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The COVID-19 pandemic is by no means over, but in 2022, D.C.’s arts and entertainment venues have at least approached normalcy. That is to say, theater companies are presenting shows on stage as opposed to online. Live music and dance parties (and the people who choose to attend those events) are returning to bars as well. After going without these little luxuries for so long, audiences (and our writers and contributors) were particularly excited for this year’s arts events.
But enjoying the arts doesn’t mean you have to head to a crowded venue. If books and documentaries are more your speed, we’ve got commendations for those as well.
To see what readers selected in Arts and Entertainment categories, click here.
A Strange Loop
I should probably start this by saying, I don’t care much for musicals. But Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Strange Loop, was enough to make me reconsider my stance. Some naysayers might attempt to argue that the story is too niche: a Black queer playwright, working as a Broadway usher, writing a play about a Black queer playwright working as a Broadway usher. But the production, staged at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in early 2022 before it made its Broadway debut and picked up two Tonys, exemplifies exactly why we need more stories from queer and BIPOC writers. There’s nothing unrelatable about the story, at least not for anyone who’s ever struggled with family relationships, been unlucky in love, grappled with attaining their dreams, or suffered from self-hatred. A Strange Loop beautifully, eloquently, and hilariously offers a new perspective on those evergreen stories. The play’s stars, led by Jaquel Spivey, succeeded in New York with good reason. The nuance, the feeling, the vibrancy of every performance was enough to make audiences truly feel for them. Woolly Mammoth aims to be a theater that “produces courageous and invigorating new work to radically redefine theatre as a catalyst for an equitable, creative, and engaged society.” With A Strange Loop, they couldn’t have done a better job. —Sarah Marloff
Theatrical tourism meets epistolary performance meets scavenger hunt in multiple productions from Rorschach Theatre this season. The company incorporates uncommon theatrical practices into uncommon theatrical spaces to keep audiences engaged and invigorated. Rorschach is lauded for its innovative productions that demonstrate a passion for storytelling, tackling challenging material, and cutting edge direction. It has produced work in traditional theater spaces such as the Silver Spring Black Box or Atlas Performing Arts Center in the past, but leaders have recently developed productions that occupy D.C. neighborhoods at large. The 2020–2021 season brought an immersive experiment titled Distance Frequencies, an exciting storytelling project that combined the natural and material realms of the city. As a socially distanced performance, the work emphasized the idea that theater can be more than what takes place on stage. With participants in and beyond the DMV, this seven-chapter project was swiftly followed by Chemical Exile and the beginning of a multi-season endeavor, Psychogeographies. Rorschach’s artistic producer and one of its founders, Jonelle Walker, says this year’s Psychogeographies project, entitled Dissonant City, will use “well-researched history and imaginative narratives to transform average city streets into mind-expanding immersive experiences. Audiences get to place themselves in the story as they explore twists, turns, and lesser known D.C. sites—like the National Park Service’s only roller rink or replicas of the Holy Land in Brookland.” Headed into the new season, Rorschach’s current production of Kate Hamill’s Dracula brings an exciting script into the walls of a foreclosed firehouse. —Melissa Lin Sturges
John Proctor Is the Villain
What would happen if we believed women first? When I reviewed John Proctor Is the Villain, I noted that this is the question playwright Kimberly Belflower dares to ask. In 2022, that shouldn’t feel like a radical stance to take, let alone a radical question to ask, but then, it’s also my opinion that in 2022 all people should be able to access free and safe abortions too. Belflower’s play, which made its world premiere at Studio Theatre in the spring of 2022, takes from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, the #MeToo movement, and a generation of teen dramas to present a thesis that gets to heart of rape culture: Generally, people would rather believe “good” guys don’t do bad things than believe women. Though set in 2018, shortly after dozens of famous women reported Harvey Weinstein’s abuse and the same year that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told the world that then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, the story remains timely. While Weinstein—currently on trial for 11 new charges of sexual assault in L.A.—may have been sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and criminal sexual assault, the New York Court of Appeals has allowed the disgraced producer to appeal his conviction. Kavanaugh now sits on the country’s highest court. And, despite mountains of evidence against him, Johnny Depp won his defamation lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard in June. Though these real women should humanize such stories, Belflower’s play offers greater insight into not only the women who come forward but the people who struggle to believe them. —Sarah Marloff
When the Hirshhorn opened its latest exhibit, Put It This Way, in August, the museum opened its doors to members for a special preview. After the museum closed to the public for the day, members gathered to check out pieces from women and nonbinary artists in a variety of media. This was a relaxed event, not an academic one, so the tours by museum staff were not exhaustive. Instead, they offered a “mini tour,” one where a docent or curator would have people gather around a piece and talk about it for a few minutes. The discussion was strained at first, as it can be intimidating to share your opinion on art around strangers. But the conversation opened up, and folks started bouncing ideas off another. In just 15 minutes, it was a surprisingly fruitful discussion. Unexpected, gently provocative moments like this one are why I maintain a membership with the Hirshhorn. Sure, my wife and I joined for the most obvious reason—early access to the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms—although the perks extend beyond that, with early access to all the terrific programming in a more social setting. (The evening events always include a cash bar, with no drinking in the galleries, of course.) But the best reason to invest in this museum, beyond all the perks listed on the museum’s website, is the least obvious: All the Hirshhorn events make for terrific people watching. You get sharply dressed folks with every stitch in place mixing among folks in clever punk t-shirts, and others still who look like they just stepped out of their own art studio space. People dress up for these events or they are unabashedly themselves, wanting to see and be seen, serving as an unintentional rejoinder that “this town” is too stuffy and without style. —Alan Zilberman
The term “hat act” describes a certain type of easy listening-leaning male country singer, and it’s sometimes used to call out those performers as phonies with nothing going on under the brim. But what’s more fun than a group of performers who wear many hats? Heaven Forbid were born from local act Baby Bry Bry and the Apologists, who’ve been classified as, among other things, lounge music, punk, DIY, and rockabilly. They wear literal hats too, along with an assortment of other Western wear, and it doesn’t much matter whether these boys are tenderfoots or if this garb is genuine article when the music is so darn fun. The lineup includes Tennessee Dave (pedal steel), Baby Bry Bry (guitar), Tommy “The Chillbilly” Sherrod (lead guitar), “Lazy Adam” Stern (drums), and Xaq Rothman (bass). All the fellas do some singing too. The highfalutin rootin’ tootin’ sons of guns (their words) have been playing with country music conventions basically since they’ve been playing together, but they started officially trotting out this country act in 2019. They passed the pandemic by singin’ and settin’ on the porch, and they’ve clearly been waiting for their moment to perform in front of a crowd. The band already have something of a following, and their gigs are a honkin’ tonkin’ good time. The covers that Heaven Forbid chooses to perform are precisely the crowd-pleasing numbers that make you want to head to the dance floor and sway with your sweetheart, such as “Neon Moon” and “Guitars and Cadillacs.” Their signature number, with it’s infectiously catchy, wry lyrics that describe “Smokin’ dope/ Snortin’ coke/ Trying to write a song,” “Lonesome DC Cowboy” is a reinterpretation of “Lonesome LA Cowboy” by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and they give it a down home DC twist. The whole shebang is tied together by the plaintive but lively vocals and patter of frontman Baby Bry Bry. Come November, they’ll be hosting a monthly country music night at the Public Option, so you can get more twang in that thang. (The first All Hat No Cattle show is Nov. 12.) Yeehaw! —Stephanie Rudig
Benin Bronze returns
On Oct. 11, the Smithsonian acted on its promise to deaccession 29 of the Benin bronzes in its collection. The National Museum of African Art and the National Gallery of Art returned its priceless pieces of art to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, 125 years after more than 3,000 artworks were pillaged from the Kingdom of Benin (located in what today is southwest Nigeria) during a British raid that destroyed Benin City’s Royal Palace. The moves represent a milestone in an ongoing effort to hold museums accountable for the role they’ve played in colonialism, imperialism, and racist practices. Western museums began discussing the possible return of the Benin bronzes in earnest in 2007, but little action was taken until 2020, when institutions across the U.S. and beyond were forced to address racist practices and histories. The Smithsonian’s deaccession of the bronzes was announced in March and is the first action under the institution’s new ethical returns policy, which asks its museums to take into account how the objects in their collections were acquired. Though another 20 Benin bronzes still reside in the National Museum of Natural History’s collection, the move represents a good first step toward acknowledging the wrongs committed by colonizers. —Sarah Marloff
Progeny of the Adder
Leslie H. Whitten’s 2017 Washington Post obituary called him, “a self-described ‘swashbuckler,’” which tells you what kind of journalist he was. Whitten knew the old, weird D.C. inside and out. In his debut novel, Progeny of the Adder, published in 1965, he takes us deep into a city that, for the most part, no longer exists. This crime novel follows homicide detective Harry Picard as he tracks down the mysterious killer who’s left behind a trail of murdered sex workers. Starting out as a dry police procedural, the investigation moves from old 14th Street NW strip clubs to a run-down stretch of nearby Corcoran Street that, at the time, was rife with crime and abandoned buildings. Whitten’s D.C. is barely recognizable, but when Picard does research on vampirism at the Library of Congress and walks along the U.S. Capitol grounds, he describes a vista that hasn’t changed in more than half a century. Progeny of the Adder reportedly launched a resurgence in vampire stories, but Whitten’s regular beat was a different kind of bloodsucker: He was a crucial writer for the syndicated column Washington Merry-Go Round, whose staff included a young Brit Hume. Whitten was, for a time, the city’s literary renaissance man, writing nearly a dozen novels and even translating French poet Charles Baudelaire into English. The author’s 1967 horror novel, Moon of the Wolf, was adapted for a TV movie several years later. Out of print for decades, Progeny has been reissued by the Richmond-based independent press Valancourt Books, reproducing the mass-market paperback cover depicting a caped villain stalking the city streets with the monuments glowing behind him. The book fits comfortably in your pocket, like a good pulp novel should. —Pat Padua
Butch Fever Tea Dance
When DJ Clamazon announced Butch Fever, a trans-positive, all-gender-inclusive, anti-racist, pro-consensual-grinding, end of summer tea dance, last fall, it felt like a throwback to the before times of queer pop-up parties and nights out dancing in crowded bars. It brought together things COVID made us yearn for—community space and community—that we may have once taken, ever so slightly, for granted. That wasn’t the case at the first Butch Fever or any of Clamazon’s following tea dances. The District’s queer community came out in droves, exuberant, smiling, and dressed like Jackie Lee’s was everyone’s personal runway. It was just an ordinary November Sunday in 2021 that turned into a chilly evening, but for those looking in, it was both a reunion and a celebration. Each Butch Fever since has pulled together that same energy, giving friends a place to gather, a place to meet new people, a place to dance like literally everyone’s watching. The one on Nov. 6 will be the last tea dance of 2022, but more are promised next year. —Sarah Marloff
The Live Squad
The Live Squad, a crew of precocious radio personalities (Steph Lova, P Stew, and Pooch), dominated local airwaves in the 1990s, and their daily radio show on WKYS was rated number one in the D.C. market from 1996 to 2001. “I always laugh when people say they ‘grew up’ on the Live Squad,” Lova tells City Paper. “I only recently realized the impact we had. I love that people … connect us to a time in their lives that they associate with good memories.” Their local success opened doors for them in the national music industry. Lova moved to New York, where she worked on air at several prestigious radio stations, including Power 105 and Hot 97, where she co-hosted the morning show. She’s also worked in television at BET and MTV. P Stew also capitalized on the success of Live Squad, going on to work with Def Jam Records, Columbia Records, and hip-hop magazine The Source. He’s also dedicated much of his career to helping local artists get increased airplay by creating WKYS’ One Nation Hip-Hop Show. Lova eventually returned to D.C. to co-host the Joe Clair Morning Show on WPGC, and teamed up again with P Stew on various projects. She created the podcast Hard Hats & High Heels, where P Stew became a frequent guest host. She happily returned the favor when P Stew launched the Pop-Up Shop Show on DTLR Radio. The Live Squad is busier than ever in 2022. They each have their own gigs—Lova at Baltimore’s Magic 95.9 and P Stew as Grindstone Universal’s head of marketing—but they still collaborate regularly and the Live Squad is currently producing the Industry Night Live Tour, a traveling showcase event that provides exposure for rising musicians, DJs, influencers, and creatives. —Sidney Thomas
It could have felt anticlimatic considering Spooky Action Theater’s founder and artistic director, Richard Henrich, was on a leave of absence when his retirement was announced on Sept. 23. Instead it felt like just maybe the local theater had heard—and listened to—the concerns numerous members of D.C.’s acting, directing, and production community raised. Allegations of a toxic work environment under Henrich’s leadership started coming to light in April, after the cast and crew of a December production felt their complaints were dismissed by the theater’s board of directors. Henrich was accused of disrespecting women and femme-presenting colleagues, mistreating industry newcomers, and perpetuating racial bias through outdated casting practices. On May 31, Henrich was placed on a leave of absence, but continued to hold his seat on the board, which only strengthened the concerns of those who came forward. News of Henrich’s retirement came more than three months later, and while he’ll stay on the board until January 2023, it seems some new blood will soon lead the theater. —Sarah Marloff
Have you ever read something and wished you could probe the writer’s brain? For the Welders, a playwrights collective, that’s not a fantasy. It’s the main idea behind their mission. In addition to workshopping new material, their goal is to “create significant, meaningful, direct engagement between artists and members of the community.” Founded in 2013 by six D.C. artists and playwrights, the Welders intended to pass down industry wisdom and light the way for those looking to leave their mark on local theater. The coalition changes hands every several years with an intensive application process. When it comes time to pass it on, local playwrights apply as pre-formed coalitions. In their allotted tenures, the Welders foster the scripts of a “producing playwright” and, with the help of the financial resources and guidance of former coalitions, produce staged readings and full productions. In the summer of 2022, the Welders produced Crossroads, Detours, and Exits by JR “Nexus” Russ, a reflective performance on memory, home, and identity. At a small-scale reading, the coalition showcased their desire to connect to an audience at a personal level, promising a simple environment, a warm drink, and critical conversation post-show. In addition to performances and readings, the Welders host lectures, talkbacks, and workshops. Most people can enjoy a large scale play or musical, and most can tell the difference between a great show and one that still needs work. The Welders embrace the fact that theater will always exist between those lines. —Melissa Lin Sturges
The Mount Pleasant Uprising stirred D.C. in May of 1991, but more than 30 years later, in a D.C. that looks very different than it did in the ’90s, many current D.C. residents are either too young to remember the protests, fires, and curfews, or didn’t live here at the time. Those seeking to learn about the rebellion and those seeking to better understand the District and its neighborhoods should consider watching La Manplesa, an hourlong documentary directed by Mount Pleasant native Ellie Walton. In the film, activists and artists who lived in the neighborhood at the time and who witnessed and participated in the uprising describe their experiences then and now. It deftly incorporates broadcast news footage and photos from 1991 with reflections and art that participants created in its aftermath. The film premiered in July 2021 at GALA Hispanic Theatre and reached more viewers in October when it aired on PBS and the WORLD Channel as part of the “America ReFramed” series (as a result, the film is also available to screen on the WORLD Channel’s website). Take an hour for this history lesson, then take a long walk down Mount Pleasant Street NW to reinforce it. —Caroline Jones
Imagine a stacked lineup of comedians in your living room for one very intimate, yet very unpredictable night. This is what you find at the small-scale comedy venue on Upshur Street NW, Room 808. The unassuming locale is about the size of a studio apartment, with walls bedecked with murals—courtesy of Rockville artist dieGLO—and a stack of plastic cups in one corner. With a warm welcome from the MC, hilarity ensues. Amid mishaps and chaos, jokes are daring and authentic. Room 808 was founded by Martin Amini, who was born and raised in Silver Spring and now headlines and supports talent across the country. Unlike other venues that give little to their talent, this speakeasy-esque space is entirely donation-based and all revenue supports Room 808’s outreach and local comics. It’s a great place to catch comedians who’ve appeared on Netflix, Comedy Central, and HBO try new material, and, if you’re interested, to try out material yourself. Tickets are free or donation-based, drinks are BYOB, and the stakes are low, but performances are frequent and the headliners are not to be missed. —Melissa Lin Sturges