American Prophet
Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) in American Prophet running through Aug. 28 at Arena Stage Credit: Margot Schulman

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This week’s motto? Six events are better than five, but we couldn’t let the world premiere of American Prophet, the new musical about Frederick Douglass, close without firmly recommending it to our readers. But we’ve also got movies for a cause, movies to blow your mind, a sneak peek at Richard Byrne’s new musical Congressman Davy, and an art show that captures the heart of America.

Thursday: Elie Grappe’s OLGA at Planet Word Museum

On Aug. 25, District Cinema, in collaboration with Immigration Film Fest and Planet Word Museum, will screen the 2021 film OLGA in support of United Help Ukraine, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainian survivors of war. French filmmaker Elie Grappe’s debut feature follows a teenage Ukrainian gymnast, Olga, preparing for the European Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland as tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine. Olga attempts to stay focused on her passion, but the situation is quickly complicated upon learning that her mother, a journalist, is involved in the Euromaidan protests, which have begun in Kyiv. Grappe paints a raw, honest portrait of a child torn between competing in the sport she has dedicated her young life to, and the family she is unable to return to in her war-ridden homeland. It envelopes the striking moral dilemma of a coming-of-age drama inside the much larger backdrop of real-life political turmoil, and provokes ideas about trauma, grief, and survival, manifesting in the life of a young girl during suffocating political conflict. District Cinema will donate 80 percent of ticket sales to United Help Ukraine. District Cinema, Immigration Film Fest and Planet Word screen OLGA at 7 p.m. on Aug. 25 at Planet Word Museum, 925 13th St. NW. $18. — Natalie Keane

Courtesy of District Cinema

​​Friday: eXistenZ at Suns Cinema

“I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life.” After a bad video game trip, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) can’t separate reality from fiction, and if that seems like an extremely 21st-century lament, that’s how forward-looking director David Cronenberg was in 1999, when eXistenZ took his signature body horror to the limit (of ’90s computer technology, at least) and managed to make a biting dark comedy at the same time. Pikul is a mild-mannered, virginal security guard in charge of protecting game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Her game eXistenZ is so immersive you port in with an umbilical cord jacked to your spine and control play with a throbbing console the color of sallow flesh. Allegra is soon marked for death, her would-be-killers deploying a fishbone revolver that shoots human teeth. Speaking of teeth, Ted and Allegra recruit help from toothy great Willem Dafoe, who appears as a mechanic/rogue bio port installer named Gas. If it all sounds like a weird dream, that’s Cronenberg for you, and his cast embodies the horror of having a body. While Law and Leigh are the pretty side of this fixation, Dafoe, grinning at his own joke about “God the mechanic,” uses his big choppers and bigger eyeballs to shine a grotesque light on the absurdity of his lot—and the viewer’s. eXistenZ is a gross, chilling ride as the initial meeting in a church marks a world where games have taken the place of religion. As Allegra (it’s hard not to hear her name as an antihistamine) says of her latest game, “I knew it was the only thing that could give my life any meaning.” Try to imagine that Suns Cinema is the film’s mysterious Chinese restaurant, and ask for the special. The movie shows at 7 p.m. on Aug. 26 at Suns Cinema, 3107 Mount Pleasant St. NW. $10. —Pat Padua

Saturday: Deano Plays Davy in Mount Pleasant

It’ll likely be decades before anyone who writes a musical set in the political world of the early United States doesn’t get asked about Hamilton, but D.C. playwright Richard Byrne says the germ of his new musical Congressman Davy came to him in 2014, the year before Hamilton opened. He was revisiting the Walt Disney Davy Crockett TV series of the mid-1950s—a show he’d adored as a kid when he’d caught it in reruns in the ’70s—and it struck him that Fess Parker, the actor in the coonskin cap, had a style of speaking remarkably similar to that of another self-styled pretend frontiersman, then-President George W. Bush. The uncanny vocal resemblance “put me in mind of Crockett not as a frontiersman, but as a politician,” Byrne explains. Researching the “Washington City” of the 1820s and ’30s—when it was still being rebuilt after an occupying British Army burned it in 1814—Byrne found a fertile storytelling environment. “I wanted to put him in that milieu of the [long-defunct political party] Whigs casting about for their own Andrew Jackson.” Crockett had a flamboyant personal style to match that of Jackson, who was elected president two years after Crockett won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee, where he would serve four terms, losing his reelection for a fifth about a year before his death at the Alamo. Seeking a partner to write music to accompany his lyrics, Byrne remembered his old pal Dean “Ramblin’ Deano” Schlabowske, who was playing in the rowdy Chicago-based alt-country outfit The Waco Brothers. “He’s just steeped in the American folk and country genres in a way that he can just summon up stuff that really works and that is I think sufficiently varied,” Byrne says. (Byrne previously collaborated with another Waco Brother, punk legend Jon Langford, on Nero/Pseudo, a glam-rock musical staged in D.C. in 2015.) The pandemic made the Byrne-Schlabowske partnership a virtual one, but Schlabowske is flying to Washington City this weekend from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana, to huddle with Byrne on “five or six” of the show’s 22 songs. (Byrne says they have to be whipped into shape before Congressman Davy is ready to be workshopped with a full cast and a band.) The house concert takes place in Mount Pleasant on Aug. 27 at the home of Urban Idyll Theater founder Jim McNeill, and it is not a full production. But it will feature a number of the songs written for Congressman Davy, along with selections from Schlabowske’s solo catalog and those of his many, many bands, including the Wacos. The concert will be outdoors and ticketed attendance will be limited to 30. More than two years into the pandemic, Byrne is disinclined to take chances. The show starts at 5 p.m on Aug. 27 at the Urban Idyll House, 1827 Kilbourne Pl. NW. Tickets include drinks. $30. Chris Klimek

Saturday: Clint Coley at Miracle Theatre

Clint Coley, courtesy of Miracle Theatre

Writer and comedian Clint Coley really does do it all—just as his tagline says. After cutting his teeth at Philadelphia’s Laff House, Coley launched onto the national stage. He moved across the country to Los Angeles and opened for stars like D.L. Hughley and Kevin Hart. Now, headlining his own My Edible Just Kicked In Tour, Coley is bringing his do-it-all attitude to Washington’s Miracle Theatre. There, he promises to tap into his vast repertoire to get the crowd laughing. Coley is the creator of The World Series of Spades, a tournament-style show that MACRO Television Studios has since acquired. He has written and starred in short films like Scratch, The First Time, and The First Date, and he’s released comedy albums Tuesday Morning, I’m an Adult, Sturgis, and Sensitive. His talent and business savvy bleeds into his podcasting endeavors, including relationship-focused Advice From a F*ck Boy and conversation-sparking Music Is the Love Language. Writing, producing, acting, and traveling the country, Coley still gets it all done. And through it all, he promises to deliver insights on people, dating, and why millennials struggle to end up in relationships. Whether you’re hoping to get some dating advice, figure out why you’re being ghosted, or just enjoy seeing a modern-day renaissance man perform, Clint Coley guarantees you’re in for a treat. The show starts at 8 p.m. on Aug. 27 at Miracle Theatre, 535 8th St. SE. $22.50.  —Sarah Smith 

Closes Sunday: American Prophet at Arena Stage

“There’s something thrilling about American Prophet,” Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage, says about this world-premiere musical portrait of the life of Frederick Douglass. “We often think of Frederick Douglass as an old man, of him later in his life, and this is about him as a young, vital man in the process of becoming a prophet.” From flashbacks to his boyhood as an enslaved child through his self-emancipation, his courtship of his wife, and his rising career as one of the most famous social reformers and statesmen of his time, the musical covers the revolutionary legacy of Douglass’ earlier years. With dazzling music and lyrics by the Grammy-winning Marcus Hummon and a focused book and direction by Charles Randolph-Wright, we are introduced to a fiery and fervent Douglass, a man whose words are his deeds, an orator who stirs others to change the course of American history. The musical direction—with song lyrics selected from Douglass’ own writings and speeches—is inspired and revelatory, moving across contemporary musical genres with stylish choreography and a soulful ensemble. As played by the mesmerizing Cornelius Smith Jr., Douglass is a multifaceted man, a great orator, and an abolitionist writer capable of personal failures as well as great humanist and political triumphs. Douglass finds himself navigating relationships with several White foils—the equivocating, and overly cautious President Abe Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and the zealous but foolhardy John Brown (Chris Roberts). But it is his wife Anna Murray Douglass, played with passion and patience by Kristolyn Lloyd, who gives voice (and what a voice!) to Douglass’ doubts and the domestic sacrifices he makes in the name of freedom for all, while underscoring her own efforts to keep her family safe while supporting the Underground Railroad from her home. Ending with an incandescent speech that speaks to this very moment, Douglass’ refrain is “we need a fire.” This fire is scorching for one last week at Arena Stage in a must-see production. American Prophet performs daily from Aug. 25 until it closes on Aug. 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. $66–$115. —Colleen Kennedy

Ongoing: The 50 States Project: People from Away in Georgetown

Tom Woodruff, Great Falls, MT; 2021; Digital photograph

You can’t accuse Kate Fleming and Tom Woodruff of not thinking big. When they decided to undertake a collaborative documentary project that used Fleming’s plein air paintings and Woodruff’s photographs, they picked a trip that would take them to all 50 states, inspired by the work of such exalted artists as Robert Frank, Edward Hopper, and John Steinbeck. They started strong in the fall of 2019 with a rapid 17 states, but then, like everyone else, they were thrown for a loop by the coronavirus pandemic. After a respite, including a stretch in an isolated, Wi-Fi-less house, the two got vaxxed and returned to the road in April 2021, eventually finishing their 46,000-mile journey by Thanksgiving of that year (50th state: Arkansas). People from Away includes 150 of their works, most labeled with an engaging caption handwritten directly on the wall. Woodruff’s photographs range from the dramatic (a flash of lightning over Badlands National Park, and a burning car along the highway whose heat could be felt behind their car window five lanes away) to the distressing (a man splayed on the top of his car amid rising floodwaters) to the amusing (a family visiting an upside-down funhouse painted a blinding shade of Egglestonian red). Fleming’s paintings, meanwhile, are more abstracted and impressionistic; they tease a surprisingly comforting harmony from the otherwise humdrum architecture of the American highway—strip malls, billboards, painted parking-lot lines, and (many, many) gas stations. Fleming’s subject matter and creamy style echo that of fellow D.C.-area artist Trevor Young, though Fleming’s scale (often postcard-sized) and borders (usually deckle-edged) stake out a new angle. The pair concluded their journey a bit humbled: “In 12 months of travel, we only managed to skim the surface,” they write. People from Away runs through Sept. 11 at 2900 M St. NW. Wednesdays through Sundays, 1 to 7 p.m. Free. —Louis Jacobson