I’m as sure as one can be that I saw Will Rogers Follies at the Kennedy Center back in the early 90s with Mac Davis playing Will Rogers. I was actually thinking it was more like the mid/late 1980s, but my online research has clearly shown that it must have been in 1993. I know I saw Cats somewhere in D.C. in the 1980s, and I think it was at the Kennedy Center, but I could be wrong about that. My cursory research did not yield any viable conclusions. So I have to go with Will Rogers Follies as my only clearly validated experience going to the Kennedy Center. (Incidentally, I ended up playing one of the Wranglers for a production of Will Rogers Follies in 2002.)
If I could time travel back to my 25-year-old self going to this show and tell him that, one day, he would play piano and sing at The Kennedy Center, then there is no way in hell he would have believed me. Of course, proper context and perspective is important here. It is totally awesome to be able to say I did such a thing, but I’m also not going to let it go to my head, given full context.
I had the pleasure of being contracted to music direct and accompany a dear friend and fellow artist, Greg Burgess, for a staged reading to be presented as part of the 2016 Page to Stage festival at the Kennedy Center. The play is called Character Building, and it is a musical adaptation of the teachings and lectures of Dr. Booker T. Washington to the students of Tuskegee University. The adaptation was by Martin Blank, and presented by American Ensemble Theater. Dr. Washington specifically refers to some spirituals in some of his talks, and this was a motivation behind Martin’s choice to conceptualize this show as a musical. The way I approached this project was to do research on 19th century spirituals, work songs, and hymns. I didn’t want to focus too much on them being so specifically African American spirituals and work songs. The whole point of these teachings from this wise and important person is that they transcend concepts of race, and I wanted to just focus on finding 19th century songs that connect in some way to the lessons or wisdom expressed in his words. Most of them can certainly be considered as African American, but it wasn’t the only driving force to the approach.
So, fundamentally, I was one of hundreds of artists participating at this festival at The Kennedy Center. Our performance was in the South Atrium Foyer on the Terrace level. Certainly one of the more modest performing spaces at the venue, but I’m pleased to say that we had a full house. As far as my singing boast goes, I just came in for a few lines at the end of our closing number: Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. This makes it factual for me to say that I played piano and sang at The Kennedy Center. I find it fun and artistically satisfying to say such a thing. But the context is so incredibly important, because this was part of a collaborative production involving three artists, and it was presented as part of a very large festival involving many other artists and production companies. I played some VERY simple accompaniments for well-established traditional songs, and sang a bit for a few lines. If it sounds impressive, it really isn’t as impressive as it sounds without this full context thing.
I’m also incredibly happy that some very important friends came out to share the experience with me. Many thanks to Dave and Leti, a lovely couple who I have know since my teenage years. They are both so incredibly supportive of music and the arts, and having them out in the audience was wonderful since they knew me from back in my early years as a developing artist. Also out there was my friend Steven who I have known since I was 16, accompanied by his lovely wife Renee, and his two sons. Also, my friends June and Renfield. By the way, a common thing about all of these couples is that I got to be there and share in all of their weddings!! Also out there was another dear friend Marc Okrand, who is a wonderful chap that is very connected to and in-tune with the D.C. theatre scene. (If you google him you’ll find out another interesting thing about Marc, but since he’s really just a friend to me, I try to avoid getting hung up on that part. But, it is also pretty darn cool!)
So, yes, it really happened… I played piano and sang at The Kennedy Center. I like to think that my work relationships and abilities were a big help, but ultimately I owe this to Greg Burgess. It’s ALL HIS FAULT! So, thanks to Greg for thinking of me as the guy to help out with this project! Here is Greg and I in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Nights Dream in 2011: