Metro Opens Doors to Artists
Entertainers Audition For Gigs Near Stations

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

All journeys on Metrorail begin with the same introduction: "This is the [color] line to [terminal station]. The next station is [hopefully, yours]."

Should riders expect anything different when Metro officials invite the public to perform for them?

As acts walked through the door and moved to the center of the judging room at Metro's downtown headquarters last week, Michael McBride, the transit agency's art program coordinator, rarely deviated from his greeting: "Thank you for coming out today. You will have three minutes for your performance. We may stop you at any point for a variety of reasons. Please begin when you are ready."

Next stop, stardom?

For the second year, Metro and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities invited local entertainers to display their talents outside subway stations for the MetroPerforms! program. At auditions, the performers, like riders on any given train, reflected the diversity of history, talents and quirks of the city's residents.

Take DJ Flex Mathews -- a.k.a. Dathan Harbor at birth 27 years ago and contestant No. 12 to the judges Friday.

DJ Flex sported an Andy Warhol-inspired hoodie, which substituted the rapper ODB for brightly colored copies of Marilyn Monroe, and, oddly, a Yankees baseball cap. He must not have been concerned about giving pause to the judges as they pictured him performing outside the Navy Yard Station with Nationals Park in the background.

But any concern about his Yankee loyalties were mitigated by his talent. A regular on the District music scene, in recent years he has emerged on the national stage as an act on the Vans Warped Tour and as an opener for hip-hop star Lupe Fiasco. At the audition, he rapped about pride for his neighborhood, Columbia Heights, revealing that he avoids Target and would have preferred an Applebee's to Ruby Tuesday.

Not everyone was, like DJ Flex, a newcomer to the competition. Last year's MetroPerforms! pilot program received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the public, and several artists who got a spot enjoyed it enough to audition again this season.

"It went really well," Flo Anito said of her set at the bustling Gallery Place-Chinatown Station last year. "People kept trying to tip, but of course, they aren't allowed to."

Artists chosen for MetroPerforms! receive a $200 stipend per two-hour performance.

Judging contestants this year were McBride; Aisha Davis, Desho Productions president; Gloria Nauden, D.C. arts and humanities commissioner; Doug Yuell, Joy of Motion Dance Center executive director; and events producer Jonathan G. Willen of Willen & Associates. The criteria included expression, form, stage presence and experience.

Anito, who said she is a "young twentysomething," is influenced by artists such as Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. When she sang an original composition Saturday afternoon, the judges stopped her and asked, "Can you play something upbeat and that we are familiar with?"

A pause and a visible racking of the brain followed. A few seconds later, Anito launched into a cover of Blues Traveler's "Run-Around," to the obvious delight of her auditors.

The second time around for MetroPerforms! finds the program expanding from five to 10 stations in the District, with the number of performances nearly doubling to 40. Performances are planned for the Navy Yard, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Fort Totten, Anacostia, Takoma, Dupont Circle, Minnesota Avenue, Columbia Heights, Eastern Market and Woodley Park stations. They will take place from late spring through early fall and then during the holiday season, usually in the late morning and around the evening rush hour weekdays.

For more than three decades, Metro did not allow music in its stations because of concerns about noise and solicitation. Those concerns have been alleviated by having performers stand 15 feet outside station entrances so as to not block passengers.

Sequels are a tough sell, however. Despite the good reviews of the first MetroPerforms! and the larger scale of the second, the number of acts auditioning this year shrank.

Last year, there were 109 entries, with 22 acts awarded a station performance. The judges saw more than 30 acts in the first hour the first day, and there was a line waiting at the door the next morning. Last weekend's auditions were for three hours Friday night and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. With one hour remaining Saturday, the judges had seen 49 entries.

McBride attributed the smaller turnout to the quieter media attention the event received this year and a new rule requiring that the lead performer in an act live in the District. Last year, anyone could perform, but only D.C. residents received a stipend.

Contestants will find out May 16 whether they made the cut. McBride said he did not know how many acts would be chosen for the 40 performance slots. Some might perform multiple times.

Those who came out took their craft seriously and spoke earnestly of wanting to share it with the public.

District native Manatho Masani, 42, has played a small thumb piano, called the mbira, for 12 years. The instrument is indigenous to Zimbabwe, where Masani studied styles of play for six months last year.

"It is so rare. People are normally blown away. The music is striking; curiosity will draw people in," he said.

The four members of the Covington String Quartet had lower expectations of passersby who might hear them. Greg Pinney, one of two violinists in the group, said, jokingly, "If you can manage to make it in the Metro, you can make it anywhere."

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