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The 2024 Capitol Hill Achievement Awardees

Each year the Capitol Hill Community Foundation recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to our neighborhood in a wide variety of ways. There is a strong element of theater in this chosen this year. The honorees share a belief in the power of the performing arts to inform and inspire individuals and, beyond that, to knit communities together.  For their significant contributions to Washington, DC, but more specifically to Capitol Hill, Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna, Jane Lang and Michael Witmore will be honored at a fundraising gala at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on May 22.

Vera Oyé-Yaa Anna

Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna has built her career around traditions she learned in Liberia where she grew up “Americo-Liberian,” descended on her father’s side from Americans who had migrated there in the mid-nineteenth century to escape the horrors of slavery and on her mother’s from the Grebo people of West Africa.  It was a childhood she describes as “privileged,” with good education at a private boarding school and little experience of racial prejudice.  She went to university, studying marketing and, later, worked for the United Nations Industrialization Organization.

In 1980 Liberia’s president was ousted in a violent coup d’état creating social disruptions that brought Vera and other members of her family to America, specifically to Los Angeles.  There she continued her studies and was awarded a bachelor of science degree in marketing at Pepperdine University.  She found employment as a paralegal and a head hunter.

Over time, both in the US and in Liberia where she returned for a period, and battling a sense of dislocation and depression, Vera began to discern a sense of mission, a belief that her real role was not as a business woman but was, rather, as a story teller with powerful knowledge to share with children. She realized that she knew much about food, dancing, music and culture and that there was a hunger here not just for the African-inspired food she prepared, but for the stories she told as she prepared it.

So, having settled in Washington, DC, in 2003, she created a non-profit called Oyé Palaver Hut, Inc.  “Throughout West Africa,” she explains, “you have a place called the Palaver Hut. It’s a small gazebo-like structure that people use as a meeting place, like city hall. It’s where the elders come to listen to disputes and where people can come and settle them. It’s also where people come to be entertained.” Vera’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon she was presenting story-telling programs for children at Friendship House, the social service center that served the Capitol Hill for decades.  Her first grant of financial aid came from John Harrod at Eastern Market who gave her $250 so she could buy food and show children how to cook it and how to eat it. “I don’t eat fast food,” she says.  “I couldn’t understand the food children were eating.”  So she introduced them to avocadoes, okra, vegetable-laden jollof rice and kelewele or fried plantains.  “I felt like the kids were absorbing happiness from me,” she remembers.  “Children became my therapy.”

Today Vera presents a variety of programs in venues from schools and after-school programs to public-housing sites and summer camps.  She gets funding from sources such as the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts.  Her programs include, besides nutrition and cooking, African Djembe Drum Circles, dancing and participatory story-telling. She lives here on the Hill, but in other parts of the city as well children call her “Auntie Oyé.”

Thinking about her work Vera comments that “you throw the seeds out and you don’t know where they land.”  She is convinced that she is doing the work she was born to do and that at least some of the seeds she scatters will take root in fertile soil, empowering and encouraging our young people.

Jane Lang

Jane Lang has had two distinct Washington, DC careers.  She was for decades a successful lawyer, the first female partner at the prestigious Steptoe & Johnson law firm, a hard-charging litigator arguing, among other things, on behalf of victims of workplace discrimination, and, for several years, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  She is also dedicated to the arts and a serious and effective philanthropist.  She is chairman of the Board of the Eugene M. Lang Foundation created by her father in 1963 which offers significant grants in support of education, the arts and civic engagement.  And it is thanks to her efforts that the long-abandoned Atlas movie house on H Street NE has been transformed into the Atlas Performing Arts Center, a popular venue for theater, dance, music and a variety of programs for children. 

Twenty-five years ago, Jane, who in addition to her legal career had long had an interest in the arts, produced a play based on the “Migration Series” paintings by Jacob Lawrence.  Written by playwright Karen Evans (who had begun her career as president of the drama club at Eastern High School), “Leaving the Summerland” was eventually performed at Theater J at the Jewish Community Center and won a Helen Hays award for set design. The search for a suitable venue had made Jane aware of the lack of theater spaces available to rent for small productions. So she began to consider creating one. 

When Jane and her late husband Paul Sprenger first visited the abandoned Atlas movie theater on H Street she had never been to Northeast Washington. “I had traveled around the world,” she remembers with a laugh, “but I had never left Northwest.” When Paul suggested that the space might not be quite what she was looking for Jane responded that she had been convinced by a dream that – actually – it could work.  In June of 2001, after complex legal and financial negotiations, the building was theirs.

During the years that followed Jane endured the skepticism of many.  One potential donor told her that investing on H Street is like “flushing money down the toilet.”  Another said “D.C. is a nightmare.”  But she persevered, engaging in long negotiations with the city and raising some $24 million from a wide variety of sources including her father, philanthropist Eugene Lang, and the local Meyer, Kiplinger, Kogod and Cafritz Foundations.  In March, 2005 the building’s dance studios opened with American actress, dancer, choreographer, singer, director, and producer Debbie Allen cutting the ribbon. The theaters opened the following year.

Since then the Atlas has hosted a variety of events and productions from “Truth in Translation,” a play inspired by the translators working for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, to last season’s powerful Emmett Till trilogy about the 1954 murder of teenager Emmett Till and what followed.  Annual free holiday concerts and family singalongs have been packed.  The Step Afrika! dance troupe was for many years, as Jane says, “a great success for the Atlas.” Since 2014 the Mosaic Theater company has been in residence offering provocative plays and opportunities for discussion.

But leading the Atlas has never been easy.  The lack of nearby parking or public transportation has been an ongoing issue.  Audiences have been slow to come back after the Covid shutdowns.  Still, Jane remains proud of what she has accomplished and optimistic about the future.

And now she is also a resident of Capitol Hill.  After her husband Paul’s unexpected death in December 2014 Jane decided she had to move out of the Cleveland Park house they had both loved. She decided to move closer to the Atlas so she now lives at the Residences at Eastern Market, sharing her life with Pippin, a toy poodle with whom she walks “everywhere,” and her partner Bob Kapp. Between them they have 9 children and step-children and 24 grandchildren.  She has, as she describes it understatedly, “a very full life.”

Michael Witmore

In 2011, when Michael Witmore was invited to come to Washington and interview for the job as Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, it was not his first experience there. Years before, as a young Congressional intern, he had supplemented his income by working as a telemarketer for the Folger.  The best part of the job was getting standing-room tickets as often as he wanted.  “I had read a lot of Shakespeare,” he remembers, “but I hadn’t seen a lot.”  He thinks that during that period he saw “Twelfth Night” at least five times. 

Michael’s love of Shakespeare dates back to his high school in a suburb of Boston.   He says his earliest aspiration was to be a drummer in a heavy metal band but “someone thought I had an inner life,” he remembers, “and put me in honors English.” That class read The Odyssey, the Biblical book of Job and Shakespeare’s Othello. “It’s an interesting story,” he remembers. “What do you do when you meet a person who tells you the very lies you want to hear? I identified with Othello.” 

Having been raised in an evangelical religious home, Michael was very familiar with the language of the King James Version of the Bible, roughly contemporaneous with that of Shakespeare.  He realized that both Shakespeare and the Bible present people like Othello and Job in challenging, concrete situations.  He became fascinated with the role of language and how it relates to the way we experience life, acquire knowledge and process what we know. He was from that time and is now, he says, a “truth seeker.”

Truth seeking led him to Vassar College where he originally thought he would be pre-med but ended up getting a strong liberal arts education and writing an undergraduate thesis on Othello and Epistemology (the study of knowledge – what it is and how we acquire it). At the University of California at Berkeley he received MA and PhD degrees in English literature.  In 2011 he was a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin studying, among other things, patterns and meanings revealed by the computerized study of language, when he got the call from the Folger suggesting he apply for the directorship of the Library. His deep knowledge of Shakespeare plus his engagement with emerging fields of study meant that he got the job.

The position of Director of the Folger came with challenges. There were major anniversaries to be celebrated – the 450th year since Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, the 400th since his death in 2016. The beautiful, almost 100-year-old building and its collections of rare manuscripts and books had significant problems of accessibility and space. And making Shakespeare relevant not just to scholars but to increasingly diverse audiences was an ongoing issue.  Michael’s vision energized an extraordinary campaign that raised $51 million and has transformed the Library. After being closed since March 2020, it will reopen in June as a vastly more welcoming space, accessible to the handicapped and with, for the first time, all 82 copies of the Folger’s Shakespeare First Folios, over a third of the copies in the world, visible to visitors who will be able to learn more about the First Folio through interactive exhibits. The charming small theater, gardens, a café and a bar, as well as new exhibition space and a learning lab for children, will welcome the public.

Michael sees the renovated Folger as an expression of confidence that works written four hundred years ago can still entertain but can also invite us to talk about who we are and who we want to be and thus be part of creating the multinational civic democracy to which we aspire.

The Capitol Hill community has been enriched and enlivened by the work done in our midst by Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna, Jane Lang and Michael Witmore.  The fundraising gala honoring them and celebrating our life together will be Wednesday, May 22 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at 3rd and A Streets SE.  For information and tickets please contact Nicky Cymrot at 202-997-5722 or visit the Capitol Hill Community Foundation website at capitolhillcommunityfoundation.org.

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