WASHINGTON — Have you noticed the Kennedy Center bathed in red, white and blue lights lately? Or the bold letters “JFK 100” stenciled atop the building?
It’s all for the JFK Centennial, a yearlong celebration that culminates this week with a final string of events building up to what would have been President John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday on May 29.
“We’re taking this centennial to remind people that we are the memorial to John F. Kennedy, [which] I think, some people forget; they think it’s the name of a place like Kennedy Airport or Kennedy Space Center, but this is the memorial,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter told WTOP. “[First lady Jackie Kennedy] knew his memory could live on through a living memorial. So, every day we celebrate John F. Kennedy. … It gives us an inspiration when we are programming what we do in that center.”
It was certainly a unique task putting together the lineup of events for “JFK 100.”
“When you have an anniversary in a performing arts center, you can celebrate a composer, you can celebrate a performer or choreographer very easily because they created performing works,” Rutter said. “What do you do when you’re a performing arts center honoring a president? We spent a lot of time thinking about it [and] decided we would focus on what he stood for [particularly] on five ideals: Service, Courage, Justice, Freedom and — after we spoke with his family — we added Gratitude.”
The week of events kicks off Tuesday with “Rebirth of a Nation,” as Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky will reinterpret D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking yet racially offensive movie “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).
“It’s a multimedia event with music, a little bit of video, a little bit of spoken word … to take this really iconic work and have a new perspective on it with a new voice to the Kennedy Center,” Rutter said. “The art of our day — in terms of having music from hip-hop artists — has been a really important addition to the Kennedy Center. We’ve had Nas, Common, and Q-Tip is now our artistic adviser.”
On Wednesday, get ready for renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma with the National Symphony Orchestra, performing a collection of John Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Mason Bates.
“Yo-Yo Ma helped raise money for the nation’s cultural center before it was the Kennedy Center,” Rutter said. “He performed for John F. Kennedy when he was 7, his sister played the piano and Leonard Bernstein was the host of a fundraising event that the Kennedys graced with their presence. … So, Yo-Yo is really out lead on all things ‘JFKC,’ our way of referring to the centennial.”
On Thursday, “The Hubble Cantata” salutes the Hubble satellite on the anniversary of Kennedy’s Moon Shot. Metropolitan opera star Nathan Gunn will join acclaimed soprano Talise Trevigne, music director Julian Wachner, a 20-piece orchestra, and a 100-person choir from The Washington Chorus.
“A fantastic female composer Paola Prestini has written this work,” Rutter said. “It has a virtual reality component to it. It is so cool! And it is on the day of the anniversary of his Moon Shot speech, so we’re delighted to have this brand new work. There’s been a lot of excitement about it, there’s a lot of buzz.”
Similarly, The Washington Ballet presents its “Frontier” space ballet from Thursday though Sunday.
“What’s been really great is the number of arts organizations across the city who’ve been connected to this centennial,” Rutter said. “We’re really proud that The Washington Ballet is in residence that week and are a part of our celebration. … We’re really pleased the ballet is performing that week.”
On Saturday, check out the Kennedy Center Open House with free activities from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“The Open House is something that’s been really popular at the Kennedy Center,” Rutter said. “It will be an all-day celebration … all kinds of events, inside, outside, inside the performance spaces, some really unexpected stuff and some more traditional …. a lot of family activities. Please come on down.”
Sunday brings the annual National Memorial Day Concert, featuring the NSO on the National Mall.
“This is of course filmed live on PBS, but it’s better to be in person,” Rutter said. “[It’s] a wonderful program, their traditional concert. [You] can’t have [Memorial Day] weekend without it.”
It all culminates Monday with the JFK Centennial Celebration on Kennedy’s actual 100th birthday.
“The fact that Memorial Day is his birthday is really special, it was just all meant to be,” Rutter said. “We have a lot of spoken word, music and dance, but this is not a musical variety show; it’s more about reflecting on who he was. … So, we have some fantastic actors, dancers, performers, Martin Sheen will be there, one of the prima ballerinas of our day Tiler Peck will be there, Renee Fleming will be singing, we have some surprises along the way, but it’s intended to be open and affordable to all.”
Of course, if you have a little cash to spare, you can donate to the Kennedy Center’s arts mission with the “35 Days of Giving,” named after Kennedy’s place as the 35th president of the United States.
“Everybody refers to the president by the number [’35’], so we have built a program for giving [over] 35 days leading up to May 29,” Rutter said. “We have a challenge grant from a wonderful D.C. family, Shelley and Allan Holt, who will match every gift 2-to-1. … The idea being that people can give back to their cultural center in honor of his birth at any level. We have a $5 gift, a $5,000 gift, even larger gifts. … Any gift makes a difference and you can feel like you’re helping celebrate John F. Kennedy.”
That celebration will continue beyond the centennial, thanks to the Kennedy Center’s enduring work.
“Kennedy was not just a young, inspirational, optimistic politician, he also really thought about the world in a different way,” Rutter said. “He was the first politician to use television, he was the first to speak to our society in a different way. He was aspirational. He was the one who encouraged us to think about our role as citizens in a different way. … He was always pushing us to think differently about our role in society, so I really believe that this whole week of programming is about that.”
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