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Folklife exhibit on D.C. spotlights diversity

(Published July 3, 2000)


Staff Writer

Walking through the "Washington, D.C., Itís Our Home" exhibit of the Smithsonian Institutionís Folklife Festival on a recent sunny afternoon, it was apparent when some particular part of the program struck a nerve.

"OhÖthatís sooo D.C.," was a common reaction.

For the first time in the festivalís 34-year history, the cityís residents have the chance to see their own hometown presented.

"Itís about time, Ďcause weíre a city-state," said Diana Dale, a longtime Anacostia resident who said she was pleased to now see the Districtís inclusion in what has become a Washington tradition. She was at the exhibit as part of a panel speaking about the history and character of Anacostia.

This yearís festival focus on the District is also the first time an individual city has been chosen for an exhibit. Smithsonian curators say they will again highlight a city next year when they present the culture of New York.

D.C. locals, suburbanites and tourists have been descending on the Mall since the exhibit opened June 23 to see, hear and taste a cross-section of the cityís crafts, music, food and geography. The festival closes on the Fourth of July, shortly before the annual fireworks display at dusk on the Washington Monument grounds.

The festival presents a wide variety of traditions and local scenes rather than a singular view of life in the city. The exhibit has managed to venture beyond the sober architecture of the downtown area and into the often-overlooked rest of the city to give tourists a rare look at the District as a place where people actually live.

There have been spoken-word poetry slams, old-timers reminiscing about local basketball legends, conservation workshops about the Anacostia River, gospel singing, go-go bands, soul food cooking, quilting, piñata-making and stone-carving as well as a series of neighborhood events around the city. There was also a series of concerts on the mall, including D.C. favorites Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Rare Essence and Fugazi.

Most festival-goers questioned on a recent afternoon while making the rounds of the exhibit seemed to like the Smithsonianís effort at bringing together the disparate elements of the city.

"I am very impressed and a bit lifted by the whole event," said Abby Gurewit of Dupont Circle. "I think that the cityís different cultures and races have to be brought together."

The various presenters taking part in the festival represent numerous communities within the larger context of the "Itís Our Home" exhibit. Latino and Carribean residents demonstrated their own crafts and music.

"I think (the exhibit) is very interactive, and I like that. Itís honoring diversity," said Tara Huber of Helena, Mont., who called the Folklife Festival "the perfect summer event."

Kristian Lenz, a college student from Germany, said the exhibit did a good job of accomplishing what it aimed to do Ė explain the Districtís background and why it is a unique place.

"Itís cool to have the culture of D.C. all together. You walk through the city and take for granted what you see. It gives a really dense perspective of D.C., and thatís a good thing," he said.

Along with a variety of different ethnic cultures taking part in the festival, the Districtís youth has also been showcased. The D.C. Café, a stage set up to resemble a nightclub, was host to one of the cityís most vibrant artistic movements Ė spoken word poetry.

With poets from local hip-hop groups as well as public school students, the poetry "slams" gave the festival an edgy, youthful vibe.

Kenneth Carrol leads a program called the D.C. Writers Corps, which cultivates D.C. public school studentsí interest in performing their own poetry.

"I think D.C. has as strong spoken-word (poetry) scene as anywhere in the country," he said.

Carrol said the organizers of the "Itís Our Home" exhibit have been enthusiastic about including a wide variety of local poets.

"One of the things they wanted to present was D.C.ís spoken word scene, and they have been very open to that," he said. "I think theyíve captured a lot of the city, and they managed to keep it focused on the real communities where D.C. resides."

In an effort to bring some of the festival to D.C. neighborhoods, a series of concerts took place last week in connection with the Folklife Festival. Among the events were a Brazilian Jazz concert at the Kennedy Center, a dance concert at Lisner Auditorium and a gospel celebration at the Lincoln Theater.

Apparently, not all D.C. residents living east of the Anacostia River feel well represented by the Smithsonianís depiction of life in the nationís capital, though.

A group called the Concerned Citizens of East of the River expressed outrage with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, whose director first proposed the program to the Smithsonian and which provided major planning support. Theyíre angry that none of the festivalís neighborhood events are caking place in their part of the city.

"How could an area that holds 35 percent of the cityís population be Ďoverlookedí in this matter Ė except out of disrespect?" said a statement condemning the commission.

Samuel Bost, a longtime civic activist from east of the Anacostia in Ward 7, took part in the festival as part of a panel discussion. When asked if he felt residents from his part of town were being "left out" of the festival, Bost dismissed the criticism, saying "Iím here," as he threw up his hands.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator