The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is a more than fitting venue for Letters to Jack, the latest chapter in renowned performance artist, filmmaker, and composer Laurie Anderson’s ongoing Language of the Future series. Anderson’s series is a non-linear, sometimes surrealist meditation on the American story, told through an immersive collage of music and anecdotes.
The latest installment was arranged specifically for the DC crowd, recounting Anderson’s youthful correspondence with then-Senator Kennedy. As a precocious student politico in Wisconsin, she wrote to “Jack” seeking advice on waging a successful campaign. Whether or not his response may have passed through the hands of a legislative intern, his advice made an enormous impact on Anderson’s sense of possibility as a youth. His tips were as prescient then as they are for those on the stump today: Don’t try to make others crave your own vision; find out what the voters in your community want, and then promise it.
Anderson went on to triumph on the basis of her hero’s advice, earning her a sentimental gift from the Senator that made her the envy of every woman in her town.
The gulf between what we remember today as the optimism of those 1960 primaries and today’s discourse is ever present in Anderson’s performance, a connection made explicit in its final moments– seen the night following a 2016 presidential debate in which the prohibitive front-runner was compelled to defend himself from opponents’ attacks on his endowment. There’s plenty more change that she has witnessed in the decades since along with the rest of us, change which is very efficiently alluded to throughout a tapestry of memories she shares. Anderson and her electric violin are joined on stage by cellist Rubin Kodheli, who lends an elegant veneer to the half-improvised, half-arranged performance.
Veering between electronic and acoustic accompaniment, Anderson evokes both the optimism and the less-ballyhooed fear that pervaded the Camelot years, including the October 1962 days in which the world held its collective breath awaiting the outbreak of all-out nuclear warfare. Their stories and music are enhanced by impressive production design, kudos of lighting designer Brian H. Scott and technical director Jason Stern, including large-scale video projections effectively evoking the tone and mood of the era.
LANGUAGE OF THE FUTURE: LETTERS TO JACK
March 4 – 6
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Tickets: $36 – $49
This performance has closed
Anderson’s brand of otherworldly melancholy has been her hallmark since her rise to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a pioneer in electronic music. She too, however, is not immune to the changes that have swept through the country since the Kennedy era. In between the lush and dream-like musical interludes that borrow equal amounts from jazz and classical traditions, Anderson ruminates on the absurdities on everyday life that the on-demand technology of services like Amazon have introduced. She taps into the timeless with her observations on how telling our stories over and over ultimately has the effect of removing ourselves from them, much as Kennedy himself has become more mythology and bronze bust than man. Luckily for audiences, Anderson has not grown tired of telling her own stories.
Letters to Jack was performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from March 4-6. Featuring Laurie Anderson and special guest Rubin Kodheli. Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott. Studio Manager: Cooper Holoweski. Technical Director: Jason Stern. Reviewed by Daron Christopher.