional company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping,” says Williams, the group’s founder and executive director. “It’s a custom dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities as a way of expressing pride in their organizations.”

Today, the Step Afrika! troupe is comprised of 14 full-time artists. For the past 25 years, the DC-based organization has regularly engaged 30,000 college students across the nation, taught teamwork and discipline to 200 kids as part of the Summer Steps with Step Afrika! summer camp and expanded culture-based arts education for more than 20,000 DC, Maryland and Virginia school students.

The group has also appeared on Broadway and will be returning to the Great White Way in 2020, offering the latest in lightning-fast footwork, percussive chants and incredible synchronicity.

“We take the art form to the next level and put it right up there with ballet, modern and tap,” Williams says. “Our showcase is one of the best ways to get introduced to stepping for those who have never seen it.”

On January 12, Step Afrika! will return to the Strathmore to preview its latest production, Drumfolk. The performance, which was commissioned by Strathmore, traces the roots of step back to the African American percussive traditions of patting juba, hambone, ring shout and tap. 

Drumfolk reflects on the harsh realities of the American South and celebrates the fortitude of enslaved Africans who practiced these transcendent musical forms,” Williams says. “We’re going to be taking this show on a 10-city tour throughout 2020. To have Strathmore get behind us and help us with this work has been super important for us.”

He explains that Drumfolk is based on very little known events in American history that Step Afrika! feels have had a tremendous impact on the country.

“There was a revolt in 1739 called the Stono Rebellion, which was led by Africans against the system of slavery,” Williams says. “These were some of the first activists before the country even formed. Even though it was not successful in overthrowing slavery, it led to the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to use their drums. We started to see African Americans using their bodies as the drums, and so many of our art forms can find their origins in his historical moment.”

The Strathmore program will also include Step Xplosion, a showcase of the region’s finest step squads. 

“We’re going to hit the stage at the Strathmore for one of our biggest performances of the year,” Williams says. “This show is where we invite step teams from across the country to share the stage with us and demonstrate the different styles of stepping that can be found across the U.S. This is a uniquely American art form and this show gives audiences a bigger look at the form.”

Among the featured step teams will be Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad; Howard University’s Cook Hall Step Team; Paint Branch High School’s The Eclectic Steppers; the Hype Queens from North Carolina; and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

A DJ will play music in between the performances and Williams describes the atmosphere as going to be like “a college step show on steroids!” 

“These teams aren’t competing for money, they are just having fun and exhibiting their abilities, style and forms,” Williams says. “The shows are fun. They are interactive and there really is no fourth wall between the audience and the artists. We encourage audiences of all ages to come out, make noise and connect with our performers.”

Prior to the show, Williams will hold a conversation in the Music Center Education Room 402 to discuss the creative process behind Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk program. The talk is free, but registration is required as space is limited.

“I think more people should see and learn about this art form because it is a uniquely American art form and one of the few indigenous dance forms created in the last 100 years,” Williams says. “If you’ve never seen Step Afrika!, it’s a DMV experience that everyone should see at least once. We are DC’s most celebrated dance company and no one else in the word has a company like us.”

Step Afrika! performs at the Strathmore at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 12. Tickets $35-$75. For more information, visit www.strathmore.org.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Kittie Glitter and Elvis Presley // Photo: Studio Vision

Elvis Presley Cracks Jokes While Celebs Throw Punches (Sort Of)

On January 3 and 4, Astro Pop Events celebrated Elvis Presley’s legacy with their 10th Annual Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club at the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, is the kind of the star of the show, but people also enjoyed fights, improv and burlesque performances.

The first rule of fight club is to not talk about fight club. This review will slightly break the rule. While Elvis is the main attraction, the event loosely celebrates him. Before the show begins, patrons will hear his music and can grab merchandise. A man in the audience even wore a cape similar to ones Presley wore. Other members of the audience donned glasses that portrayed them with Presley’s iconic sideburns. His image was in the center of the stage, between two wooden cages where fighters would soon enter and exit. A woman in a sparkly dress, Kittie Glitter, joined a Presley impersonator at a table on to the side of the stage. Together they would emcee the show.

The performance stands out because it encourages some audience participation. During the middle of a skit, a member of the audience shouted out to the performers and rather than ignoring it, a member of the cast made a quick remark. The show does more than entertain the audience, but recognizes how important they are and actively engages with them. 

In the beginning, you meet Commodious, Presley’s toilet. Commodious is one of the few reoccurring characters. Commodious serves two purposes. His first purpose is to welcome the audience and begin the show. His second is to hold the traditional quaalaise toss. Audience members can purchase foam pills (noted as quaalaise), and their goal is to throw it into Commodious’ bowl. The cast held a raffle based on what got inside the bowl with the winner receiving a painting of Elvis Presley. 

The show was fun with the unique characters interacting with each other, and fan favorites returning for a royal rumble at the end. The diverse cast was brought to life with colorful costumes, and included real and fictional beings. For example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter made an appearance. Dr. Phil also walked through the cage to fight, with the actor who portrayed the TV personality doing an incredible job.

Fights typically had themes. For example, one theme was about different doctors squaring up and throwing punches. There were jokes and even monologues on top of the simulated tussles. 

The show is unique and a break from traditional comedy, best viewed with a drink. The cast drags you out of your comfort zone and makes you laugh at goofy slapstick battles, complete with snarky comments. The performance can be compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have their own cult following. The cast of Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club recognized this and eagerly handed out a thank you prize and an awards card to returning patrons.

You can catch the performance in Baltimore, Maryland  at Creative Alliance on January 17-18. For more information about that show, click here. For more information about Astro Pop Events, click here.

Photos: courtesy of Ian McLeod

Scoring Stories: DC’s Cleod9 Music

Ian McLeod, a DC native, grew up with a strong passion for music. However, his path diverged when he took an advertisement job. After a year of working in an advertising position, McLeod left and founded Cleod9 Music, where he could produce and compose music for films and storytelling. McLeod’s goal is to help clients tell their stories. 

Cleod9 Music provides filmmakers, businesses, non-profits and advertisement agents with custom music and scores. The team at Cleod9 recently finished scoring Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait, and the film won an Audience Award for the Documentary Feature category in the Austin Film Festival. They have also scored content for brands like REI and Nikon. 

McLeod’s work breathes creativity. When he worked under a larger corporate umbrella, he found his talent constrained. He was charged with choosing music that productions would use, but found the process difficult. He described the procedure as time consuming and cold. 

“This is all how Cleod9 started,”  McLeod explains. “Music was always my side hustle. Throughout college, throughout high school I grew up playing jazz in the city of DC. When you’re playing in those clubs, you’re not just playing jazz; you’re playing funk, go-go, hip hop and an array of different music. So, I quickly realized that I wanted to record that music and I started making beats. So, I actually sold hip hop beats to artists in high school. That’s how I paid my way through summers. And I continued that side hustle in college.”

After a year, McLeod left and started his own company, which is different from competitors because it is a relationship-driven business. McLeod knew how to make music, but he needed to make a mark for himself in the industry. 

“I did not even know how to start a company,” he says. “I actually took the first couple of months when I left my job, and I got together with probably 20 different business owners. I just grabbed coffee with them, and I picked their brain on how they started their companies. I just wanted to learn.”

A relationship-driven company means that the work creates deeper connections. Cleod9 Music is designed this way so clients know they can depend on the service for more than quality work. McLeod hopes to develop connections with even more talented filmmakers and big feature films.

“Our business structure is a good one because we are able to tackle a steady stream of commercial work, which keeps our lights on,” he says. “We want to sink our teeth into longer format storytelling. Like short-documentaries, long form-documentaries [and] feature films, because it really gives us the freedom to create something musically and to tell a story musically.” 

Music and scoring can make a commercial or video come to life. It adds another dimension to the medium, and adds a texture that contributes to the story. There are more than 500 original songs in the Cleod9 library, and McLeod’s team adds new music following every project. The deep library allows them to complete lower budget projects on a fast turnaround, which enables McLeod and his team to give bigger projects more time and attention. Notably, the process helps them work with first-time filmmakers. 

“Our goal is to grow our library,” he says. “We want to continuously update it with new music, and we want it to be a go-to resource for filmmakers, especially the DC area.”

Overall, McLeod is drawing attention to the broad spectrum of the DC music scene. His return to his roots, and the success of his company, shows his creative talent for business and for music. McLeod’s story is a story of determination, creativity and change.

 “DC is an underrated music scene,” McLeod says. “It just is. It is not considered a major hub like New York, LA, Nashville or even Austin. But, I think that there is a growing movement here, not just on the performance side, but on the composing side. Film making is a big industry, and it is really starting to grow in the city. And we are trying to help build that movement too. And we just wanted to be a go-to music source for all those filmmakers.” 

To learn more about Ian McLeod and Cleod9 Music, visit www.cleod9music.com.

Shea Van Horn as Summer Camp // Photo: Jason Tucker

Summer Camp Rings In The Raging ‘20s with BENT

A new decade is upon us and the start of 2020 means we can channel (even more than we already do) the infamous Roaring ‘20s, where fashion was iconic and partying wasn’t only a way of life, but a risky thrill (thanks Prohibition). Celebrating the new decade with similar theatricality, this Saturday 9:30 Club will host BENT: Ringing in the Raging ‘20s

With just one year under their belt, 9:30 Club’s quarterly BENT parties have increased in popularity and scope with each event, consistently filling and transforming the venue in new and exciting ways. With a focus on celebrating LGBTQ entertainment, the quarterly parties for 2020 will focus on different decades from the 20th century, including 1970s disco, 1980s Halloween, PRIDE and this weekend’s Raging ‘20s.

BENT will be hosted by Pussy Noir and has a long list of entertainers including DJ L Stackz, Baronhawk Poitier, Lemz vs. Tezrah, Sean Morris, Baby and Majic Dyke. Also, DC DJ Shea Van Horn’s drag persona Summer Camp will debut on the 9:30 Club stage.

“Nightlife does shift and evolve, and some of the things that have changed in the last couple of years are for the better and I think that BENT is a good example of how things have changed to be more inclusive,” Van Horn says. “It’s a mix of DJs and performers and go-go dancers, and I think they’ve done a really great job of being more aware of a fuller queer community.”

Van Horn has long been a staple of the DC LGBTQ entertainment scene says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P. Back in 2005, he, Chris Farris and Karl Jones created the non-profit, queer performance group CRACK with the goal of providing a space for local performers and artists who fell through the “cracks” of more traditional DC venues. Van Horn also co-produced and co-hosted Pride dance party MIXTAPE at 9:30 Club with DJ Matt Bailer since 2008.

After many years performing and DJing in DC, Van Horn moved to India with his husband and planned to take a hiatus there. His break lasted for about a year, but eventually he met local LGBTQ performers and promoters and dabbled in performing again. Now back in the District after more than two years, BENT’s Raging ‘20s party is more than a debut for Summer Camp; it’s also a return to the DC entertainment scene for Van Horn.

“Each time I get on the stage it still feels incredible and humbling and exciting to be on the same stage that idols of mine have also been on,” Van Horn says, having DJed as himself at 9:30 Club for MIXTAPE numerous times. 

As for it being Summer Camp’s first time at the venue, it will be special Van Horn says, especially as Camp has never performed in front of 1,200 people before. Playing on the theme, Van Horn is looking to bring an old Hollywood vibe to Camp’s performance, and may include visuals as well.

Van Horn adds that the 9:30 crew, especially BENT co-creator Steve Lemmerman, have done a great job in the way they’ve subtly but effectively changed the venue for each party, not just the décor but the energy of the room as well.

“I think they’ve done a really effective job at creating a night that has evolved and built off of the alternative, queer scene in DC over the last decade, but just seems like the next level, the next sort of iteration [of the scene],” Van Horn says.

Schaefer also highlights the shift in energy of 9:30 during BENT parties, saying you can feel the close-knit ties as you wander through the crowd.

“We hear a lot from friends that are in different cities across the country that are talking about BENT, and that’s something that is really flattering and encouraging,” Schaefer says. “What I would say is probably the most gratifying aspect of it isn’t just the fact that it sells out each time, but the feel once you walk in, and that really is a sense of community.”

Don your best flapper dresses and pinstripe suits and head to 9:30 Club on Saturday, January 4 for BENT: Ringing in the Raging ‘20s. The doors open at 10 p.m. Tickets $20 and are going fast. For more information, visit www.930.com.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

Photo: courtesy of Drew Gibson

Virginia Native Drew Gibson Returns To Pearl Street

When Richmond native Drew Gibson released his debut album Letterbox in 2007, the singer/songwriter quickly developed a strong local following, with songs that harkened back to American days of country-blues and songwriters of yesteryear.  

By 2015, now living in Sterling, VA, Gibson came out with the critically acclaimed 1532, his third album, one that had a theme of family. Dedicated to his dad, who passed away a few years prior, the recording included tales of Gibson’s family beginning with its roots in Scotland.

After the success of his first concept album, Gibson returned to the format for his latest release, Shipbuilder, which came out in 2019, and carries a theme of water throughout.

“I felt that having a concept drew people in to my prior record, and it made it more special to have a theme,” he says. “As successful as that record was, I was really worried about how to follow that up because it was so personal. Over the course of time, I developed the theme about water metaphorically talking about the ups and downs of life.”

He considers Shipbuilder his best work to date and is happy his fans are enjoying it just as much as 1532

On January 5, Gibson will be performing a free show at Pearl Street Warehouse located on DC’s District Wharf, one of his favorite venues.

“It’s a full band show and we’ll be playing stuff across all four of my records,” Gibson says. “It will be a little less emphasis on just the new one, and really spanning equally among all four.”

Playing live is always an exciting time for the singer, and he’s happy to be kicking off the new year with this intimate show at a time when the band is at the best it’s ever been,

“Instrumentally, we can all breathe a little bit with expansion of solos and the night is going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “These are some of the best musicians in not only DC, but even on the entire coast.”

Gibson knew at a young age that he wanted to be a musician. Although he wasn’t a fan of his four years of piano lessons, once he found a guitar in his home, he taught himself how to play and started a band with friends. 

“As you start to feel good about something, it breathes your drive to do it,” he says. “I started writing songs and went out solo in college. Throughout my life, I had mini-successes that have kept me going, and I feel blessed that people are enjoying my albums and I get good reviews.”

Being heard wasn’t always easy. Although it was easy to get songs online, because so many others are doing that as well, attracting a following took some time. Gibson built that up by playing live shows mostly in the DMV at places like Jammin Java, the Birchmere and of course, Pearl Street. 

In 2020, Gibson hopes to release a live recording and will continue touring and playing throughout the area.

“Being on stage is one of the most enjoyable things I can do you just get that chill,” Gibson says. “I get it from feeding off of other guys in the band and hearing how they attack a solo. And I love communicating with an audience. I just enjoy sharing my music.”

Drew Gibson will perform at Pearl Street Warehouse at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 5. Admission is free. For more information about the artist, click here.

Pearl Street Warehouse: 33 Pearl St. SW, DC; 202-380-9620; www.pearlstreetwarehouse.com