John E. Dowell once had a dream in which his late grandmother beckoned him to visit the cotton fields of South Carolina as a way to honor their roots and legacy.
The Philadelphia-based photographer and Temple University art professor emeritus made good on the dream, snapping photographs of his journey South that eventually formed the basis of Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past.
The series of 35 large-scale photographs was presented as an exhibition in 2018 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Dowell’s haunting and often surreal images situate cotton both in the past and in the present of the African-American experience, and evoke the journey from rural Southern fields to the North, specifically the concrete canyons of New York City.
Five years later, Dowell’s photography has inspired a new musical work by rising classical composer Damien Geter, one that was imagined, curated, and commissioned by Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest recital series to commemorate its 20th anniversary.
Cotton is an intensely moving song cycle by the openly gay, Black composer that responds to Dowell’s imagery but also to original lyrics from eight luminary poets, “nationally renowned voices of the 21st century” also commissioned by Lyric Fest for Cotton: Charlotte Blake Alston, Nikki Giovanni, Afaa Michael Weaver, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Lauren Alleyne, Alora Young, Glenis Redmond, and Trapeta Mayson.
Three days after its world premiere later this month in Philadelphia, Washington Performing Arts presents the D.C. premiere of Cotton at the Kennedy Center as the organization’s inaugural Ruth Bader Ginsburg Memorial Recital.
Legendary mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a favorite artist of the late Supreme Court Justice who performed at her funeral, will be joined by up-and-coming baritone Justin Austin and accompanied by pianist and Lyric Fest director Laura Ward, for a multimedia performance enhanced with projections of Dowell’s images, plus video readings from the commissioned poets reading their works during the performance.
One night only. Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
Tickets are $30 to $75. Visit www.washingtonperformingarts.org or call 202-785-9727.
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