Stokes jazzed by old-time black D.C.

  • The Washington Examiner
  • |
  • November 08, 2005

by Karen Feld

Stokes jazzed by old-time black D.C.

“That’s the Apollo of D.C. It’s such an historic theater,” Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell told me over lunch at Poste Moderne Brasserie. He was referring to the renovated Lincoln Theatre on U Street – although the ceiling is again in disrepair – where he performed his successful one-man musical show, “Love/Life – A Life in Song,” last week.

The Lincoln was once the center of Washington’s Black Broadway. Duke Ellington and Count Basie played there. “The theater is tuned by the energy of the people, the vibe from the eclectic audience,” Stokes (Mitchell, who prefers his middle name) said. “It’s a sacred place. I was raised on the sounds of Duke Ellington. I feel a mix of euphoria and terror on stage here.”

This versatile performer – who calls Washington his second home – does all of it well. He’s always on the move. So there’ll be a chance to hear him again; he’ll be back in town soon enough.

Evolving ‘a life in song’

“I want to keep evolving,” Stokes told me. “That’s the story of my career.

“Art is not in the notes but in the spaces between the notes,” he continued in his Zen-like mood. “The very thought of you … space, space … .”

Stokes performs a medley of songs from the ’30s and ’40s. “I listen to the music of an era or a country. It was a very romantic time, a slower time. Now everything is about sound bites, rap, constant words. Our world is going so quickly, too.” He likes to take in the rhythm of that era.

A world ‘less subtle’

“Romance evolves in different ways,” he told me. “The world is now crass, crude and less subtle than it used to be. We’re in a primal colors world again. Constant change is here to stay.”

Stokes feels strongly that politicians should do their thing, artists should do theirs and both should meet somewhere in the middle. Arts programs get cut first and sports are the last to get cut in our schools – that’s the money-maker for colleges and universities, he says. “Arts are incredibly valuable. It’s slower, more subtle development – not like sports where you see muscles develop. Art creates massive depth in people. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not now. Life is slow. That’s the way life works. I’ve worked in the arts all my life. It takes a long time to do it right.”

Typecast? Rewrite yourself

Stokes believes that “it’s a good idea to rewrite yourself every now and then. I can get typecast very quickly. The CBS-TV series ‘Trapper John, M.D.’ typecast me” – he had a seven-year stint on the series – “but I did score a few episodes. Television is a killer of careers. No one knew I did musical theater, so I went to Broadway to rewrite myself for others.”

Now he’s done that again in this one-man show. He also arranged most of the songs, and he says composer John Williams is his hero. One of those numbers is a terrific rendition of “Hooray for Tim,” the Bruce Hornsby tune. It’s very different than when the baritone performed at the Kennedy Center recently backed by a 75-piece orchestra.

Stokes meets Hornsby

While I was interviewing Stokes over lunch, who should drop in but Bruce Hornsby. He had driven up to D.C. from his home in Williamsburg, Va., to meet Stokes. “The elusive Brian Stokes Mitchell. I’ve never heard him do my song,” said Hornsby, who is currently making a bluegrass record with Ricky Skaggs.

It’s definitely mutual admiration between the two very different and eclectic talents. “I like the way you tell a story and construct your music,” Stokes told Hornsby. “I play your albums – I’ve played ‘Hooray for Tom’ a hundred times. The piano work hit me.”

Grammy Award-winner Hornsby explained that the song was written about one of his sons who hated school. “It’s a bittersweet little story from the kid’s point of view,” Stokes said. “The piano playing is beautiful and the strings a tasteful arrangement.”

Stokes asks the waiter, “Any more purple food?” He had just finished a fish filet topped with an egg poached in red wine. Sure enough, the waiter brought him a piece of purple-colored grape-flavored cheesecake.

Q-and-A between artists

Then my job got easier. I just listened while Stokes and Hornsby “interviewed” one another, each in his inevitable personal style. Stokes asked Hornsby, “Do you have one favorite song you’ve written?”

“Not one favorite. I have a favorite song on each record, like ‘Dreamland’ – the song with Elton [John].”

Hornsby’s turn. He asks Stokes: “Do you have a favorite play?” Response: “The one I’m doing.”

Hornsby: “Have you ever done one that sucks?”

Stokes: ” ‘Cycles’ in the 1970s. It was about reincarnation in the ’70s. There were only four people in the audience.”

Possible collaboration

The conversation turned to the possibility of a collaboration between the two men – but that’s for a later column – and then to one of Stokes’ favorite playwrights, August Wilson, who died last month of cancer. “It’s too bad he died before he got a Kennedy Center Honor. He deserved it.”

Working for the Actors’ Fund

Stokes is scheduled to participate in a “Broadway Meets Country” concert Saturday at New York’s Frederick Rose Hall at Lincoln Center. The show benefits the Actors’ Fund of America, of which Stokes is president, and the American Red Cross fund for victims of Hurricane Katrina. It will combine performances by Music Row stars such as Trisha Yearwood, Trace Adkins and Glen Campbell with those of the Great White Way, like Idina Menzel and Ben Vereen. The show is part of the festivities leading up to the CMA Awards, which take place Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden.

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