Initiated in 2011 by ARCH Development Corporation, the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award “recognizes living East of the Anacostia River artists for creative excellence as well as for having significant impact on the cultural landscape of Washington, DC,” according to the nonprofit’s press release. In addition to the prestige of receiving the award, an ARCH board member funds a $5,000 cash prize.
In past years, many of the recipients have been visual artists. The roster of winners includes Rik Freeman, BK Adams and Luis Peralta. However, 2019 is a year of firsts for the award.
For the first time, two artists will be presented with the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award – John Johnson and Adele Robey. Both are performing artists, another first. On Friday, August 9, Johnson and Robey will introduce each other and receive their awards at a ceremony held at the Anacostia Arts Center.
“It is a privilege to annually present this award,” explains ARCH president and CEO Duane Gautier, “not only to honor this year’s selected artists but to recognize the breadth of artistic talent that resides east of the Anacostia River.” As the list of recipients of the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award demonstrates, the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River abound with artistic talent including visual artists, writers, poets, playwrights and performing artists.
John Johnson is a native Washingtonian who grew up in Shaw and moved to Historic Anacostia in 2004, where he lives with his family. His native Shaw has changed radically in the last 15 years, and he now sees inevitable transformation underway in Anacostia.
“I celebrate the culture of the city which is threatened right now by gentrification and development,” reveals Johnson.
When he moved to Anacostia, Johnson made a concerted effort to connect with the community. Johnson recalls winters clearing snow for his elderly neighbors. In addition to helping them, he gained their trust. Trust led to a series of conversations which inspired Johnson to write a play, “I Am Anacostia,” to showcase the stories of long-time neighborhood residents.
The initial success of this endeavor led to a larger project, “Anacostia Unmapped,” which Johnson produced in collaboration with Kymone Freeman, the co-owner of Anacostia’s We Act Radio, and Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a local housing activist. The project, documented online at www.anaocostiaunmapped.com, includes interviews with Anacostia residents, among them John Johnson and Adele Robey. Some of the interviews have been aired on National Public Radio.
I asked Johnson what it meant for him to win the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award. His reply: “I feel honored to be recognized by my community. It’s motivating.” Johnson also concedes that the cash award will allow him to continue his work, stating that “an economic incentive is a way to fill up your tank again.”
Adele Robey has dedicated her career to the arts. Both a performing and a visual artist, Robey has been a driving force in the city’s creative and civic life for over 35 years. Notably, she is a founding member of Theater Alliance, which debuted when Robey sat on the board of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW).
She and her late husband Bruce Robey began the H Street Playhouse at 1365 H St. NE in 2001. “H Street educated us. It’s not that people didn’t want a theater. It’s that people didn’t know what we were going to do,” Robey explains. She worked with community organizations and residents to assure them that the theater would work with local artists and offer them an opportunity to be heard, seen and shown.
In 2012, after deciding not to renew her lease due to skyrocketing rents in the Atlas District, Robey chose to relocate the H Street Playhouse to Anacostia, where she now resides. With the lessons of opening the H Street Playhouse clearly in mind, and having gained the trust of the artistic community, Robey met with neighborhood organizations like the Historic Anacostia Block Association (HABA) and the Far Southeast Strengthening Coalition in advance of opening the theater. Robey also worked with both ARCH Development Corporation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to find space and funding. In summer 2013, after a year of construction, the doors of the Anacostia Playhouse opened.
When asked what receiving this award means to her, Robey replied, “It was a shock for me to receive this because I rarely get a chance to act anymore. I get a whole lot of gratification helping people create theater but I often forget myself.” Having only been on stage eight times in the last 19 years, Robey had the opportunity to play the lead role in a critically acclaimed production of “Driving Miss Daisy” at the Anacostia Playhouse in December 2017. She acted alongside longtime friend James Foster Jr., with whom she worked at CHAW. Foster played the role of Miss Daisy’s driver, Hoke Coleburn.
From the H Street Playhouse to the Anacostia Playhouse
Johnson and Robey’s friendship and professional relationship began when Johnson received an individual artist grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities after finishing college. With his project funded, Johnson sought a venue to realize and perform his production. He called every theater in DC but none responded to his queries except Adele Robey at the H Street Playhouse. Johnson credits that moment as “the launching pad and the beginning of my artistic career.” Now, over a decade and a half later, Johnson and Robey will introduce each other at the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award ceremony recognizing their talents and myriad accomplishments.
The ninth East of the River Distinguished Artist Award will take place on August 9 at 7 p.m. at the Anacostia Arts Center, 1231Good Hope Road SE.
Phil Hutinet is the publisher of East City Art, DC’s alternative art source. For more information visit www.eastcityart.com.