Situated on a prominent knob, raised above the district of Anacostia, Frederick Douglass’ house has a magisterial view of Washington, and is evidence of the eminence this African-American statesman had achieved in his lifetime. Built in 1850, Douglass moved into the house in 1878, naming it Cedar Hill, and relishing its bucolic aspect above the river. The property is now part of the preserve of the National Parks, who facilitate tours through the house and views into life in the 1800’s. From the corners of Cedar Street, and Galen Street, S.E., a slight ochre path of brick stairs makes a crab like sidle through grass, and up the steep knuckle of stone and earth; panoramic views are framed by tall trees, which sway, and shift the aperture of the picture, from visions of the District’s buildings of government, to inspiring sight of its monuments; there is a special view of commanding prominence: it is of the ivory obelisk of the Washington Monument. Yesterday, as the sun fell into the arbor of branches cosseting Cedar Hill, a concert and celebration was taking place on the porch of that house; it was a program of music and recognition. Near 80 people sat, or stood upon the incline of grass of the front lawn, to hear singers from the Washington National Opera Company, in a narrative I was engaged to create: Black Women In Opera, Celebrate Black Women In Community. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, in partnership with WNO, wanted to publicly recognize and award two extraordinary black women of the District’s Ward 7, Mrs. Doris Thomas, and Ms Mary Brown, for their indomitable energy and service, in creating programs which focused on underserved families, youth, and young adults East of the river.
Ms Mary Brown is the Executive Director of Life Pieces to Masterpieces; mentoring in families and schools, LPTM’s programs create a safe scaffolding for personal growth, designing assuring and affirming experiences that assist in the development of skills of leadership, discipline, language, and arts techniques. Ms Doris Thomas is the director of Serenity Players, Inc, a theatre company whose mission, since 1983, has been to bring professional entertainments that enlighten, educate, and inspire individuals to empower their own artistic talents and expression. Ms Thomas is witness to countless connections of individuals and neighborhoods, to the power of stories and theater. She understands that leadership does not just come as a rousing monologue, but appears as a thread to follow, in a tapestry woven of many journeys and examples. The example of her own story, as a 42 year survivor of breast cancer, is part of that narrative, and enrichment of the community she serves. Ahead of the ceremony, Arts and Humanities Commissioner for Ward 7, Marvin Bowser, made the observation that, through their groups, Mrs. Thomas and Ms Brown “use the arts to educate, to motivate, to embrace, to communicate, and to love.” He identified that their work “touches individuals, neighborhoods, businesses, schools, political office, and corporations, and offers African-American youth the rich example of community effectiveness, in a sustainable network of support.” The award plaque was presented by DC CAH Chair, Dr Anne Ashmore-Hudson, and Vice Chair Commissioner Bowser. DC CAH Executive Director Gloria Nauden, and past DC CAH Commissioners were in the audience. Bruce Taylor, Washington National Opera's Director of Education and Community Programs, and Serena Wills, incoming Assistant Director of Education were present, facilitating the performance. In the frame of the day’s narrative, black women of community were themselves the successors of other models of achievement, and opportunity. Alia Waheed and Joyce Lundy, of the Washington National Opera, connected their own stories, of black women in opera who inspired them to visualize themselves in this art, and spoke of the effect this role modeling had on their artistry and ambition. They then, in the course of the program, offered selections of arias and spirituals that were associated with such operatic inspirations as Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson and Shirley Verrett; Alia performed the Ave Maria, from Verdi’s Otello, and Che bel sogno, from Puccini’s La Rodine. Joyce performed Ain’t Got Time To Die, by Hall Johnson, and Pace, pace, from Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino. The singers also performed two selections from Graffiti Corner, a one-act opera in process of commission by WNO that I am doing the libretto for, in collaboration with Mary Ann Ivan as composer. The program closed with a duet arrangement of He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. Dana Scott accompanied them on the piano throughout. ABC affiliate, WJLA newscaster Maureen Bunyan did the honors presenting the narrative to this event, and imbued the program with her unique ability of connection, and warmth, recognizing the Honorees and framing the interludes of music and celebration. Julie Kutrup, of the National Park Service, stood near the porch, beside the garden, and was moved to make the comment that she felt Frederick Douglass would be beaming, as “…he loved music and music making, and would often have such activities in his home, being performed for anyone to hear..” ..as she said this, the warm air of dusk took the last notes of the final selection off the hill, and down the slopes, to the front porches of the homes that surrounded us; there, families listened, seated, or leaning against porch railings.. while neighborhood children scampered about for better looks uphill, and a fall’s false summer night approached..