U Street NW

Washington, DC
U Street NW
Photo courtesy of Lincoln Theatre

Transcript of podcast about U Street, Washington, DC

Music: Sophisticated Ladies  /  Tapping feet

Jo Reed: Those are the dancing feet of Maurice Hines, who’s the star and choreographer of the musical revuew, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, produced by the Arena Stage and directed Charles Randolph-Wright. Sophisticated Ladies opened this spring at in Washington, DC, at the historic Lincoln Theater on U Street.  Welcome to Art Works, the show that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works.  I’m your host, Josephine Reed. For the past two decades, U street has transformed from a run-down, burnt-out dangerous neighborhood to the vibrant commercial, artistic, and entertainment center that it once was.  Andy Shallal is an artist, activist, and restaurateur in the area.

Andy Shallal: You know the arts are such a significant part of any community.  They define our humanity in so many ways and they certainly define communities.  Washington has started to recognize itself as really an arts center. There’s a real effort to revitalize the arts, and I think people are starting to understand, the importance of the arts, not just as a way to create this amazing vibe, in a given community, but the importance of the arts as an economic development engine. 

Reed: The successful revitalization of U Street is a case in point. It was fueled by the neighborhood’s rich cultural history and a determination to make it an artistic area once again. Because there was a time when the U Street Corridor was the center of black culture in the United States.

Kim Roberts:  In the 1920s, Pearl Bailey, who used to live in Washington D.C., she grew up here, she dubbed it "The Black Broadway." 

Reed: Kim Roberts is editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and a literary historian. 

Roberts: U Street is actually a neighborhood named for that street in Washington D.C.  And you have to understand that in the 1920s it was a time of segregation; there were two major commercial neighborhoods for African-American owned businesses in Washington.  There was the Seventh Street District and then there was U Street, and U Street was the fancy black neighborhood.  That's where you had a lot of the nicer nightclubs and restaurants.  And it was a place that launched a lot of careers of people in the arts.

Reed: Andy Shallal

Shallal:  It was called black Broadway where black artists and cultural icons and writers and, you know, intellectuals that came out of Howard University and other places, that’s where they hung out. 

Reed: Kim Roberts

Roberts: The movement that we now call the Harlem Renaissance is horribly misnamed.  That was a name that came much later.  And, of course, Harlem we think, oh it only happened in New York.  But it actually started in Washington, D.C., and it started right on U Street.  And so many of the musicians, dancers, writers, painters that we now associate with the Harlem Renaissance actually lived in D.C. – Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, the list just goes on and on.

Reed: Andy Shallal  

Shallal: And Washington is seventy percent black, it is the home of Howard University, which is one of the oldest black colleges in the country.  It’s, it’s a major cultural center, was known as the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, I think something that’s we’re really trying to bring back because a lot of people don’t know that.  The Howard Theater was built in 1905, a good twelve years before the Apollo.

Reed: The other great theater was the Linclon with its adjoining club, The Cotillion Room.

Eilene Lifesey is acting executive director of the Lincoln Theater .

Eilene Lifsey:  Well the theater first opened in 1922, and part of its history was, at that time Washington was a very segregated city, and so this was one of several theaters that were built specifically for African Americans so that they, too, could enjoy entertainment.  And this was opened as a first-run theater, and it was a premier theater for its time in reference to its architecture and the grandeur. 

Reed: Associate Artistic Director of Arena Stage, David Dower.

David Dower: The Lincoln Theater, back in the '20s, it functioned as a Broadway theater.  Underneath was a club, underneath the stage....

Lifsey:  There was a club called The Cotillion Room and people would come to the Lincoln and there was a walkway and they would walk through the back and they would go to the Cotillion Room...

Dower: ...it was one of the only places—some people have said the only place in D.C. at that time that blacks and whites could dance together. 

Lifsey:  People of color, came here, and they had their proms and coming out, the debutante balls.  And I understand that even President Franklin Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had an event here as well. 

Reed:  But change was coming to U Street and it wasn’t all good. Andy Shallal.

Shallal: U street has always acted as a bridge, at one point it was a moat .... and it changed over time.

Reed: Kim Roberts.

Roberts: It started in the Great Depression.  So after that, after the 1940s, the neighborhood went into a slow economic decline and, you know like many inner city neighborhoods. 

Reed: Eilene Lifsey.

Lifsey: Once you had a thriving area, then with integration people left the city and because you had more opportunity.  Now with that, almost 20, 30 years went on with that, and this was a very seedy area, unfortunately.  It was a lot of vice here.

Reed: Kim Roberts.

Roberts: And it remained this sort of sad inner city neighborhood, right up until the riots of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  At that point, we lost some of those historic buildings.  They just simply, they went up in flames.

Reed: Eilene Lifsey. 

Lifsey: The riots of 1968 just decimated this area, this corridor.  That’s from here all the way up to Howard University.

Reed: Thirteen people died in those riots. Almost 1200 people were injured. Over 600 buildings were destroyed. 900 businesses closed. Thousands were out of work. And the inner city economy was devastated. Eilene Lifsey. 

Lifsey: The Cotillion Room, that was one portion of the building that did not survive during the riots. That was gone.  Then the theater was a movie house and then it closed in 1979.

Reed: Kim Roberts.

Roberts: The neighborhood also sort of was in a stasis period, until about the 1990s, when we had a period of economic recovery. 

Reed: That economic growth led city planners, organizations and various artists to take another look at U Street, and they liked the possibilities they saw there.  

Music up....

The buildings that escaped the riots were often architectural gems. Ben’s Chilli Bowl, located next to the Lincoln Theater, opened its doors in1958 and could barely keep up with the demand for half-smokes .... One of the people investing in the area was artist and restaurateur, Andy Shallal, who’s the proprietor of Busboys and Poets. 

ShallalI’ve lived in Washington most of my life.  The U Street Corridor was changing and I wanted to be a part of that change.  Some of the change I thought was questionable, change that was really not connected to the community, it wasn’t thoughtful change.  I wanted to sort of be part of change that I thought really honors the past of that community, the past of the U Street Corridor and really the significance of this past in Washington’s history.

Reed: Still, the turnaround was a long one.

ShallalI remember when I was first developing Busboys and Poets that I would go in there sometimes in the middle of the night and sit in the place after all the construction crew goes home, to try to think of ideas, things that I could do in there.  And I remember sitting there on some nights where I would see four or five people walk by and most of them I didn’t want to see inside my place and it was a very sketchy area.

Reed: But the commitment to the area remained strong as did the determination to revive U Street’s cultural legacy and build upon it.  The Lincoln Theater was a natural project. Eilene Lifsey.

Lifsey: It had several different owners, and not until a group of concerned citizens here in the Shaw-Cardozo area and the District of Columbia pulled together and formed a group that brought it back--revitalized it. The Lincoln actually became the anchor, along with Ben’s, to restore a building to its historic grandeur and to be true to the period. There was some extensive work bringing in artisans and historians. Now, it’s as the building was intended to be originally.

Reed:  If the Lincoln Theater along with Ben’s Chili Bowl was one anchor, Andy Shallal’s Busboys and Poets became another. Named after the poet Langston Hughes, who had worked as a busboy, Busboys and Poets created a new model for a Washington gathering place. Andy Shallal.

Shallal:  Yes. It’s a bookstore, it’s a bar, it’s a wonderful restaurant.  It has a stage space in the back we call the Langston Room, a stage that we do all kinds of things on, everything from poetry, which is a very popular thing we do at Busboys and Poets, naturally, to book talks, to panel discussions, fundraisers, political conversations, you name it.  We also do music, all kinds of different things, everything that brings community together, we do there.

Reed:  Busboys and Poets became so successful that when the space across the street became vacant, Andy Shallal opened a restaurant there called Eatonville after another famous writer.

Shallal:  Eatonville is the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston, right outside of Orlando, Florida and the significance of the town is not only is it the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston, but it’s the oldest black town that was incorporated in the United States in 1887.  So it’s important on many different levels and certainly very complimentary to the Busboys and Poets across the street.

Reed:  And both are located two blocks away from the historic Lincoln Theater which brings us full circle to Sophisticated Ladies. ...

Duke Music.

The Arena Stage, which has its home in Southwest DC, was undergoing major renovation and it reached out to two of its neighbors, one of whom was the Lincoln Theater. Eilene Lifsey.

Lifsey:  We were Arena’s Washington, DC home base for the past two years, from 2008 to 2010, and they divided up their season of shows between ourselves and their other satellite and so we had a run of six performances, all very successful, several of which were even nominated in the last season of Helen Hayes awards.

Reed:  But bringing Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies to the Lincoln Theater seemed particularly fitting, almost like a homecoming. Associate Artistic Director of Arena Stage, David Dower.


Dower:  So when we talk about Sophisticated Ladies, it's at the Lincoln, which is one of the original black Broadway theaters. It’s actually the home of Duke Ellington, that’s where he began. You know, the show is a musical revue, it's all Duke Ellington music, and dance numbers.  And so for Duke, it was all about the music and it was all about sophistication and elegance. And so when you sit down to the performance of Sophisticated Ladies, we've taken the audience on a journey of archival photos from the neighborhood from the era that turns into something like a period film. It's a very short film clip of people on their way to dance at the Colonnade.  So they run down the alley and open the door to the Lincoln, to the stage door where the Colonnade entrance used to be, and they open right onto the stage.  And then the live performers who are in that film take over. It's as if the film has run right onto the stage, and the music begins, and off you go...

Music up...

Reed: Eilene Lifsey.

Lifsey:  This turned out to be a fantastic experience for all of us, Arena and the Lincoln alike because they tailored the piece to the direction of Charles Randolph-Wright to have an opening here at the Lincoln. And to hear some of the best of the Duke’s works performed on the stage that he himself may have performed some of those, it just brought chills. 

Reed: The history of Washington, DC, and most particularly of the U Street Corridor, was an important part of the preparation for the cast of Sophisticated Ladies. Kim Roberts.

Roberts: One of the things that was such a joy about that show, for me, I took the cast on a walking tour, while they were still in rehearsals and developing the play. And I walked with them around the neighborhood, and they were so excited to see places where Duke Ellington lived, where he performed, where he would've hung out.  It really made it real for them.  And then they were able to incorporate that into the show.  So this production of Sophisticated Ladies is very different than how they're presenting it in other cities.  This one is much more specific to D.C.

John Manzari: Duke first played in a club that was in the basement of the Lincoln Theatre, so for us to bring his music back to where he first performed, in the neighborhood where he grew up, that's very, very historic....


Reed: You just heard John Manzari, he and his brother Leo were two of the cast members who took the walking tour.  Born and bred in Washington, DC, these teenage tap-dancing brothers saw first-hand how deeply Duke Ellington’s music was tied to the U Street Corridor. John Manzari.

J. Manzari: For us personally, for us to grow up in DC, and to not really know as much about Duke's history, we know his music, and we know of his legacy, but we don't really know of his personal life or where he grew up, or what he enjoyed doing, or little stuff like that, which is what Charles Randolph-Wright really tried to do. He's really big on research, and that everything is very representative of how it was in the past. So for us to grow up in DC, and then to figure out how another legend grew up in DC, and then to perform where he first performed, is, it's a great honor.

Leo Manzari: Yeah, me and John obviously walked past the Lincoln Theatre plenty of times, not knowing that we'd be headlining, and especially not with Maurice Hines, and not to serve Duke Ellington.

Reed: Leo Manzari.

L. Manzari: The thing I most remember is, we were walking, I forgot what street it was, but we were walking down a street, and first you see his child home, and then on the other side, a couple of houses down, you see his teenage home, like where he lived, and how it was so close to the theatre. And it’s good because if the show started off in any other theatre, it wouldn't really be the same,  You hear reviews from audience members, they say the fact that the show takes place within this theatre, where Duke Ellington played, that's great, and it just adds a whole different vibe.

Reed: Opening Night of Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln Theatre was memorable...

music up

Reed: It was clear the show was a hit, star Maurice Hines was tap-dancing up a storm, Duke Ellington was back on U street where he belonged, and two stars were born, the Manzari brothers who literally stop the show. And where was the opening night party?  Two blocks away at Andy Shallal’s restaurant, Eatonville. Eilene Lifsey remembers that night.

Lifsey: Oh my.  It was really nice.  When I think about it I think of the phones were abuzz, the ticket-- it was, we had lots of dignitaries, VIPS, luminaries.  It was the must-have ticket in town for that week.  And to see Mr. Hines come up the, from the curtain, all of it was just a very real moment.  And my understanding is many people who were here that very night have come back, have been back and seen it two or three times. 

Reed: David Dower

Dower: Some of our subscribers have been with us for 50 years plus, and when we knew we were going to be out of the building to do this renovation, we did a survey of our audience.  And I mean, the smallest percentage of our audience said they were willing to go to U Street.  And so when we started programming there, we thought, "How are we going to make it up to these people?  They're afraid of this place."  We weren't.  It's history.  It's not its present in any way.  There was a moment in time when it was not a neighborhood where people would have walked two blocks at night to get from one thing to another, and whatever they were walking between wasn't going to be a Broadway-caliber show and then a leading nightclub, all within two blocks of each other.  But you were walking with some of those audience members this time, some of them in their 70s and 80s, just out strolling the neighborhood on their way to this club.  And then you get in the club, and you're in this whole other atmosphere.  You know, so it’s really, it’s exciting.

Reed: Eilene Lifsey

Lifsey: The other thing about this is, like you said, opening night.  It introduced a new group of people many of them being Arena subscribers to this area.  And now we get feedback from the restaurants and the other merchants on the area that there are a lot of people like to come that they weren’t customers before because they see oh, it’s very nice here.  It’s comfortable.  And I kind of would like to think that the Lincoln, we may be the gateway to the theater sector here.

Music up.

Reed: Andy Shallal

Shallal: Well you know Sophisticated Ladies is a very elegant play.  It has, I think there’s two hundred costume changes that happen in that play and it’s quite an exciting play and you oftentimes see people, especially more mature crowds, would come there all dressed up in their finest with the hats and the shoes and the dresses, walking from Eatonville, let’s say they’re having a pre-theater dinner there and walking to the Lincoln theater, it’s just beautiful.  It is what U Street used to look like and it’s a beautiful way to bring it back.

Reed: David Dower

Dower:  Well, you know so many things have happened. We talk a lot about the impact of the arts in general, not just on people but on communities.  And I’ll take you one very quick story.  One day, at a matinee, there was a woman, a couple of women, standing outside at the box office-- and I was just leaving the theater, and they were standing snapping their fingers, and they had the rhythm of, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," because it looked just like the finale to the show.  And I said, "Well, what'd you think of it?"  Because I thought they had seen it.  And she said, "No, we haven't been yet, we're just so excited."  And she introduced herself.  She's from this organization Links, which is an African-American women's organization, professional women's organization, and they were from the Arlington chapter.  And she wanted to know where to go eat, so I sent the group and Eatonville. Eatonville seated them without a reservation, there were 20 of them-- and then they came back to the theater and they saw the show.  And they were so blown away by the whole experience of being on U Street.  She came up to me and she said, "Well, what else should we do?"  And I said, "Oh, well," and I started to list off the shows that we're doing at Arena.  She goes, "No, we always come to the Arena shows.  I'm not talking about that.  What else should we do in the neighborhood?"  I want to know what's going on in this neighborhood.  Who can I ask?  Because we're the people who left."  And she started to talk about how it's been almost a generation since her organization, her friends, her relatives, have been on U Street.  A generation prior, it was the cultural center of the lives of their community, her specific community, and they'd been gone for this whole period.  And when she said that, I got chills.  Something else was happening that this show was doing that wasn't our doing, but it was, we were part of it.

Music up...Tapping.

 They've worked so hard on U Street and they've done such a great job; there's so many great merchants and so many beautiful places to eat and live and play.  But they really did need a catalyst, and I feel as though in some way-- more than 50 thousand people have seen the show already....

Reed: Andy Shallal

Shallal:  Every day I come in I see more, more, more.  More foot traffic, more people walking, and that’s really what makes a community vibrant is that streetscape, that vibrancy of people walking around, people feeling safe at night when they’re walking because there’s so many others out.  We have a patio, for example, at Eatonville, something that no one would ever dream to put, in that part of town certainly, but now it’s one of the most popular patios because it’s, it’s right there in the hub, it’s in the center of, of what’s happening in the city. 

Reed: Kim Roberts

Roberts: Because so many of those clubs have remained clubs, or have now reopened as clubs, because so many restaurants have come back to the neighborhood, it is once again resembling how it was in its heyday.  It's a neighborhood that is a draw from across the region, people will come there to hear great music and see shows.

Reed: Eilene Lifsey  

Lifsey:  Well isn’t that something to a testament to how DC has come alive, not just the Lincoln, the U Street corridor, this whole inner city downtown corridor is very vibrant.

Reed: Andy Shallal

Shallal:  I’m always amazed, dollar for dollar when you spend money on the arts you get them back in folds and folds and folds. And if more economic development gurus would learn to understand that, I think economic development can take place in a much more rapid way.  People do not move into a community because it has a Mattress Discounters in it, they move into a community because it’s got beautiful arts communities, arts spaces. 

Reed: David Dower

Dower:  That's been just incredible to watch.  Again, the confluence of the merchants, the residents, and the local, whatever the really local, micro-local government structures are, all coming together to say, "This matters to us."  Now, it's not all just subsidies.  Some of it is subsidy, but what the merchants were doing was they were marketing their restaurants to our patrons and through our patrons, and so we weren't asking them for anything other than "Be open and have a quality product, and be there."  And so some of it is really just being neighbors and being citizens.  People at Steppenwolf talk quite a bit about the role of Steppenwolf as a citizen of its community, and they've really developed this notion, and I think we're taking a page out of there book in trying to feel that everywhere we go. "What is our citizenship opportunity here, not just our responsibility?"  And I think there's a certain amount of hand-out in the world of cash, and there's an awful lot of heart-out going back the other way that I think actually turns into a commodity for the neighbors and the merchants and the city itself.  So I think there's a lot of studies, lot of conversation about that impact of the arts as an economic engine.  I think sometimes we overlook the impact as a sort of intrinsic humanizing engine as well.

Sophisticated Ladies was so popular with Washington, DC audiences that Arena Stage had to extend the run, twice. When it closed at the end of June it had broken every box office record for both Arena Stage and the Lincoln Theatre.

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the associate producer.

Excerpts from live performances of Sophisticated Ladies, used courtesy of Arena Stage.

Excerpts from "In a Sentimental Mood, ”"It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got that Swing),” and Sophisticated Lady,” from the cd Sophisticated Lady, performed by Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra; it’s used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment. 

Thanks to our contributors:

David Dower

Eilene Lifsey

John and Leo Manzari

Kim Roberts

Andy Shallal

And a special thanks to Kirstin Franko.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, we continue our exploration of art in the capital with an in-depth look at Duke Ellington and his Washington, DC roots. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEA/Arts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Additional credit: Excerpts of "In a Sentimental Mood,” "It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got that Swing)", "Sophisticated Lady" taken from the album Sophisticated Lady (2007, originally released 1941) composed by Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, and Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, and Mitchell Parrish, respectively, used by permission of Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC  [ASCAP].


Josephine Reed talks with a collection of local experts about the history and revitalization of U Street, NW in Washington, DC. Once known as the "Black Broadway," U Street is again a vibrant cultural place in the city, as evidenced by Arena Stage's smash production of Sophisticated Ladies at the historic Lincoln Theatre. [25:57]