A minor tempest that surfaced at the Mayor's Arts Awards last Monday continued to brew last week, with a performance artist claiming the D.C. Commission of the Arts and Humanities triedto censor a poem he was to perform at the ceremony -- because of the word "corruption" and the presence of Mayor Marion Barry.
At the awards ceremony, poet Essex Hemphill and his partner, musician Wayson Jones, recited "Family Jewels," a poem about a young black man in Washington unable to hail a taxi because of his race. Hemphill said last week that it was Arts Commission Executive Director Barbara Nicholson who asked him only hours before the show to change the word "corruption," drop the poem or not perform at all, because it might embarrass the mayor, in light of current investigations of the District government.
Hemphill, who says the poem has nothing to do with the current political climate, says he told her he wouldn't read the poem, but when he got on stage, he read it anyway, leaving nothing out. Afterward he delivered a speech about censorship and the commission. After a brief silence, most of the crowd cheered, and he finished his performance with another poem.
Reached Friday, Nicholson confirmed that she asked Hemphill not to use the poem because of the reference to corruption.
"I considered it inappropriate for the event, which was a celebration of artists -- a light, upbeat evening," she said. "There's a fine line between saying what's appropriate and censorship."
But Nicholson says she never forbade Hemphill to perform the poem and says she did not want him to change words in it.
"I am an artist and I know how important words are to the artwork," says Nicholson. "I just wanted to point out to him that I was making a judgment call on the setting for it, not the quality or esthetics."
Nicholson says she believes the commission has that right. "It's our event, and it's paid for by tax money," she said. "I felt we should have our say."
Hemphill also says he was never forbidden, but that "they did not want me to do it and I felt that pressure."
Likening Hemphill to "a spoiled child who has reprimanded us publicly," Nicholson nevertheless said his requests for grants from the commission will not be adversely affected by the incident. "We have never questioned his work before when it's come here," she said. "And we will support him in the future."
As it went, Barry reportedly was not perturbed by the poem. "He only asked generally what it was all about," Nicholson said, and added, "We don't all quiver when we hear the word 'corruption,' but we have to suffer with the image and perception and that has an impact."
The Mall's Public Party
There have been private parties galore celebrating the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, but today the public will finally get a chance to descend (it's all underground, except for the twin pavilions) and admire the buried treasures. There will be a ribbon-cutting dedication ceremony, with music by the Navy ceremonial band, at noon today in the new Enid A. Haupt Garden on Independence Avenue, behind the Smithsonian Castle. At 12:25 p.m., former ambassador to Britain Anne Armstrong, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams and Secretary Emeritus S. Dillon Ripley will cut the ribbon, 2,500 balloons will rise skyward and the doors will open.
The day has also been declared "Smithsonian Institution Day" by Mayor Barry.
Watch out, Air & Space.
There seems to be a plethora of art from Vietnam in town this week. Now at the Washington Project for the Arts, "War and Memory: In the Aftermath of Vietnam" chronicles the public's reaction to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since its dedication in 1982. The 75 photos, by Sal Lopes, Wendy Watriss and Lloyd Wolf, are stirring and disturbing. Wolf, a Washington resident, also has works from his book "Facing the Wall" on display at the Source Theatre's Mainstage. The theater is now running "How I Got That Story," a show with allusions to Vietnam, and plans to run artwork that connects with themes in future plays.
And to follow up: Donna Marie Boulay, organizer of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, was in town last week, continuing her efforts to get a statue honoring women in Vietnam up by next Veteran's Day. She met all week with politicians and veterans groups and says she is optimistic. Sitting in the dappled grove that landscape architects have chosen for the site of the monument if it receives approval, Boulay points to the wall in the near distance. "This will complete the triangle," she says, referring to the wall, the current realistic statue of three soldiers and her statue. "It will balance it." The model for the statue is now up at the WPA show