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"The Day" // Photo: Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow

The Day Tackles Life, Death And All In Between At The Kennedy Center

The expiry of life is a shared experience. Yet, though our existence is riddled with these life-ending and life-altering moments, we tend to struggle with the acceptance or articulation of this obligatory unknowingly path-dependent terminus.

Fortunate for us, world-renowned cellist Maya Beiser has initiated a two-part collaborative effort, where audience members visiting the Kennedy Center December 6-7 will embark on a partially guided journey named The Day. Here, onlookers will grapple with their acceptance of life, death and everything in between, depending on your religious or ideological beliefs. 

The conception of World to Come, the sequel of The Day, began forming during September 11, 2001, while American composer David Lang and Beiser were commissioned by Carnegie Hall to produce an evening performance.

The two were living in New York during the attack on the World Trade Center, and inspiration sprung from the unfathomable event, wherein the title of their work even emulates the acronym, WTC.

“The piece just became informed by that event,” Beiser says. “In particular, by this incomprehensible idea that there were thousands of people who woke up that morning, took the train or car and went to work, and a few hours later they were all gone weeks afterward. People in Union Square were just walking around sort of dazed with signs of their loved ones they were still looking for. People were looking for those who just kind of disappeared…that became the subject of this piece.”

The Day, was imagined after its sister title World To Come.

“We wanted to create this piece that is really about life; it’s really about the sanctity of memory,” Beiser says. “For this particular case, there were two compositions that were relating to death and September 11, something personal but also universal. I think super personal things are also the things that resonate with all of us on some level. We all, of course, have this predicament. We are all born and we are all going to die someday.”

The Day will feature three significant artistic expressions: Music, composed by Lang and performed by Beiser; dance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs; and performed by Wendy Whelan. Finally, there will be poetic texts crowdsourced online to reinforce the importance of memory.

“Three-hundred different people are answering the question, ‘If I remember the day?’ and it’s all these different memories from things that we think are super profound or super mundane, but they are all being told in this matter of fact and without any judgment [space]”, Beiser explains.

The text illuminated onstage is without a narrative, yet, naturally conveys, “what’s important and not important to us, and what it is that makes our lives and our human experience a community.” 

Beiser will tell you firsthand that she is a visual musician, “You know, I’m a musician but I always see music, I don’t just hear it. Music has a very large sonic visual palette for me. When I play and when I perform, the visuals are always important to me.”

“As I was recording [The Day], I kept imagining a women dancer who danced with and who would communicate with me.”

In true Beiser fashion, she elicits the prowess of former New York City Ballet Company ballerina turned artistic director,  Wendy Whelan, whom she came to admire since their meeting in 2010. “I thought she would be the absolute perfect person for this idea.”

Whelan joined the illustrious team without hesitation,.

“We just clicked personality-wise”, Whelan reminiscing over her early encounters with Beiser.  

Whelan’s international dance career spans more than 30 years, so we wondered, how does her experience impact her movements concerning the illustration of life and death? 

“It’s been interesting,” she says. “Since I left the New York City Ballet [as a principle dancer] five years ago, I’ve lost maybe five very very close friends. They’ve died very young, and I have to say, these experiences in dealing with this kind of lost have very much affected how I look at this work and what I bring to the work.”

“There’s sort of simplicity to [The Day]. I don’t overthink, I just dive into the work and almost relax into it. Because of my experiences and my age, I let go in life. I’ve let go of the ballet. I’ve let go of friends. The power in letting go is everything. We all want to control and we want to push through and hang on. The realization is that this sort of letting go of different chapters in our life or different people, it gets you to the next place. It helps us evolve and land with new wisdom. I’ve sort of learned the beauty and power in that, and I try to let that experience come through in my being.”

The Day is showing at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, December 6-7 at 8 p.m. on both days. Tickets are $25-$69 and can be purchased online here.

The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Jake Epstein // Photo: courtesy of Arena Stage

Jake Epstein Talks World Premiere of Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise

It can be a challenge for an actor to tap into a character, especially one from a different decade. But for Jake Epstein, playing a WWII soldier holds a special family connection. The former Degrassi star is portraying Jack Ludwig in Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise now through December 29. The play, based on the love story of playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents, is set in the middle of the war and told through the use of letters. We talked to Epstein to learn more about the world premiere of Dear Jack, Dear Louise, long-distance relationships and the DC theatre scene.

On Tap: What’s it like portraying a real-life figure? Especially the playwright’s father?
Jake Epstein: To be honest, I try to block out that I’m portraying the playwright’s father. Only because in the sense of the play, I have to think of it as a character I’m playing. I’m trying to approach it the way I would any play, but certainly, there’s a real responsibility to tell the story right and to make sure the playwright can feel good about it.

OT: How closely did you work with the playwright, Ken Ludwig?
JE: At the beginning, very closely. He’s an amazing and hilarious writer. He was around for all of our table reads where we did a lot of work talking about the history and going on the trip together. Once we got up on our feet and started working with the director [Jackie Maxwell], Ken said “I’m going to let you guys play.” So he kinda went away and he’s been in and out of the whole process.

OT: How did you tap into playing a WWII soldier? What does that era of history mean to you?
JE: When you’re playing somebody from history you try to gather as much information as you can. I’ve done a lot of research, listened to podcasts every day and tried to read what I can so that I feel I can be as authentic as possible. On a personal note, my mother [Kathy Kacer] is a pretty well-known writer and she writes mostly stories about the holocaust for young adults. Her parents, my grandparents, were both Holocaust survivors. My grandmother, I never knew and my grandfather, I only knew a little when I was young. But one of the amazing things about being an actor is that sometimes you’ll get to do a play that’s out of your own time and place, and in this case, getting to do a play during the second world war makes me feel connected to my grandparents.

OT: What books has your mother written about the holocaust?
JE: She’s written over 20 books. My favorite is The Secrets of Gabi’s Dresser, which is a story about my grandmother hiding from the Nazis. Since then, she’s written a lot of other books, one called Clara’s War. They actually use her books in Canada, and I believe they’re starting to in the states, when they’re teaching kids about the second world war in school. That time in history definitely means a lot to me and my family.

OT: Have you visited the Holocaust Museum since you arrived in DC?
JE: I’ve been twice before. I went when I was younger with my parents, and a few years ago when I was here with the national tour of Spring Awakening. I’ve been in intense rehearsal, so I haven’t gotten the chance to do too much in DC but I’m certainly hoping to.

OT: What do you think of the DC theatre scene? How do you like Arena Stage?
JE: I’ll admit that I haven’t seen very much other DC theatre, but I know that it certainly has a great reputation with really smart, savvy audiences. Getting to perform at the Kennedy Center [with the national tour of Spring Awakening] was one of the highlights of my life. It’s such a gorgeous building and it was one of those moments like “oh my god, I’m so lucky that I get to do this.” I mean Arena Stage has this reputation of being this amazing out of town try out. A lot of shows going to New York, Broadway got to try themselves out at Arena Stage. It’s got this real spirit of creativity and support that I’ve been really impressed with. The building is beautiful and its location, with being right on the Wharf, is really cool.

OT: The story revolves around your character Jack and a character named Louise in a long-distance relationship, do you have any experience with long-distance relationships?
JE: Yeah, I do. My wife and I were long distance for about five years before we got married. So I have a lot of experience dealing with long distance and the tragedy, frustration and comedy that goes into maintaining a relationship when you’re far apart from each other.

OT: In today’s world, do you think relationships via letters is still considered romantic or is texting much more practical?
JE: In today’s world, people date through social media and through online dating and texting. It’s a specific part of how people meet and interact. This play is just like the original texting, the original online dating. The difference is just that letters took over a week to get to each other but I love how the play has a sort of wink to where we are today,  but with the story of the real history of letters.

OT: Since the play is told through letters, does that change the way you interpret the script as an actor?
JE: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the characters are not speaking aloud what they’re saying. They’re expressing the letters that have been written out loud but at the same time, because it’s a play, because it’s a piece of theatre, we really thought to theatricalize the story and theatricalize the way letters can be used on stage. Our director has really encouraged us to make the letters spoken as realistically as possible.

OT: How is being in a world premiere play like Dear Jack, Dear Louise different from being in an established play or TV show, such as Spring Awakening or Degrassi?
JE: Definitely being in a world premiere is a different beat than being in something that is set in stone. The main thing being that the playwright is there so you can talk to him about moments that maybe aren’t working as well as they could. There’s the opportunity for the line tweaks or changes or discussion with what the intention was about certain lines with the person who wrote it. Whereas with a published play, that’s it. You have to make it work. On TV it’s actually similar to a world premiere, the writers are around and there are constant changes on TV. So if anything, being in the world premiere of a play is probably closer to doing a TV show.

OT: Speaking of Degrassi, my editor [Monica Alford] told me she had a big crush on your character. Do you often get recognized for that role?
JE: Tell her thank you very much! I do sometimes and I appreciate it. It makes me laugh every time.

OT: Why do you think Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a great love story? Why will audiences resonate with it?
JE: I definitely hope so. I hope audiences can relate to it. There’s a lot of truth in their love story, it’s a difficult love story. There’s a lot of banter, the two characters couldn’t be more different from each other. Jack is a shy, self-effacing, intelligent army medic who has zero experience with the ladies because he’s been in school his whole life. Louise is this outgoing, charismatic aspiring actress. They couldn’t be more different, yet somehow find each other and start to relate on this very deep personal level through letter writing. They actually have a lot in common and they start to need each other in a way they both didn’t expect. I think there’s a lot of truth in the love story and I certainly related to a lot of it in my own life. I hope audiences feel the same.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise opened November 21 and runs through December 29. Various times. Tickets begin at $41. For more information visit here.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Nova Payton in Newsies // Photo: Margot Schulman

Nova Payton Brings Power As Heroine in Arena Stage’s Newsies

Her name is Medda Larkin, and “she is in charge,” Nova Payton exclaims excitedly as she tells the joys of playing a brassy operatic and bluesy burlesque theater owner in Arena Stage’s production of Disney’s Newsies the musical.

Set in New York City in 1899, Newsies follows the adolescent newsboys who go on strike after newspaper owners Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, also known as the most powerful men in the country, raise the price for newspapers purchased by newsboys, who resale on the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Despite already being unable to earn a living wage, the newsboys are forced to pay double for an even now hard-to-sell newspaper.

Medda, the heroine of the tale, offers her theater as a safe haven for those youth struggling in the inner city.

“She is a powerhouse, who commands the room’s attention upon each entry,” Payton explains of the elaborate petticoats and headdresses she proudly wears to embody her character.

Medda requires the vocal prowess and tenacity of an actress with grit and worldly experiences, as she is based on the late Aida Overton Walker, a renowned musical theater performer, most known for her vaudeville performances and her marriage to George Walker.

Fortunately for director Molly Smith, Payton was available.

“I was called and asked about my availability, as here in DC, we audition a year in advance for each show,” she says. “So, they said they would like if I would sing in the show, and asked me to come in and sing with the music director Laura Bergquist, and here we are.”

From studying at the The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and touring the world as a backup singer for Roberta Flack to performing in 3 Mo’ Divas, seen on PBS, Payton was primed for this role.

“I grew up around performers all my life. From Mike Malone the co-founder of Duke Ellington [School of the Performing Arts] to Roberta Flack”, Payton shares. “It was wonderful being able to sit under these geniuses and be groomed.”

When asked about the significance of this play in today’s climate, and the connection it would have to older and younger audiences, Payton had plenty to say.

“When you think about the kids who are protesting about global warming and gun violence and gun control today, it’s the same thing the newsies were doing with the newspapers. It was a matter of life or death. If you raise the rates, what am I supposed to do? After I pay you all this money, what’s left for me? How am I supposed to survive and eat?”

Payton says the younger generations are responsible for a lot of powerful movements, whether back then or in today’s political climate.

“With gun control and global warming, it’s the same. Kids are afraid to go to school, children are dying. Back then as today, kids were the movement. They took the risks, the chances and didn’t worry about what would happen next.”

Newsies has been extended and will be showing at Arena Stage through December 29. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $45-$102 and can be purchased by visiting the Arena Stage Ticket portal.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth Street SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Drew Valins on the right // Photo: Michael Yeshion Photography

Iconic Character Vaněk Unleashed In The Havel Project

When I think of underground theatre, I think of gritty, non-glamorous shows waiting to be found. However, Alliance for New Music-Theatre is set to take ‘underground’ to the next level with their upcoming performances of Václav Havel’s Protest and Susan Galbraith’s Vaněk Unleashed. Their venue of choice – Dupont Underground, an abandoned streetcar station beneath Dupont Circle.

The first play of this double bill criticizes the communist regime that blanketed Czechoslovakia in 1948. Vaněk Unleashed then further develops Vaněk, a character from Protest, by giving him a voice in this spin-off, “absurdist musical fantasy.”
Drew Valins will portray Vaněk, as he transforms from a silent presence in Protest to a fully formed being in Vaněk Unleashed.

“[He] barely speaks. He’s very shy, so he doesn’t really step on toes,” Valins says. “[Galbraith] created a way to unleash Vaněk.”

Both plays concern themselves with communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, but Valins believes these shows are relevant to American audiences.

“When we started back in 2013, we felt like we kind of had to stretch to understand what it might be like to live in a totalitarian regime because that’s what these plays deal with,” he says. Over time, though, Valins realized that Havel’s plays continue to relate to America’s political climate.

Valins thinks of America as a country of division.

“People are suspicious of one another,” he continues. “No one really knows where to go for answers and that’s exactly the kind of world that Havel was writing about.”

From talking to Valins, I imagine the DC audience might see glimpses of themselves in these performances that will resonate in unexpected ways.

These performances will stand side by side, but their cultural influences seem entirely different. Valins describes Vaněk Unleashed as an “American response” to Czech theatre. For instance, in Protest Vaněk is a more emotionally reserved character, but in the spin-off it mirrors American theatre’s ability to dig underneath the silent character’s reserved exterior.

Havel’s plays were originally performed as “apartment performances” to deflect attention from his communist-ruled country, and the Alliance for New Music-Theater will attempt to mimic those hideaway performances in the Dupont Underground.

“We love the fact that its underground because Havel’s plays had to go underground or under the radar,” Valins says.

By meshing two cultures and honoring the original stagings, the Alliance for New Music-Theater has committed to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and politically significant artists like Havel. Audiences will also witness a plethora of emotions onstage, in addition to various cultural influences, which is Valins’ favorite aspect of the production.

“I’m really excited about that fact that I get to sing. This character, Vaněk— the last thing you would expect him to do is sing. In Vaněk Unleashed, I get to go through every single human emotion. I get to go through joy, fear, anger. I break out in song. I dance. So it’s just a lot of joy. Ironically, that all happens while I’m in prison,” Valins says.

These performances deal with heavy issues, but as pieces of absurdist theatre, audience members are sure to be stunned by unexpected nuances.

If Valins could speak with Havel, he has a few things he would mention to the playwright. His message is poetic, meaningful, and quite fun, which I imagine is a precursor to his performance as Vaněk.

“Mr. Havel, you’re a terrible dancer, but thank you so much for your spirit. You’re a real inspiration in the way you hold yourself and enjoy life under pressure. And you’re just a cool person that I wish I could’ve known and rolled a cigarette with and had a smoke with. I wish you could see our stuff, and I think you would dig it.”

Valins’ passion for the upcoming performances makes me want to dive into the world of Havel that these actors will prepare for their audience – regardless of the playwright’s inability to dance.

“Havel wasn’t as concerned with artificial professionalism. He was concerned with enjoying the work, so [the cast and crew] puts in that spirit.”

New Music Theater will host performances of Protest and Vaněk Unleashed through November 17. All shows are presented by Alliance for New Music-Theatre in partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic. For more information on showtimes or ticket prices, visit here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir. NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org

Anchuli Felicia King // Photo: Benita de Wit

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl Explores Intra-Asian Racism

2019 has been a big year for playwright Anchuli Felicia King. The 25-year-old Thai-Australian will make her professional playwrighting debut not once, not twice, but three times this year with White Pearl. The corporate satire about the beauty industry is premiering in England and Australia before making its American debut at Studio Theatre this November.

To launch a professional career nearly simultaneously on three continents would be unusual for most playwrights, but for King, who grew up between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and now divides her time between New York, London and Sydney, globalism is the name of the game.

“I’m basically a global citizen,” King told me last week.

We chatted by Skype as King rode a train to the Sydney Theatre Company, where the Australian production of her new play was in rehearsals.

White Pearl, which launched King’s international career, is set in the cultural melting pot of Singapore and features six characters of different Asian backgrounds who work for the fictional beauty startup Clearday. When someone leaks an ad for their skin-whitening cream, the Internet pounces, pronouncing the ad racist and prompting finger pointing among the six very different – but all Asian – women who lead the company. Someone’s getting fired, but who?

King started writing the play in 2016 while she was pursuing an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

“Ads started coming up on my newsfeed for skin-whitening products that were deemed to be racially insensitive,” she said. “Products like this were ubiquitous when I was growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, so it was fascinating to me that suddenly they were being held accountable to a global discourse around race.”

King asked her friends in Columbia’s Women of Color Collective about their experiences with whitening cream and discovered that the topic hit a nerve with women from all different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter what country you come from. You are being sold an idea of what beauty looks like that is so entrenched in your cultural ideology.”

In crafting a dark comedy about the beauty industry, King found the perfect backdrop in corporations – particularly millennial startup culture and the disconnect between the glossy, utopian ideals and the reality of the practices and what they are selling.

“There is this disjunct between surface and substance,” she said of startup companies. “Cosmetics companies specifically prey on and monetize women’s shame and insecurity.”

White Pearl brings the issue to life through six characters: all of them Asian women, but each from very distinct backgrounds and cultures. The Clearday CEO is a British Indian woman, while the other characters have roots in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

“My goal with that was to poke holes at the idea that Asia is a monoculture and to explore the specificity of different places in Asia,” King said. “But the play also explores the ongoing cultural traumas and legacies that lead to tension between different Asian cultures and the racism that still happens in Asia.”

In choosing a director for this production, Studio tapped Desdemona Chiang. Born in Taiwan and raised in L.A., Chiang known for taking on projects that illuminate marginalized populations and challenge perceptions of the status quo.

“When I first read the script, it hit me really hard – especially when it discussed the racism of East Asian people,” Chiang told me in a recent conversation. “That hit a very raw spot for me because it was something I recognize sometimes within myself and sometimes in where I come from. I found that really discomforting so I said, ‘Great, that means I have to do this play.’”

I asked Chiang how she thought White Pearl would be perceived by American audiences – Asian and non-Asian – who are geographically and often psychologically further away from Singapore than a London or Sydney audience.

“What’s interesting about this story is that it deals with the same issues we have in America but through a different lens,” she explained. “We talk about racism, classism, beauty standards and implicit bias here, but usually through a black/white lens. To tackle the same issues through a different perspective is interesting.”

King agrees: “It’s fascinating to see how this play resonates differently with different audiences and specifically, different Asian communities in different countries.”

King hopes that the exploration of intra-Asian racism will be eye-opening for non-Asian audiences in America.

“There are also things in the play that are so true of the time we are living in and so universal that will resonate with any audience. At its heart, it’s an old-school black comedy and a satire so I hope the audience laughs a lot and through that, interrogates why they are laughing.”

White Pearl runs from November 6 to December 8 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets start at $20. Learn more at www.studiotheatre.org.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

Still from Sell By // Photo: courtesy of Reel Affirmations

Reel Affirmations Provides Unique Perspectives Through Film

Prepare for a local film festival built on the stepping stones of inclusivity, diversity and acceptance.

This weekend brings the 26th annual Reel Affirmations Film Festival at the historic GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights. The festival is a nonprofit division of the The DC Center For The LGBT Community. This year’s rendition features 26 films from 11 countries on five continents, widening the scope of perspectives attendees will see. Films begin tonight and run through Sunday, October 27.

Films on the docket include: Treacle, Parking, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life and Seahhorse, to list a few.

Kimberley Bush, the Director of Arts and Cultural Program at the DC Center, says the festival is vital provide diverse films for an equally diverse community, “because seeing ourselves on screen can be very empowering, very uplifting and we as a community need that.”

This film festival represents DC Center’s mission to “uplift, empower, support and celebrate the LGBTQ community.” The film festival offers a variety of different experiences by featuring film directors, authors and contributors from all across the globe.

The lineup features unique narratives, short films, documentaries and more, including different perspectives and outlooks within the LGBTQ community.

In today’s climate, there is not enough representation, which is important for the industry. Bush explained that there isn’t enough inclusivity within other film festivals as their scope on the subject is limited, under representing this community.

“People in the community who may be dealing with identity [need these festivals],” she says. “To ourselves on screen, in a group setting, and maybe even talk to the director, writer, producer of that film brings them more opportunities and affirmation that could enhance them long term.”

Bush says the side effects of the film festival has created a lasting impact on the community surrounding it. Inviting people to enter and walk out of the festival, has created a positive place to see people in your community and an open atmosphere to talk about real and honest epidemics facing the community today.

“Everything changes when they walk into a film screening and when they walk out,” she says. “It’s a totally different light. I see firsthand [at] our community film screenings and art gallery openings, how it’s important and integral to share our stories and share our visions with the community.”

Passes for the festival start at $40, with general admission tickets available for $14. For more information about the festival or the films, visit here.

Gala Hispanic Theatre: 3333 14th St. NW, DC; 202-234-7174; en.galatheatre.org

Guests interact with the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival on Opening Night in Washington DC on October 18, 2019. // Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

29Rooms Opens Doors To New Experience in DC

“The sacrifices we make for art.” 

This is what I muttered to myself at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, October 21. I was slated to venture from my Alexandria duplex to DC’s Armory on a cultural adventure to Refinery29’s “29Rooms: Expand Your Reality” exhibit, currently enjoying its first national tour, concurrently making its DC debut. 

The women’s publication first unveiled the concept in 2015, giving attendees of New York Fashion Week an opportunity to walk through 29 distinct artistic experiences, ranging from vibrant and fuzzy to interactive and talkative. Fast forward four years, and the exhibition is on the road visiting cities like Atlanta, Dallas and DC, along with bigger U.S. cultural hubs like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. 

“When I heard we were coming to DC it was an exciting surprise,” says DC native Olivia Fagon, Refinery29’s creative director. “Most of our team is from New York, so there was a little bit of mystery as to what it would mean to bring it here. I think for me, I was super excited to tap local artists who are from DC.”

The DC Armory stop runs through October 27, giving residents of the nation’s capital a chance to walk into, and throughout, rooms created by artists such as Kali Uchis, Yvette Mayorga, Dan Lam and NNEKKAA, and others. As part of this year’s rendition, 29Rooms has added what they’re calling “The Art Park,” an initiative intended to highlight local artists from the cities on the tour, including a stairway toward your dreams created by local illustrator Trap Bob, aka Tenbeete Solomon

Artist Tenbeete Solomon poses at the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

“I’ve always wanted to work with 29Rooms,” Solomon says. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for forever. My mind went to something expansive. I loved being able to explore with different mediums, because I don’t have the capacity to do these major rollouts, but it’s great to partner with people who have the same ideas and same values.” 

The team behind Refinery29 initially wanted a flat graphic, but she wanted something more engaging. When they suggested a staircase, Solomon approached the canvas thinking about its physicality from all sides, and though she wanted it to feel different than her illustrative works, it would still feel distinctly Trap Bob.

“It’s a weird thing to put a design on,” Solomon says. “I want to make sure each part is like its own piece, but still work together. I do hands a lot, it’s very relatable and something I love to do. They’re the perfect things. It’s my way to reach out to everybody and bringing that idea with the ‘follow your dreams’ theme, which is very, very close to me and my experience. It worked with the idea of climbing the stairs. Just the idea of elevating yourself and literally taking steps to get to where you want to get to. If I didn’t take those steps early in my career, there’s no way I’d be here talking about it.” 

For more local flair, Refinery29 tapped Howard University master of fine arts graduate Jamea Richmond-Edwards to construct a DC-centric full-scale billboard to welcome guests into the gallery. The murals are exclusive to the respective city’s art scene, to highlight the local community. 

Artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards poses at the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival. // Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

Upon walking past the “Traveling Billboard” and into the main area, you’ll notice the lighting in the Armory is dark, giving each room and piece a spotlight effect. This is apt, as all hold a unique point of view worthy of said spotlight. And no matter which you stumble into, they all are connected by the theme of a woman’s experience in several facets of society and empowerment, echoing that of the publication’s mission.

“It was amazing to bring this brand that is not only pro-female, but very intersectional,” Fagan says. “We’re looking at women from all kinds of points of view. There’s a lot of political undertones in the event as well and those aren’t necessarily supposed to resonate specifically to DC, but I think whatever city we take it to, it makes a strong statement.”

Giving a tour, Fagan identifies a few rooms as fan favorites including “Dream Doorways,” a display with several (you guessed it) doors leading to stunning visuals that could make you question whether you’re on psychedelics; “A Conversation With Your Inner Child,” an interactive room which allows you to tap into the dreams and desires of a younger you; and “29 Questions,” a collection of tables and chairs meant to evoke discussions among strangers congregating throughout the exhibit.  

The different perspectives from a diverse set of artists is meant to represent and reflect those same qualities in the audience of the attendees. For Fagan, the doors are open for everyone, and she hopes people are as excited to explore the rooms to find their own favorites. 

“We always welcome that,” Fagan says. “I think Refinery has perceptions around it: people know us as a women’s publication, people know us for having certain types of values. I think as much as we can attract people in, and then surprise them with something they may not have thought of in a certain way, it’s always a gift if we can. If we’re creating a space where our values are just resonating with that audience already, that’s great too.” 

Gallery times are 1:30-10:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. on Friday-Sunday. Tickets start at $29 and guarantee access for one 2.5 hour session. For more information about 29Rooms, visit here.

DC Armory: 2001 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.29rooms.com

Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St.NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Shelly Lynn Walsh, Peter Michael Jordan, Chris Clark, and Sarah Hinrichsen // Photo: Matthew Murphy

Parrot Heads Rejoice: Escape to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at National Theatre

With a song catalog that features party staples such as “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Come Monday,” “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” and the anthem “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffett is considered a musical legend and the poster child of the island escapism lifestyle.

That same fun, laid back attitude has been captured in Escape to Margaritaville, a musical based on the songs of Buffett, which made its Broadway debut in 2017 where it wowed critics and audiences alike.

The National Tour of Escape to Margaritaville will play the National Theatre starting tonight through October 13, under the direction of Amy Anders Corcoran.

With a book by Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia and Emmy nominee Mike O’Malley, and 20 classic and new tunes by Buffett, the show’s story follows Tully (played by Chris Clark), a part-time bartender and singer who falls for a career-minded tourist named Rachel (Sarah Hinrichsen). In the land of Margaritaville, people come to get away from it all, but often stay after discovering something they never expected.

Hinrichsen saw the show during its Broadway run two years ago and really fell in love with it, coming out of it singing the songs like most of the audience did.

“It’s just a fun show and it was a good time,” she says. “When you’re a performer, you always look if there’s a track you could play, and I thought Rachel was really interesting and something I would enjoy. In the month’s following, I would get texts from my friends saying that it would be a great part for me, so when the tour was casting, I went in.”

She describes Rachel as “a workaholic, who may come off as aggressive, but is really just so focused.” The character is passionate about a project she’s working on where she’s trying to power a light bulb with a potato and creating energy from a volcano that’s on the island.

“When she meets Tully, he teaches her about balance and how she can have a strong work life and also one of fun and letting go,” Hinrichsen says. “It lets people see that they can blend two important parts of their life and you can have it all.”

Although not a die-hard Buffett fan, the actress knew many of his popular songs and had eaten more than once at the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant.

“So, I wasn’t a Parrot Head per se,” Hinrichsen says. “Our Tully though, Chris Clark, has this crazy story about how his dad went to a Jimmy Buffett concert two days after he was born because he couldn’t stay away. I’m not on that level, but I am definitely a big fan.”

During the musical, Hinrichsen gets to sing “It’s My Job,” and duet on “Three Chords,” an original tune created for the show where her character learns to play the guitar. She also takes part in numerous group numbers and other duets as well.

“The thing about his music is that it transports you to a place, and he’s such a storyteller that it really feels like a state of mind, like you’re on a beach or on an island,” she says. “You can’t sing these songs not smiling.”

The daughter of a director and actress, growing up in the Los Angeles theater scene, Hinrichsen jokes that she never had any other option but to become a performer and is thrilled to be doing her first national tour.

One of her favorite parts of Escape to Margaritaville comes early in Act 1 when the cast sings “Fins” and they encourage audience participation.

“As any Buffett fan knows, it’s a song where you put your hands in the air and show your ‘fins,’ and we always can tell the mood the audience is in based on the number of fins we see, and knowing they are with us,” she says. “It’s a night of fun and people shouldn’t be afraid to sing along and join in.”

The show also stars Shelly Lynn Walsh, Peter Michael Jordan, Rachel Lyn Fobbs, Patrick Cogan and Matthew James Sherrod.

Escape to Margaritaville plays the National Theatre until October 13. Tickets are $54-$114. For more information, visit thenationaldc.com.

The National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Photo: Josh Cheuse

Tales Of America: J.S. Ondara Intertwines Kenyan Roots and Americana Style on Debut Album

It seems counterintuitive that someone raised in Nairobi, Kenya could tell such compelling stories of the American experience through song. And yet J.S. Ondara does so with such skill on his first album Tales of America, released this February, that he’s seen high praise from the likes of NPR, Rolling Stone and Billboard. Raised on 90s alt-rock like Nirvana and Radiohead, the 27-year-old musician discovered great storytellers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young in high school, forever altering his musical style. In 2013, Ondara moved from Kenya to Minneapolis where he taught himself guitar and was eventually picked up by a label. We had the chance to ask Ondara about his roots, moving to the U.S. and why he never gave up on his goals before he plays Sixth & I on October 30.

On Tap: What was it like to move to the U.S. and pursue a career as a musician?
J.S. Ondara: It certainly wasn’t easy, but really, I was just too far from home. There was no looking back. If home was a bus fare away, perhaps I would have given up at some point. I never really had a choice.

OT: Who influences your sound?
JSO: I am mostly influenced by music from the 60s and 70s – songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.

OT: What was it about Minneapolis’s music scene that drew you to that city, and how has it affected your music?
JSO: I was initially drawn to Minnesota after learning it was [Bob] Dylan’s home but the scene and the people of Minneapolis are why I chose to stay. The city has a lively music scene, but it also has a certain quietness about it that is essential for writing and growing without too much distraction.

OT: Why were you able to tell such a compelling American story with Tales of America despite having grown up in another country?
JSO: I suspect it is because I was making observations about America as an outsider with no bias other than to draw a portrait of the America that I saw.

OT: What lead you to the Americana genre and why did you decide to make the album entirely acoustic?
JSO: As an avid fan of stories, I was drawn to the storytelling nature of folk music and I believe that’s why I found myself drawn to that kind of music. That said, the journey has just begun, and I most certainly intend to experiment with more sounds and arrangements as I make more records.

OT: What do you hope people will get out of listening to Tales of America?
JSO: I think art at its best is a mirror through which a society can observe itself and hence change course whenever necessary. I hope that people will see a mirror in Tales of America and gain insight into themselves.

OT: What can people expect from your DC show?
JSO: I am looking forward to playing some new songs live for the first time.

OT: Where do you go from here? What are some of your goals for the future?
JSO: I am currently working on my next record so the next step for me is to finish that and share it with the world. My goals change all the time, but this year my goal is to try to make it through 27 without dying unceremoniously.

Catch J.S. Ondara at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Wednesday, October 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20. For more information on Ondara, go to www.jsondara.com.

Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org