The D.C. theater and arts community is about to go where it’s never been before as the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics is introducing the first-ever D.C.-wide biennial CrossCurrents festival, which will showcase innovative artists who are harnessing the power of performance to humanize global politics.
Performance artists from more than 40 countries will be represented and the festival will boast a collection of interesting socially-engaged performances from around the world, hoping to spark conversations about critical topics here in the nation’s capital such as the global refugee crisis, climate change, the rise of hate and polarization, and countering violent extremism.
Derek Goldman, founding director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and curator of CrossCurrents, says in many ways the festival is the culmination of The Lab’s seven years of work to harness the power of performance to humanize global politics.
“We are so privileged at the Lab to engage deeply with path-breaking artists around the world—and here in our own DC community,” he says. “While we have developed, produced, and presented dozens of performances and events, we work in so many different contexts and spaces and we recognize it can be hard for audiences to get to know us here at home. With CrossCurrents, we hope to build a more visible continuing presence here in D.C.”
With that in mind, the festival organizers are thrilled to share the work of such a diverse roster of artists with D.C. audiences, and to be collaborating with so many inspiring partners from around the world.
“D.C. of course provides such a singular context for this kind of work at the intersection of art and politics,” Goldman says. “The vision of the festival, like all of the Lab’s work, is built around a belief in relationship-building and in catalyzing necessary conversations across sectors and communities. CrossCurrents is intentionally aiming to bringing together a wide range of publics who do not always encounter one another—students, everyday residents, thought-leaders, policymakers, activists, global artists—and one of my deepest hopes is that CrossCurrents fosters new relationships and collaborations between our amazing community of D.C. theater artists and their global counterparts and thus helps make our theatre ecosystem even more dynamic in its global inclusivity.”
A Solid Roster of Guests
Among the special performers at the festival are Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Martyna Majok, (whose play Ironbound was a breakout hit of the 2015 Women’s Voices Theater Festival, actress Kathleen Chalfant, and a roster of leading artists and companies from more than 40 countries.
The festival’s lineup was very intentionally built not as a top-heavy gathering of “usual suspects” but geared toward some of the most exciting and innovative emerging artists around the world, as well as those who may be more established but who continue to push boundaries of form and content in their work.
“So while no one would call 84-year-old Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka ‘emerging,’ we are so delighted to be hosting him and having him share brand new work inspired by a devastating story that is very much still unfolding (The Chibok Girls),” Goldman says. “Part of the power of CrossCurrents is bringing a legendary master like Soyinka together with artists who are working at the most dynamic intersections imaginable.”
The Phantom Limb company is uniting puppetry, multimedia and butoh dance to explore the ongoing legacy of the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Falling Out); award-winning recording artist Somi is using jazz to engage with the legacy of South African legend Miriam Makeba (Dreaming Zenzile); and Petite Afrique immigration and gentrification in Harlem today.
Goldman describes Wole Oguntokun’s The Chibok Girls: Our Story, which will make its U.S. premiere at the Davis Performing Arts Center (May 7, 8 and 11), as a “searing and beautifully humane work of testimonial theater about the abduction of 276 girls from their school in the Nigerian town of Chibok by the Boko Haram in 2014”
“The play speaks to not only the story of what happened to the girls but to the continuing reverberations of their story,” he says. “Whether one is familiar with this history or not—it became more widely known to many through the work of Michelle Obama and #BringBacktheGirls—it is told here with heartrending immediacy and opens out into urgent discussions about what is still unfolding right now.”
Republic of Imagination, which will play Woolly Mammoth on April 15, is based on Azar Nafisi’s book of the same name, which explores the singular power of literature in repressive times.
“Here we extend that into the realm of theater with a range of works encompassing plays, poetry, fiction, essays and more from around the world and from across history,” Goldman says. “Selections will include material from James Baldwin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Persian women poets from centuries ago, Israeli author David Grossman, Wole Soyinka, Cambodian genocide survivor and musician Arn Chorn Pond and more. Once again, as with the larger CrossCurrents Festival, the range is expansive but the resonances and connections across them run deep.”
Woolly Mammoth will also perform an excerpt from its upcoming production of Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night.
Putting it All Together
To take on a festival like this, especially with limited resources, one needs an enormous appetite for risk, volatility, and last-minute change, and those words personify Goldman and his commitment to making this a success.
“You have to really believe in the essential core of what you are doing. At this point in the process, every single day—and night—is a true roller-coaster of emotions, someone we were building an event around drops out, but something else falls into place etc. Every day we try as a team to return to the big picture and remind ourselves why we are doing this,” he says. “This year is the pilot and we are learning a great deal, and of course making tons of mistakes, and of course there are many things we hoped to achieve that we are putting in our hip-pocket for next time. We know we will have lots of fodder from which to build something even more special going forward.”
The Lab also depends enormously on its partners, on “creative sharing,” and on the passion of the extended tribe of Lab devotees (the Lab’s global fellows, its Think Tank made up of collaborators around the world, faculty colleagues, students, volunteers etc.) to make stuff happen.
“Our brilliant CrossCurrents producer Teddy Rodger has been indefatigable and is truly a rock at the center of the storm, and we have built a beautiful team of part-timers converging in targeted ways to help us pull this off, but this is definitely stretching every organizational muscle we have,” Goldman says.
He also notes the Lab is fortunate to have a Lab Fellows program with inspiring and path-breaking artists from around the world (Cambodia, Colombia, Palestine, Syria, Zimbabwe, etc.) working at the intersection of theater and politics.
“Working with amazing young artists like our Fellows has been an inspiring reminder that theatrical performance can be an incredibly powerful vehicle for forging human connection across differences, and these connections become even more essential and potent in times of divisiveness and misunderstanding,” he said.
The festival will culminate with The Gathering, a four-day event with 200 visionary artists from around the world. The Gathering will feature inspiring productions, pop-up performances, street theater, workshops, and vibrant discussions around a suite of topics, including migration, climate, political polarization, preventing and recovering from conflict, countering violent extremism, the impact of the arts on health and well-being, and more.
“At its core, this event is about bringing together visionary artists, thought-leaders, policymakers, activists, scholars, and the next generation of change-makers from around the world in an innovative format,” Goldman says. “But really in many ways it’s about bringing people together to break bread together and to laugh and share stories and to celebrate and highlight the wide range of ways their work is harnessing the power of performance to address the pressing challenges of our world.”
While some of these events by necessity are invitation only due to our capacity issues, all of it will be available via Livestream.
“We want this to be a truly inclusive space that is accessible to anyone invested in these questions or just those curious and looking to be inspired by ways theater is making an impact on our troubled world,” Goldman says. “There will be a lobby bar open to all in the evening where people can connect in between and after the performances and our hope is that many new friendships and collaborations will be sparked here. If you’re reading this, be sure to come hang out with us.”
For more information, tickets and a complete schedule of events, visit crosscurrentsfestival.org