April 5, 2012 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Howard renaissance

Wanda Sykes
8 p.m. (doors open 6)
April 13
Howard Theatre
630 T Street, NW
$95 general admission tables, $125 booths

Wanda Sykes returns to D.C. next weekend to open the Howard Theatre. (Photo courtesy Howard)

 

Some venues, especially large arenas and sheds named after financial institutions or phone companies, are just venues — big sterile caves with concrete slab floors and tacky concession stands selling hot dogs and nachos in the lobby. They usually have less personality than your average shopping mall.

Then there are spots whose walls practically hum with historic significance — the Apollo, Radio City Music Hall, Red Rocks and so on. One of the country’s lost gems has been rediscovered and after a $29 million restoration, is almost ready to be unveiled — D.C.’s Howard Theatre, the Shaw-based concert hall that hosted singers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes. The refreshingly cool catch? One of the anchor performers for opening weekend is an out-and-proud lesbian — comedian Wanda Sykes.

And Sykes is psyched.

“I’m really honored they asked me to come help open it,” she says during a phone interview last week from Australia where she’s touring. “I was like, ‘Of course, yeah,’ I’m very excited, very honored. It’s pretty spectacular. They wanted to send me some pictures, but I said, ‘No, let me wait and see it when it’s fully done.’ I wanna get the full impact in person.”

The 12,000-square-foot space, which, depending on the show, can accommodate either 650 seated or 1,100 standing, opened in 1910 as a spot for vaudeville, theater, talent shows and two performance companies, the Lafayette Players and the Howard University Players (it’s never been affiliated with nearby Howard University). After the stock market crashed in 1929, it was briefly a church until 1931 when it was changed back into a performance space and launched with Washingtonian Duke Ellington playing the first night. Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine won early talent contests there. After black performers as diverse as Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Smokey Robinson and more played there over the years, it suffered a blow after the 1968 D.C. riots and eventually closed in 1980.

The rapper Wales, a D.C. native, is officially the first performer for the refurbished theater. He plays a soft opening on Monday. A grand opening gala and tribute concert for Motown founder Berry Gordy is Thursday with performers Robinson, Al Jarreau, Keb Mo and others. Then Sykes plays next weekend with shows on April 13, 14 and 15.

But she’s not just an of-the-moment contemporary black performer who happened to be available. Reps from the theater say she’s a logical successor to Moms Mabley, the late great comedian who did lesbian stand-up routines as far back as the ‘20s.

“Wanda is perfect to re-launch the Howard Theatre because she really represents a continuum between herself and Moms Mabley,” says Marc Powers, director of marketing for the Howard. “Moms Mabley was one of the leading women comedians in America in the ‘20s and ‘30s and she really got her start here at the Howard. Wanda Sykes is also kind of that charming, girl-next-door type. She helps people get close to her as she criticizes America about sexuality, about class warfare … Moms Mabley was much the same thing and even though people say she wasn’t a lesbian, she was … Moms Mabley was cutting edge and there’s a very strong gay and lesbian history at the Howard.”

Other performers slated for the coming months include the Roots (April 15), Chaka Khan (May 5), Esperanza Spalding (May 12) and Bettye LaVette (Oct. 27). Bi bassist/singer Meshell Ndegeocello plays April 25.

The venue will be managed by Blue Note Entertainment Group. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and tagged on President Clinton’s “Save America’s Treasures” list in 2000, a non-profit Howard Theatre Restoration was formed in 2006 to raise funds for the restoration. The Restoration raised nearly $2 million — city government gave $12 million in grants and tax credits while Eagle Bank stepped in with the remainder. Work began in September 2010.

Powers says there’s a lot of buzz and excitement at the theater as staff gear up for next weekend’s opening festivities. Some finishing touches are still being added — seat padding, sound system and lighting tweaks, paneling.

He says the Howard won’t be a relic — it’s designed to be a versatile, thriving space where music of many genres and performers of all races can thrive.

“We’re going to have such an array of talent, it’s really going to be what the Howard has always been — the theater of the people,” Powers, who’s straight, says. “The people of D.C. are diverse, so we’ll represent that and there will be shows that appeal to people from all walks of life.”

Sykes busy with touring, film

Wanda Sykes says life is good. During a mid-week chat last week from Australia where she’s performing a two-week mini-standup tour, she says she’s having fun.

“They’re very nice here, but it’s kind of a phony nice,” she says from her hotel in Melbourne. “It’s that passive-aggressive-type nice. Like the other day at breakfast, I asked for a mimosa and she looked at me kinda funny. I said, ‘You know, Champagne and orange juice,’ and she smiled but it was that fake smile like she was saying, ‘That’s the shit you drink for breakfast.’”

Sykes and her wife, Alex, have twins who will be 3 at the end of the month. She says they’re “doing great” and though both parents travel extensively for work, they’re in a solid routine that works.

“When I’m there, we get the real quality time together and they’re used to both of us traveling so it just works,” she says.

Sykes is mainly touring these days though she just finished an independent film called “Hot Flashes.” Listen for her in “Ice Age 4” this summer.

When we talked, Sykes hadn’t heard of her former co-star Jane Fonda’s latest turn as Nancy Reagan but says she’ll be curious to see the film when it’s finished.

“I love Jane and we keep in touch,” Sykes says. “She’s great. She’s just totally Hollywood royalty and she was so gracious when we worked together. I was nervous [about “Monster-in-Law”]. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna be in this movie with Jane Fonda,’ but after you meet her, you just calm down and you realize she’s just a good broad, she really is.”

Sykes says other than getting invited to every LGBT event imaginable, the biggest difference in her work since coming out is her ability to be freer on stage.

“It was so liberating,” she says. “There’s nothing hanging over my head, so it’s been great career wise. There hasn’t been anything that would make me go, ‘Oh no, I regret it.’ It’s all been very positive. I’m very happy and grateful.”

JOEY DiGUGLIELMO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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