This weekend, Washington will witness an influx of burlesque dancers, aerial artists, hip-hop music and various forms of clowning and puppetry. No, the Fringe Festival is not arriving early. It’s “The New Orleans Bingo! Show,” and the somewhat surprising locale is the Kennedy Center.
If this interactive performance revue were advertised on a billboard, it might read: All expectations defied since 2002.
That was the year Ron Rona and Clint Maedgen, who worked at Fiorella’s, a maritime-themed fried chicken restaurant in the French Quarter, asked the owner whether they could use the back area — a small storage room, really — for a weekly “happening.” The event was partly an excuse to play bingo with the 800 vintage cards that Maedgen had bought at an antiques shop. But it also served as a creative outlet for the artsy neighborhood. Every week, Maedgen and Rona and an eclectic crew of New Orleans performers would jam and joke and dance and screen videos, among other creative pursuits, all while a game of bingo was going on.
“We were just a bunch of kids banging on pots and pans, doing all kinds of crazy stuff,” Rona recalls.
But something strange happened. Locals were drawn to the kitchen-sink approach.
“It became sort of the thing to do on a Thursday night,” Rona says. “We didn’t advertise; we didn’t do anything.”
The growing group of fans included Ben Jaffe, son of the founders of the revered Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the group’s creative director. As a New Orleans native who grew up surrounded by music, Jaffe thought he had seen it all . . . at least until he witnessed “Bingo! Show” around 2004.
“I remember the night I went in — you walk through the restaurant, past the kitchen, down this little side hallway and you walk into this little tiny room,” Jaffe says. “And you could feel the energy as you walked closer and closer to the room. It wasn’t loud, but it was an incredible intensity that you felt from the performers. And my eyes just kind of opened up. I had never seen or heard that type of complete immersion into a performance.”
That evening led eventually to a collaboration between “Bingo! Show” and Preservation Hall. Maedgen is now a singer and sax player in the jazz band, and Rona is the Hall’s managing director.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band has a long history performing at the Kennedy Center, so in some ways it makes sense that “Bingo! Show” would find a stage there, even if the performances sound like something that might fit a more experimental theater’s bill.
“It has elements of cabaret, it has elements of burlesque, but also elements of Tom Waits and Fellini and Charlie Chaplin,” Jaffe says. “And it has elements of playing bingo with your grandparents.”
Maedgen adds: “The fact that we have Big Freedia and Preservation Hall on the same bill kind of says it all.”
Bounce musician Big Freedia (né Freddie Ross) has the biggest shock potential for Kennedy Center audiences. Her music is a hip-hop offshoot that’s unique for its repetition, heavy bass and, most important, loads of booty shaking. The performance may sound subversive, but it exemplifies the creative impulses in New Orleans, says Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of community engagement. The city isn’t just a hotbed of jazz and blues.
“It’s not like we’re reaching far afield to look at what also comes from New Orleans,” Ross says.
“Bingo! Show” is the centerpiece of two weeks of programming that includes an array of free performances on the Millennium Stage, including zydeco and funk, a brass band and a slide guitarist. Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet also will perform in the KC Jazz Club.
“This whole program is a snapshot of New Orleans today,” Ross says. “It’s not just about the great cultural ambassadors that we think of, like Preservation Hall Jazz Band, like the Marsalis family.”
So leave your preconceived notions about the Big Easy at home.
“There’s an integrity to New Orleans music that is oftentimes lost in this perception of New Orleans music,” Jaffe says. “This whole idea of Mardi Gras beads and Bourbon Street and cheap beer.
“That was something that I appreciated about the ‘Bingo! Show.’ They allowed me to be proud to be a New Orleanian.”
Saturday at 8:30 p.m. The Music of New Orleans program continues through April 24. The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $20-$48.