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Looking for a richly diverse cultural experience? The Odyssey, NBC’s upcoming four-hour sand-and-sandals orgy with Armand Assante and Vanessa Williams, is one option, though not a recommended one.

Then there’s the Kennedy Center’s “African Odyssey,” an impressively ambitious festival of music, dance, theater, and visual arts out of Africa. Three and a half years in the making, it opened Monday with the unveiling of a dozen Zimbabwean stone sculptures in the center’s Grand Foyer, though things didn’t get seriously rolling until last night, when Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra gave the first of three performances of African Portraits—a musical history of the African diaspora incorporating performance traditions from tribal songs to bebop—with its composer, the mononymic jazz trumpeter and poet Hannibal, as guest soloist.

“You can’t begin to talk about American culture without talking about Africa,” insists festival coordinator Alicia Adams. So, over the next six weeks, “African Odyssey” takes Kennedy Center audiences on a whirlwind tour designed to explore the influence of African culture on the arts and society in America—and in some cases, the marks left by American and European cultures on various African nations.

In what she says is one of the center’s broadest efforts ever, Adams reaches out to possibly wary audiences with the familiar (renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard starring in Valley Song, his latest drama, and a musical evening with Harry Belafonte hosting a slate of world-music artists) while programming up-to-the-minute excitement for aficionados (Werewere Liking and her 30-member pan-African theater/dance troupe, Ki Yi M’Bock).

In large part, the festival is about bringing modern Africa alive for an American audience accustomed to thinking of the continent as a place where Somali warlords kill U.S. Marines and Rwandans kill each other. And the festival is not just targeting Washingtonians; at least one visiting company will tour other U.S. cities before leaving for home.

“The images of Africa we get from the media are pretty negative,” Adams says. “It’s about famine, about poverty, about war; it’s very desperate. But in fact there is a new Africa, a living, breathing continent. This festival focuses primarily on contemporary Africa, and when you see some of the performances, you’ll see that the arts and culture of Africa are alive and reflective of the ’90s.”

A few highlights of the sprawling “Odyssey” itinerary:

Faustus in Africa!—The classic Goethe tale about a deal with the devil acquires a new edginess in this blistering revisionist version, which casts the good doctor as “a gin-soaked colonialist who sells his soul for a chance to conquer, pillage, and own a continent.” One of the most intriguing-sounding events on the “African Odyssey” program, the surrealist multimedia production involves slide projections, film footage, live actors, and life-size marionettes, all backed by a rock/rap fusion score by James Phillips and Lesego Rampoiokeng. (April 4-6)

Ki Yi M’Bock—An explosion of movement and sound, an eye-popping, head-spinning celebration of dance, drums, chant, vibrant costumes, and outrageous hair, blending and bridging the folk traditions of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte D’Ivoire, Nigeria, and a handful of other African nations. In French “with English explanations,” Berceuses d’eveil (The Awakening) promises to be the single most exhilarating experience of the festival. (April 7-8)

“Technology, Tradition, and Lurex: The Art of African Textiles”—”Guinness gives you power,” proclaims one wholly unexpected swath of green cotton. Fascinating, moving, even funny sometimes, this survey of eight nations’ fabricmaking traditions comes from London’s Barbican Centre; linger and look closely, and you’ll learn more than you might expect about the people behind the prints. (To April 16 in the Atrium)

Sundiata, Lion King of Mali—Hmmm, could this be where Disney got the idea? This 700-year-old epic, told here in words and song by Gambian griot Alhaji Papa Susso, involves a young prince, born unable to speak or walk, who triumphs over disabilities, enemies, and the doubts of his people to become a much-beloved king. (April 11-13)

Valley Song—Fugard, whose uncompromising dramas helped bring about the end of apartheid, directs and stars in an emotionally compelling study of life in the new South Africa. A young township girl and her grandfather wrestle with the uncertainties of an unexpected future, she anxious to take advantage of new opportunities, he unsure about the wisdom of letting her pursue her dreams. (April 29-May 25)

And that’s barely scratching the surface. Also slated are dance programs featuring the Washington Ballet, Garth Fagan Dance, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (performing Sasanka, a newly commissioned work by South African choreographer Vincent Mantsoe, among much else); an Afropop dance party on April 7 at which patrons can mingle with festival performers while Prince Segue Segue mixes soukous, makossa, mbalax, and Manding swing; and a jazz lineup featuring one-night stands by pianists Randy Weston (April 7) and McCoy Tyner (April 25).

Discussions, workshops, open rehearsals, and meet-the-artists programs pepper the schedule. Free performances by musicians, dancers, and storytellers on the Millennium Stage (in the Grand Foyer) mean the festival has something for everyone. Even the Kennedy Center’s webheads are getting into the act, with an extensive set of pages (link from the main site at http://kennedy-center.org) on festival performers, the traditions they draw from, and African history—including a set of interactive maps that track the diaspora and help the curious pinpoint the nations represented in the festival.

Now that the festival is under way, you’d think Adams would be ready to kick back and relax. Hardly: “African Odyssey” is a sprawling four-year project, and she’s already putting the finishing touches on the ’98 program and beginning to think about what to do for 1999. I, for one, can’t wait to find out. Tickets and information: (202) 467-4600.CP