Olney Theatre Center hosts ‘Just Arts,’ a virtual social justice arts festival

Features BIPOC artists in four free weekly programs curated by Chil Kong, Kevin McAllister, Nicole A. Watson, and Elena Velasco. 

In response to ongoing social upheaval and protests for racial justice, Olney Theatre Center is hosting a virtual social justice arts festival amplifying the voices of BIPOC artists and activists in the period leading up to the general election. Called Just Arts: A Celebration of Art & Activism, the free festival runs Friday evenings October 9 through October 30. Each episode will delve into a particular pillar of social justice—equity, participation, rights, and access—through performances and conversations with artists and activists.

This four-week series has been curated by four DMV-arts leaders invited by Olney Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith to create a program around the theme of performance and social justice: Chil Kong (Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre MTC), Kevin McAllister (actor and Artistic Director of ArtsCentric, Inc), Nicole A. Watson (Associate Artistic Director at Round House Theatre), and Elena Velasco (Artistic Director of Convergence Theatre).  Originally conceived as a free, all-day outdoor festival, the program shifted to an online streaming format as the continuing pandemic conditions made that impossible.

Just Arts kicks off Friday, October 9, streaming at 7:00 pm with an episode dedicated to “Equity” curated by Nicole A. Watson (see full schedule of episodes below). The streams can be viewed on Olney Theatre Center’s website and You Tube channel.

Co-curator Kevin McAllister described the event: “Just Arts is an acknowledgment of every
voice often seen as only the deliverer of someone else’s message but never the creator of one’s own message. It is the chance for artists of color to create, produce, and celebrate their own artistry while actively exposing the viewing community to the knowledge and power of the pillars of social justice. It’s a collection of undervalued voices coming together to actively engage the community in making the world a better place.”

“We hope that DMV artists will use their voices and creative energies to speak to the moment we are in and inspire and invite all of us to work together for a better future,” added co-curator, Nicole A. Watson.

Co-curator Elena Velasco explained the connection to activism: “Art is filled with messages that can and should incite us all to action. I don’t believe there is “art for art’s sake.” That would be art without a soul, one created by the privileged who has nothing to gain or lose. There are reasons that artists are targeted by fascist and authoritarian regimes — they know the power of art to viscerally impact one’s conscience and sense of morality. It is no great mystery why for so long the white narrative has been the center of the art that is shared in this nation. It has reinforced status and norms. Whose story is told states a great deal about where societal values lie. Therefore, we are centering the narratives of artists of color who must be at the nexus of our nation at this critical point in our existence.”

“The twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism we’re facing give predominantly white cultural institutions like ours an opportunity to revolutionize the way they work,” said Artistic Director Jason Loewith. “For OTC, that means decentering my privileged role as curator and inviting others with a different point of view and background to share in building our theater’s future. We want OTC to matter to everyone in our community, and this is our first public step in making the table bigger.”

Just Arts Episodes

October 9, 7:00 pm – Equity
Curated by Nicole A. Watson

The cast of School Girls performs “Would You Harbor Me”
The cast of Round House Theatre’s production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, which Watson directed, returns for an encore performance of “Would You Harbor Me” by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

A Conversation with Mary Kathryn Nagle
A member of the indigenous community as well as lawyer and playwright, Mary Kathryn Nagle (Sovereignty) intersects many identities. She’ll join Nicole A. Watson in a conversation about how one can use art and other talents to promote equity.

Embrace Your Bravery
Mervin Primeaux-OBryant creates a visual art motion scene, fusing ASL, movement, and music together with footage taken of the streets of DC during the current Black Lives Matter protests and the past Civil Rights movement.

“Protected:” 4 pieces on Black Lives Matter
Photographer/actor Billie Krishawn has been documenting the protests happening in DC over the past few months. She teams up with Renea Brown , Heather Gibson , and Tyasia Velines to perform four original spoken-word pieces inspired by her photos.

A portraiture about Black women and how they have strived for equity in their communities within an unjust society. Through a series of interviews and poetry, Maya Jackson creates an intimate video essay with original music by Yesenia Iglesias .

Where Will We Go?
Poet TeeFlo performs a sign poem that addresses an intimate feeling of seeing the real-life gentrification of their favorite neighborhood in Scottdale, Georgia where their maternal grandmother grew up. “I may not live there, but I feel like it is the haven for so many black middle and poor families. This poem is dedicated to the loss of the neighborhood.”

Tempest Stokes is a proud member of the Black and Deaf community. She will perform an original poem using Black American Sign Language about the racial inequities in our society and police violence against people of color.

I Dissent
In honor of the late great Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, acclaimed actor Regina Aquino performs some words of wisdom from the Notorious RBG taken from a conversation with Bill Moyers.

October 16, 7:00 pm – Participation
Curated by Kevin McAllister
Featuring performances from Afro-Blue, Nova Payton, Cristina “Macho” Camacho, Tuyet Pham, Donovan Fowler, Delante Dates, Darrin Scott, Aaron Williams, Jelani Aladdin, Explicit Dance Works, Adelicia Villagaray, and the Baltimore City College Choir. The episode will support the work of the nonprofit Know Your Rights Camp.

October 23, 7:00 pm – Rights
Curated by Elena Velasco
Featuring the work of Maria Simpkins, Coyaba Dance, Jennifer White-Johnson, and Convergence Theatre. Supporting the nonprofits Just Neighbors and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).

October 30, 7:00 pm – Access
Curated by Chil Kong
Just in time for the election the next week, Chil facilitates a conversation on voting.


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