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The local arts scene took 2019 to new heights. In the museums and galleries world, there were terrific exhibitions, displays centered on everyone from artist Judy Chicago to wildlife pioneer Jane Goodall. There were some milestones, too: The Smithsonian appointed Lonnie G. Bunch III as its 14th secretary, the first African American person to hold the position in the institution’s 173 years. And George Hemphill made a big move after 15 years on 14th Street NW.
D.C. theaters welcomed new plays, revived old ones, and made audience members feel every possible emotion. Plus, August Wilson’s work got more of the adoration and recognition it deserves. It was a year to remember for go-go, the music of the District. Musicians and activists fought back against go-go’s would-be silencers, and gave the world #DontMuteDC and Moechella. With such a huge year on the books, we recall 2019 in museums and galleries, theater, and music to recall the highs, the lows, and everything in between. —Kayla Randall
The Year in Museums and Galleries
This was quite the year in D.C. visual arts: A government shutdown briefly shut most of the doors on the Mall. The National Gallery of Art’s new director, Kaywin Feldman, took over—and though this year’s exhibitions were planned long before she was on the job, columnist Roger Kimball’s December 2018 pronouncement in the Wall Street Journal that she was one of the “enemies of art” didn’t come true, thankfully. In fact, Feldman’s declaration that art museums need to respond to the “psychological toll that this volatile time must be taking” was something of a mission statement for local museums and galleries, which increasingly responded to a democracy and a planet that seem to be falling apart.
Fittingly, migration and immigration in an increasingly xenophobic era was a major theme. Rockville’s VisArts gallery put on a show about immigration and the twin frontiers of possibility and discrimination in America, and more than 75 international artists in the Phillips Collection’s The Warmth of Other Suns examined what it means to be displaced. The Middle East Institute, a Dupont Circle think tank, opened a gallery space focused on contemporary art from the region. The Touchstone Gallery’s America Is… asked what our country is today, and the 2019 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition specifically solicited and displayed works that responded to “the current political and social context” for the first time.
Even the exhibitions focused on the past had to reconsider history. Fifty years after 1969, we re-lived the traumatic end of the 1960s, a world-defining decade. For Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, thousands of people watched a projection of a Saturn V blast off on the Washington Monument, and museums around town dusted off their Space Race artifacts. The Smithsonian American Art Museum asked us to look back at contemporary responses to the Vietnam War, including some arresting, powerful pieces that eschewed color fields and minimalism for raw, political work with moral authority (and reckon with some racist ’70s takes). The Newseum hosted a major Stonewall show, examining the uprising’s coverage and its rippling effects 50 years later. (And rest in peace to the Newseum, D.C.’s most navel-gazing institution, as we wrote in January. Like journalism as a field, it was often too impressed with its own importance to think about the people it was supposed to serve.) Shows from the American Archives of Art, the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Geographic Museum asked viewers to dwell on feminism and women’s progress ahead of the upcoming centennial of the 19th Amendment.
Speaking of women artists, Cuban artist Zilia Sánchez’s first museum retrospective at the Phillips Collection was both transcendent and long overdue. The National Museum of Women in the Arts landed a major Judy Chicago show, where the famed artist reflects on mortality—her own and the planet’s. Likewise, the Embassy of Iceland and the House of Sweden celebrated and mourned melting glaciers worldwide.
If there’s one surface-level conclusion to be drawn, it might be that museums can’t pretend to be apolitical anymore—they can’t afford it on a social or financial level. —Emma Sarappo
The Year in Theater
Once again, local stages provided audiences with plenty of entertainment, or at least plenty to talk about. Alexander Hamilton took a year off from visiting the Kennedy Center, but plenty of other exciting musicals filled its halls. Local companies revived plays by American legends, premiered new work, and, in one case, premiered a previously unseen work by an American legend. We saw fantastic work, we saw a few flops, and we’re already looking forward to the next thing we’ll see.
The Kennedy Center welcomed touring productions of two big Broadway musicals that got their starts in D.C. Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony-winning smash about depression and connection that premiered at Arena Stage in 2015, took up residence at the Eisenhower Theater in August, and Come From Away, a musical that is somehow both upbeat and about the events of 9/11, seen at Ford’s Theatre before it moved to New York, will play the Eisenhower through the new year.
Speaking of musicals, Signature Theatre somehow made A Chorus Line, a show I consider to be pretty much perfect, even more perfect. Matthew Gardiner’s intimate production yanks on the heartstrings, and the cast, especially Matthew Risch and Maria Rizzo, executes everything spectacularly. I’d tell you to buy tickets but its reputation precedes it—performances have been sold out for more than a month.
Justin Weaks. That’s it, that’s the blurb.
Jokes aside, the actor made audiences laugh in Woolly Mammoth’s production of Aziza Barnes’ BLKS and weep in Ford’s Theatre’s heartrending rendition of August Wilson’s Fences. Weaks was also generous enough to talk about his art in this year’s People Issue.
It’s becoming harder and harder to get away from August Wilson’s words, as more D.C. companies offer their takes on plays from his Pittsburgh Cycle, and that’s a good thing. This year, audiences were treated to stirring productions of Jitney at Arena Stage, starring a cast of Wilson regulars, and the aforementioned Ford’s production of Fences, featuring breathtaking work from Weaks and his co-stars Craig Wallace and Erika Rose.
One D.C. theater company managed to present a new work by a long-dead master of American drama. Spooky Action Theater teamed up with local writer and director Natsu Onoda Power to produce The Lady from the Village of the Falling Flowers, an unpublished Tennessee Williams work written around 1930. The play was seen in D.C. before having its formal premiere at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in September, and returned to D.C. for four performances in December.
Among active playwrights, Joshua Harmon, whose dark comedy Bad Jews thrilled audiences at Studio Theatre in 2014 and 2015, returned to Studio with Admissions, a decidedly less funny and much more complicated play about race and private education. Studio audiences found more consistent laughs with Anchuli Felicia King’s cutting, incisive White Pearl and Drew Droege’s Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, a gigglefest that doubled as an excellent way to spend a hot summer night. —Caroline Jones
The Year in Music
No doubt about it: 2019 was the year that go-go made some noise.
In April, after residents of a luxury high-rise tried to mute the go-go music that had been playing at the entrance of Shaw’s Metro PCS store for decades, a viral #DontMuteDC tweet in response to the silencing sparked the DontMuteDC and Long Live GoGo movements, which have energized the go-go community and recast D.C.’s homegrown sound as a music of resistance.
If the residents of this particular luxury high rise had not fought so arrogantly to shut down the speakers at the Metro PCS store at 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW this spring, perhaps some other manifestation of the new D.C.’s contempt for go-go might have lit the fuse. As it turned out, the Metro PCS controversy tapped into the resentment resulting from decades of gentrification and neglect, and go-go culture would never be quite the same.
The musical protests downtown grew night after night, as warm spring weather and bounce beat bands TOB, Mental Attraction Band 2.0, TCB, ABM, and New Impressionz, along with the WHAT?! Band and others, attracted increasingly larger crowds. In May, the mighty Moechella rally, which featured ABM and Backyard Band, shut down several blocks around the Reeves Center.
Even after the music was restored at the Metro PCS store, the movements led by longtime activist Ron Moten and Howard University professor Natalie Hopkinson (DontMuteDC) and Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson (Long Live GoGo) continued to gain momentum, attracting national media attention along the way.
Perhaps most important, more go-go artists became activists this year, participating not only in protests relating to the music, but also in community efforts on behalf of Banneker High School, United Medical Center, and the only halfway house in Southeast D.C. for returning citizens.
After decades as the soundtrack of Chocolate City, go-go is now being validated in various ways. As the music progresses toward becoming the official music of D.C., what that designation will actually mean—and whether funding and institutional support will accompany it—will be 2020’s story.
Along with the DontMuteDC and Moechella protests, as well as November’s Go-Go Awards, 2019 was filled with moments every go-go fan and advocate can be proud of:
In June, the annual BET Awards featured Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott and James “Funk” Thomas performing in front of a backdrop that read “Go-Go Madness #DontMuteDC.”
In August, Rare Essence played an anniversary show at Fort Dupont that drew an audience of more than 15,000.
In September, several days of extraordinary programming by DontMuteDC and Long Live GoGo included performances by Backyard Band on the National Mall as part of a “Million Moe March” and at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A “First Ladies of Go-Go” event at the Eaton Workshop featured Michelle Blackwell, Maiesha Rashad, and “Ms. Kim” Graham, among others.
In November, Stevie Wonder and Doug E. Fresh joined longtime go-go star Donnell Floyd for a farewell show marking his retirement from go-go.
All in all, not a bad year for go-go. So let us raise a toast to those who would silence the music and thank them for making 2019 the year go-go found its activist voice. —Alona Wartofsky
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