Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Posts Tagged ‘National Portrait Gallery

Youth’s take on leadership

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I am fortunate; it is my third year with the National Portrait Gallery’s program Portraits Alive!

Having the opportunity to participate in the construct of what students will be addressing this year, I sought to find the model by which to investigate their concepts of ‘civic duty and ‘social responsibility’.

Students would choose sitters, whose portraits are part of the NPG collection, who best exemplified such ingredients of character and informed their definition of ‘leadership’.

With these choices made, students were to create 2 to 3 minute monologues of characterization, in the aspect of their sitter, which would then be delivered in front of the corresponding portrait and enacted as part of an open opportunity for the museum’s daily audience.

These presentations are well publicized and have a faithful following –but it is always a delight to find impromptu interest drawing in the many unsuspecting others who have happened into the museum on the day! Whether families, tourists, summer school excursion groups, or local workers seeking a lunch hour refuge –the experience of the Portraits Alive! Student voices tour offers a dimension of exhibition as entertainment, which is very much a part of the NPG’s array of enrichment programs designed to engage a broad breadth of audience who visit the museum with a diversity of interests.

This summer our young presenters weave a tapestry of expression and social consciousness that resonates with the state of America; moving from portraits of Richard Nixon, to Sylvia Rivera, Russell Means and Jane Adams –to name a few- students give expression to different decades of cultural engagement, across passionate personalities, who ultimately wind up articulating the wrestling tensions of scope that continue to seek to twine into our national narrative of political character and democracy.

 

The 2nd session’s presentations will be given in the first week of August, and are open to the public.

 

The initial session’s presentations were given in the 2nd week of July. These are some photos of the journey!

 

Some costumes

Some costumes

 

Captivated crowd

Captivated crowd

 

Ensemble and audience

Ensemble and audience

 

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Written by tomminteroffthestoop

July 22, 2016 at 9:47 AM

Portraits Alive! Summer 2015

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..an amazing program continues at the National Portrait Gallery, here in DC -and wonderfully enough, I was brought back as a facilitator this summer.

A very talented group of students grappled to find meaning deep behind the ‘portrait plaques’, and in the character of their chosen sitter – inevitably meaning a journey of their own in discovering the dynamic complexities of ‘success’, and empowerment.

 

A talk on the past, touches the present

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When the pieces of a puzzle suddenly fit in place, it’s inevitably a wonderful feeling. But when the piece fits into a puzzle of family history, it can be the ‘ah-ha’ for resonating emotion and pride.

Stanford in Washington’s winter session had its Orientation this week, and it included a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, and the opportunity for a talk on the history of DC – the city, apart from the government.

I started the talk on the 2nd floor of the museum at the exhibition of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio, which is a photographic presentation of DC, and the President, in the latter part of the Civil War.

It shows a city rummaged up from dust into white stone and masonry; carriages and top hats; Union uniforms, rifles; thoroughfares of tamped dirt and ranks of pedestrians; parasols, horses and buggies; prestigious edifices, such as the Patent Office, forts, hospitals, and the Navy Yard; images grabbed in action, set in panoramic still life; sunlight of the 1860’s: on sweat; brightness bleeds earnest and palpable emotions out of death numbed survival; some glances are filled with apprehension, others are looks full of expectation.

My talk initiated in speaking about Congress’ 1790 Residence Act, appropriating land from Virginia and Maryland to establish a residence for the nation’s government – imbuing this District, from the outset, with specific purpose of opportunity.

By 1865 this area, the District of Columbia, war weary, ravaged and burnt, still gleamed as the embodiment of freedom, being the place from which slavery had been abolished by Proclamation, and further enshrined in government.

Touching the very soil of this city could be supposed a religious experience, and worth pilgrimage to former slaves, suddenly vested as a “population” of this country, wishing to be established as true citizens.

In 1860 the national census identified 3,953,760 slaves in this country, and 488,070 Freed Blacks. In 1870 it identified 0 slaves in this country, and 4,880,009 Freed Blacks..

With the knowledge of those numbers, and sight of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington before us, my talk moved into the mandate for education that became the paean of further enfranchisement, exhorted by such black men of stature as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Carter Woodson, who comprehended the vast challenge ahead of establishing an African American existence after slavery that would faithfully support a new legacy of permanent application and advancement in American society.

The opportunity, to define African American beyond property or domestic, demanded a context for an emerging culture; it required apparatus for educating a sudden population of over four million souls.

We moved into the exhibition of The Struggle For Justice, where my talk broadened into the establishment of the initial network of black colleges, such as Fisk University, established in 1866, Morehouse College, established in 1867, Hampton College, established in 1868, and Tuskegee University, established in 1881 – each of which were to determine the quality of opportunity a new society of educated people of color could have.

Standing in front of the images of George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois, I spoke of the reach of higher education, and brought into sequence the through line of the impact on Washington City, and, in its Jim Crow laws of segregation, the paradox of it inculcating within its environs a territory of black endeavor and merchant success, codified as the ‘city within a city’, and the place of one of the most important institutions of education, Howard University, established in 1867, which became the hotbed for philosophical debate in giving definition to a “New Negro”, as well as approbation in creating the art, music, and essence of literature upon which to stand this prototype.

The dynamism of this city within a city, drew talent, and thought, and enterprise, advancement, entrepreneurship, commerce, banking, and society, all –of color. It became an unspoken template of a way of enriching culture, while under the very stone of inequity which the nation at large had set to cap and contain such endeavor..

And the footpath to come up within this environ were the high schools, for color, one of which, Armstrong Manual Training High School, had its very corner stone laid by the hands of Booker T. Washington.

The philosophy of this school looked to make its students self sufficient; able to make their own bricks, build their own homes, grow their own grain, farm their own livestock, master their own accounts, and invent to their own science.

The direct line, out of slavery, and through such as Booker T. Washington, into higher education, established schools as another place of sanctity and benefit. It also meant that they held a position in black culture where “opportunity” encompassed everything to be found in any relevant society.

In this, commitment to the Arts was profound, and a place for nascent artists of color to be identified, sustained, embraced, applauded, supported and presented for all to see.

My intention was to speak to two specific portraits housed in the collection of the NPG; as it turned out, I was only able to speak in front of one of them, and reference the other.

The two people, who for me are linked in the circumstances of opportunity specifically offered in the history of the District, and specifically connected with Armstrong Manual Training High School, are Marian Anderson, and Duke Ellington.

The portrait of Marian Anderson is part of the exhibition of The Struggle For Justice. Though she is usually identified with DC in reference to the concert in the Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which occurred in 1939, my talk went to the roots Ms. Anderson had earlier established in the District, and, specifically, in the city within a city.

Ms Anderson’s presence in the District formalized through her engagement by Howard University, in 1933, through their Lyceum Concert Series, which offered opportunity as a recital and song series held in the Andrew Rankin Chapel, on campus.

Though Ms Anderson was already establishing herself in opportunities abroad, she would remain faithful to being available for the Series, and always make her way back to DC to participate.

By 1934 her notoriety was such that the crowds who came to hear her were too great to be held within the intimate space of the Chapel, and Howard University moved the series to the auditorium of Armstrong.

In 1935, after a sensational European tour, culminating in her debut onstage at the Paris Opera, Ms. Anderson returned to an America of Jim Crow limitations and a culture reticent to embrace an artist of color.

After a Town Hall recital, in New York, Ms. Anderson received an invitation to sing at the White House, extended by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The White House visit coincided with Ms Anderson’s presence in the 1935 concert series, and there was an expectation that the crowd would be too large for any auditorium.

It was at this point that Ms. Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, first reached out to see if he could book Constitution Hall.

But the Hall’s policy of denying its stage to anyone of color could not be challenged at this point in time, and so Mr. Hurok and Howard University continued to utilize Armstrong’s auditorium, and, in subsequent years, utilized opportunity of the auditorium at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

…but by 1939 Ms Anderson’s fame was such that the size of the expected crowd pre-condition that the Concert Series had to be held in a larger environment.

It was at this time that Mr. Hurok made the determination to petition for use of Constitution Hall once again, which was denied, after which, history clasped the reins –the denial became the lit fuse to a series of unprecedented acts of civil remonstration, furthered by the resignation by Eleanor Roosevelt of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the officiating body who held ownership of Constitution Hall.

Ultimately Ms. Anderson presented herself in consummate artistry to a crowd of over 5,000 people in the Mall, at the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

…at this point in my talk I’d intended to lead a tour to the 3rd floor, and into the Bravo showcase, where the portrait of Duke Ellington is situated –but time had grown slim, and, swiftly concluding my lecture, I mentioned Duke, and the fact that he had gone to Armstrong as a high school student – a school which, to this day, still serves its community; a school whose linage contained the lit embers of endeavor, laid in its cornerstone by Booker T. Washington, and at one point in the nineteen-teens was held in stewardship of culture overseen by Carter Woodson, the 2nd man of color to receive his PhD from Harvard University, who would go on to be Dean of Philosophy at Howard University.

All of this history is a powerful legacy that is resident in the U Street corridor, in the city within a city and remains pertinent. A fact that made itself explicitly clear at a post lecture lunch..

At my table, intermittently during the meal, a guest to the day’s orientation was holding a discrete exchange on her mobile. Just as lunch was being served, she looked up at the group of us round the table beaming and said, “I was meant to be at that talk today.”

-she continued: When I was growing up my grandmother would tell me about the time she gave up her membership with the DAR. It was something very important to her, the position she took, but, to be honest, it didn’t have context for me ..it was just something my grandmother had done, which had made her proud. Listening to the talk about Marian Anderson, I wondered if this was the situation that had made her choose to give up her membership. So I txt’d her-“

And she read from the response.

Her grandmother, now in her eighties, and reaching through an immediacy of technology, fully shared the story and identified that it was, indeed, connected to Marian Anderson.

..though it was an amazing moment be in the weave at this coming together of a living context for conversation, review, and definition, to further continue the connection of personal journey in this family’s oral history –I have to admit to enjoying the laugh at the end of the exchange, as the grandmother concluded her txt by saying –“If you want to know more about Marian Anderson, use the internet.”

..and in that spoke to a life, not only of keeping her personal context with history alive, but also being fully engaged with her present and the advance of technology and social media ..all to encourage and share with her granddaughter, a personal sense of pride and Witness.

..affirming that the past is always present.

Blues For A Royal Flush/at the National Portrait Gallery/at 7PM, September 22, 2014

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No road is perfectly straight; neither is the progression of a new work.

But Blues For A Royal Flush has certainly been fixed to a fortunate star. From the beginning, this work has had benefit of support and community.

That embrace continues, and lifts an opportunity for this work to be part of a larger engagement.

 

At 7PM Monday evening, September 22nd, Blues For A Royal Flush will be presented without cover charge, and performed as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Audience Programming’, in the museum’s Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium.

This will be a co-production between the NPG and SIW (Stanford In Washington), who are the commissioning agent of Blues.

 

The cast will be the same troupe of incredible talents who premiered their roles, this past January, at the first performance, held at the Duke Ellington School For Arts.

 

Blues For A Royal Flush, weaves the music of an earlier era of jazz, through resonant experiences of Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne, all in the orbit of DC native son Duke Ellington, not only presenting their artistry, but exploring their different routes to platform, during a unique epoch of racial and cultural change.

This journey also speaks to family, and a crucible of class and social challenges met by these artists; the chords of which still vibrate.

 

The NPG is located at 8th & G Streets, NW; The Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium is located through entering at this G Street entrance.

The event will be posted by September on the NPG/McEvoy Auditorium calendar.

 

But let this entry suffice to mark the date!

smoking out the beehive

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…the ‘right’ thing would be to write; to chronicle occurrences, as they are occurring. But the reality is –that’s a difficult track to maintain.

..to be honest, as I get older I find it is better policy to keep my mind on what I’m doing, rather than to try and map my thinking along the way, or versify the topography..

Much.. –no; an immense amount of work has been going in the silence between my last entry and this one.

The school year, and especially my project with my high school students at School Without Walls, really took off; not only did they excel in engaging issues around ‘community displacement’, and discerning the vanished neighborhood, under the funded encroachment of “re-purposing” and ‘institutional encroachment’, but they created a module of a Timeline to document these discovered increments of change, in the Foggy Bottom environ.

The Timeline module presents as a ‘tree’ with several branches draping photos and documentation on the subjects of their investigation of the area, dating –in 20 year segments- from 1900 to 2040; the last year being one for their own ‘punt’ of prediction.

The module is mounted on a ‘lazy Susan’ and turns easily so that all ‘leafs’ of documentation can be seen; but the ‘tree’ sits on a box mount, with a slit in its side, so that others can write out their own predictions (for 2040) and deposit them.

There are two models of the Timeline that were built; one was given to the Heurich Mansion, in acknowledgment and thanks, for the beginnings of the class’ investigation of Foggy Bottom social history (Christian Heurich being the head of a German immigrant brewing family, who established a factory on the Potomac, just at Foggy Bottom, which employed a large community of German Immigrants at the turn of the 20th century –and whose mansion was a marvel of the day; built in iron, for fear of the rampant devastation of fire which often destroyed the more common wood built buildings of the late 1800’s).

The second module was given to the GW Archive where students were hosted to an opportunity to look through the archival material –photos, magazine, newsprint and books- collected by the university, detailing the origins of community in Foggy Bottom, and the changes and demographic shifts in culture which occurred over time to virtually eradicate visibility of earlier settlement footprints.

The students presented their findings to representatives of the Heurich Mansion, and GW Archive; the modules are being finished, and will be gifted to these agents, so that tourists, or school groups, may discover the work of these students, and even interact with their project, in the deposit of “2040 Predictions” –hopefully to be honored with a reading, by the Archive and Mansion, in 2040.

..this was an amazing journey of discovery for students and institutions alike. And this school was only one, of six, which I am involved in, in this school year.

..But there was huge opportunity and effort of work for me outside of the schoolwork concluding 2012.

..in this past October, my play Reconstruction received a reading here in DC, at Fort Fringe. The cast was of spectacular ability, and the audience participated in the ‘after’ dialogue with friction and engagement.

But one of my favorite words was in action throughout: serendipity..

The character of MISS MARIAH, in my play, was performed by Ms Jewell Robinson –who had never read my work before, but was so moved and engaged by my reach, that she, under her other hat, commissioned me to write a piece for presentation.

You see, Ms Robinson is Director Of Public Programming for the National Portrait Gallery; its current exhibit features profiles of poets, and is entitled Poetic Likeness.

The commission, made to me in November of 2012 (3 months ago), was to write something to highlight the work of the black poets in the exhibition, for a presentation in the museum’s offering for Black History Month.

I took the commission, excited and honored to be offered such prestige from this prominent institution..-

but, that did not obfuscate the difficulty in the assignment: weaving something to highlight the lives and legacy of talents of six black poets, whose journeys stretch from the late 1800’s to the present day! And, not only to do so comprehensively, but to do it in a month and a half, recognizing that the work would have to be available for rehearsal, at least 2 weeks out from the presentation date, which was this past Monday, February 4th.

..so you may understand my silence..

-it was concentration. And in that chute of effort, more than serendipity played its hand; I’m telling you, I seriously started scarfing background; searching out specific titles of biography and context; immersing myself in the music, and social layers of texture, travel, and global internecine crises that undulated across the poets’ timeline.

..and deeper; suddenly finding myself channeling voices and instincts which brought me to connecting these gifted, diverse artists of color, and moment.

To be honest, at the start I did not know all of them, or their work as well as I might.

In learning about Claude McKay (1889 – 1948) I touched the inner conflict inherent in a cage of colonialism; born in Jamaica, subject of Queen Victoria, aspiring, intelligent, aware and precocious, McKay startled British society with his penetrating poems, ‘ballads’ full of melody and the lilt of the island patois; he also presented a slim view of the variant shades of colour -coloureds- who made their life off of ‘bumming’ what they could from their fellow man..

This early identification of the skeins of colour and society, wedge his work, and, after coming to America, fix in his stature, giving him the view between African American slavery, and, in the afterbirth of Emancipation, predations of a deepening “intellectual” ideology, and Negro discontent.

His journey was a wide-ranging struggle to keep to his moral compass; he strode through the Soviet fields of communism (in the early 1900’s), and bridged a connecting tissue of political struggle between Comrades, and American Marxist/Socialists.

McKay’s politics gave virulent voice to the rage of racist abuse of blacks in America; his initial trip into the south was a decimating and defining moment of clarity for him, in the nature of a particular American savagery, where lynching, rape, and burning were handy tools of oppression against people of color..

..I came to appreciate the particular tragedy of Jean Toomer (1894 – 1967), whose mix of color presented him as “white”, but whose conflict of soul constantly brought him against the grain of easy living, and, ultimately, caused him to fracture in himself, unable to fully fit the pieces of his birthright, and paradox, in America.

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) I have always admired, but had never been so intimate with; his endeavors in opera (taking his play Troubled Island, and working with the black composer William Grant Still) as well as Broadway (his work with the composer Kurt Weill in creating the libretto for Street Scene) are amazing journeys of artistry in their own right, but in the dexterity of this man’s reach, I found myself awestruck at the diversity of his forum!

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) was a voice I was not very familiar with; I knew of her activism, but I was not aware of the deep soul of her poetry, or the challenge of her health..

Amiri Baraka (1934 – ) is a name that inflicts, incites, and antagonizes; his work is a ‘slicing’ arc, through styles, polemics, pose, theatre, and modern reaches of rap and hip-hop.

Yusef Komunyakaa (1947 – ) is a deep resonant thinking man whose journey from southern blues, into Vietnam, and further personal tragedy.. is of such breathtaking dimension and succinct dialect that I was subsumed in his storytelling voice, style, knowledge and humanity.

…so; these are the six; these were the companions, in my last two months of silence, during which I found the craft to fit their stories into a length of tapestry that allowed them to speak their own character; entitled: smoking out the beehive.

It was not simple, but it came through the immersion; distinct music; distinction of styles; influences and counter-struggle; polyphonic, ultimately; rich. Through whom we are all enriched.

I came to find the right chord: Words. Crack the world before me.