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HomeArtsWhat Does Independence Mean To You? — Theater Night

What Does Independence Mean To You? — Theater Night

In July, we celebrate the the birth of our nation with fireworks, cookouts, flags and bunting. What does ‘Independence’ mean to you? The strength to forge a new career? The freedom to reinvent yourself? The bravery to seek a better life? Whether it’s the mass migration of African Americans seeking independence from the ravages of slavery or the story of a female singer-songwriter who singlehandedly crafted a new genre, this month’s theater column examines the many colors of ‘Independence’ beyond the red, white and blue. Read on for our curated selection.

On Right Now

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,
Olney Theatre Center

Showing July 3 – August 25


How many singer/songwriters can you name whose music became the soundtrack of a generation? In her Olney Theater Center debut, Director Amy Anders Corcoran retells the story of Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; featuring the life of this pioneering and fiercely independent artist who rose from humble beginnings in Brooklyn to stratospheric heights as a performer, wife, mother, actress, chart-topper and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee.

This toe-tapping musical first debuted to audiences in San Francisco in 2013, but for Corcoran – who has an affinity for stories that feature strong women (see her works Christmas in Connecticut at the Goodspeed Opera House and What the Constitution Means to Me at the KCRep), this interpretation offered the opportunity to do something different. “I grew up listening to Carole King. I saw the original production about 12 times.” Corcoran says. “Natalie Weiss (of Breaking Down The Riffs YouTube fame) will be playing live. There’s something important about capturing the essence of an artist who sings and plays.”

Corcoran’s take, she says, will trace through King’s music the seismic social, political, and cultural shifts that King would have experienced during her 60-year career. “There was a lot of change that happened during this time for people of color, for women, and I really dove into the history of that. One of the things Carole was incredible at was she was always on the cusp of what was next: The next big sound, the next big idea. She was a big part of music hitmakers taking a song and assigning it to an artist. She was ahead of the curve on helping artists choose their music. When she transitioned into a singer/songwriter, she changed an entire generation; especially for women of that even being on the table.”

King and her first husband (and songwriting partner) Gerry Goffin spent the 1960s composing the music and lyrics for many popular singers of the period – Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield among them – but it was only in the 1970s that she really broke out of her shell and released a series of albums that took the world by storm. You probably know King’s music without even realizing it. That catchy song at the start of The Gilmore Girls? That’s Carole King. The theme song for The Care Bears Movie? Carole King.

Perhaps more than anything, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is the story of someone who was constantly willing to reinvent herself which, as Corcoran believes, is the responsibility of artists everywhere. “It’s exciting to me that a whole new generation could be exposed to Carole King’s music. She’s such a great energy to have in the room. She constantly chose joy amid adversity professionally and personally. For me, I really wanted to capitalize on that because it’s easy to not choose the joy or have hope. I wanted to celebrate joy.”

Catch before Closing
The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,
Arena Stage
Showing June 7 – July 14

DMV audiences will already be well acquainted with Step Afrika! and its soul-stirring performances. With its roots embedded in South Africa as a cultural collaboration between founder C. Brian Williams and Soweto Dance Theater founder Mbuyiselwa “Jackie” Semela, Step Afrika! has wowed thousands of people across the world in the 30 years they’ve been shaking the stage with their iconic blend of stepping, gumboot and stick dancing, drumming and vocalizing.

Step Afrika!’s company performs The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. Photo: Jati Lindsay.

Now, Arena Stage (Step Afrika!’s home since 2021) wraps up its 2023/24 season with their Home Performance Series iteration of The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, first debuted in 2011. And what a show it is. The company of 25 storytellers reminds us yet again what Step Afrika! does so well: Drum rhythms that reach deep into your soul. The pounding of feet that gets your heart racing and the shimmering of gorgeous costumes that highlight the myriad ways that moving bodies can tell a moving story.

At its core, The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence is a tribute to the work of artist Jacob Lawrence, who completed a series of 60 tempera panels between 1940 and 1941 that documented the movement of
millions of African Americans from the Southern states to the North and West as they sought a new beginning free from the shackles that imprisoned them long after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Called the Migration Series, Step Afrika! has told the story of these artworks before, but for the first time ever this version encompasses both the even and odd numbered panels from DC’s Phillips Collection and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence always envisioned the panels to be viewed as a singular work, so this tribute in dance to all 60 panels is both historic and appropriate.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence takes you on a journey that spans the 16th Century’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, the end of the 19th Century and the beginnings of the 20th, as America’s rural South and urban North were transformed forever by the movement of people, the demise of America’s cotton industry and the emerging Industrial Age. Details of Lawrence’s paintings are displayed on split screens while Step Afrika! performers – in costumes by Kenann Quander that cleverly reflect the palettes of the works themselves- bring Lawrence’s figures to life right in front of you.

This is not a story of pain and humiliation, as so many narratives centered on enslavement can be. Instead, it’s a celebration of expression, dance and independence through the body as vessel, but with Lawrence’s work serving as a profound acknowledgement of past and present social injustices. The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence manages to convey both the large and small, loud and quiet moments of a monumental social transition, and the myriad emotions experienced by a generation of African Americans as they uprooted their lives in search of better ones. As contemporary America closes yet more doors to migrants, we’re reminded that the movement of people and the sharing of ideas, art and expression can never truly
be stopped.  

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