Bonus Material

D.C. as a Home for Artists and Writers: An Editor’s Note

Guest Essays
Nathan Pugh

February 21, 2024

Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh (he/him) is a writer, journalist, and culture critic based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is gay, biracial, and Filipino American. Pugh’s writing focuses on identity in performance both on and off the stage (with special attention paid to race, sexuality, gender, and nationality). His bylines include Theatrely, DC Theater Arts, DCist, NPR’s It’s Been a Minute and Code Switch, and the Wesleyan Argus. In 2021, Pugh graduated from Wesleyan University where he was a theater and English major with a concentration in race/ethnicity. He currently works as a copywriter for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Pugh is available for contact through his website and on Insta/Twitter @nathanpugh_3.

For the past few years, people in my life have asked me when I’ll leave the Washington, D.C. area and move to New York City. My artist aunt tells me that’s where she found a community of artists. College friends who grew up in the five boroughs ask me when I’ll “finally” pull the trigger and go. Even my coworkers say they can see me up there soon.

As someone who’s devoted much of my professional and personal life to theater, I understand why they want to see me in such a creative hub. But embedded within these questions, I sometimes feel a disdainful assumption that Washington, D.C. isn’t the right place for artists. It feels like my friends are idealizing New York as a place for activist, visionary folks — a world of progressive ideals where diversity is increasing, and a haven for radicals making boundary-pushing art. In my friends’ minds, maybe D.C. is the opposite of New York: D.C. is a city for bureaucratic, by-the-book folks. Maybe it’s a world of neoliberal ideals where diversity is decreasing every decade. Maybe it’s a haven only for the buttoned-up networkers who speak in the language of humble-brag LinkedIn posts.

I’ll sometimes bring up Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as a signal that D.C. and the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) is also a radical space for artists. The company produces dramaturgically and structurally experimental works. They champion contemporary plays written by Black playwrights. They feature subject matters that provoke discomfort and then ask audiences to investigate that discomfort.

Woolly Mammoth is often spoken about in relationship to New York City: artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes previously worked at The Public Theater, the company won a Tony Award for producing the Broadway production of A Strange Loop, and their co-presentation of Public Obscenities recently played off-Broadway. Yet to situate Woolly Mammoth as a provocative theater company that belongs in New York City, but is somehow in D.C., is incorrect. D.C. is full of Black artists grappling with disruptive legacies and life experiences, and Woolly Mammoth is simply platforming them.

In many ways, The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes by Vivian J.O. Barnes (a world premiere playing through March 3, 2024) is a classic Woolly Mammoth show. It’s also a show uniquely informed by D.C. culture and history. Barnes grew up in the DMV area, and the show is part of Woolly Mammoth’s Weissberg Commissions, a grant for “Artists who were born, raised, or based in the DMV area are chosen based on their artistic innovation and the way they center racial justice in their works.”

The play follows an all-Black college dance group as they prepare for a Homecoming dance — but nothing is as it seems, and a sense of dread and disturbance threatens the characters and theatrical world.

As a theater critic, I’ve covered Woolly Mammoth shows before. Critical discourse around their productions can frustratingly fall into two camps: either critics are coolly derisive about some of the disturbing material presented, or critics politely tip-toe around their actual feelings, unequipped with the language (or word counts) to truly engage with the shows’ arguments about society and identity.

When I was asked by 3Views on Theater to guest-curate and edit an issue, I knew that Woolly Mammoth would be a great D.C. theater to cover. I wanted to intervene in the critical discourse of Woolly Mammoth by giving space and time for writers to deeply consider all of their thoughts on a production. I also wanted to include 3 Black writers who were each able to bring 3 different perspectives, life experiences, and relationships to theater to their views.

I’m very excited to share three critical viewpoints on The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes. Kayla Randall (a journalist who’s written for both national and local publications) explores the duality of dreams and dread related to Homecoming, and how the show subverts expectations. Sidney Monroe Williams (a performer and Assistant Professor of Theatre & Dance at George Washington University) writes about their full experience attending Mink-ettes, and the show’s representation of majorettes. Tariq O’Meally (a choreographer whose work has been produced across the D.C. area, including at the Kennedy Center) highlights the show’s mixture of exhaustion and joy, and includes excerpts from an interview with Mink-ettes choreographer Ashleigh King.

I hope that these three pieces of writing — thoughtful, probing works by Black writers discussing an ambitious Black show — help prove that D.C. is already a home for artists breaking the mold. Who knows where else The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes will be performed in the future, but this show is speaking directly to D.C. audiences right now. My hope is that D.C. audiences are listening attentively, and crafting criticism that only writers from the area could create.

Join Our Mailing List

Thank you! More views are coming your way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
A Project of The Lillys
Web Design and Development by 
FAILSPACE Design Services
.insight-body figcaption a { font-size: 14px; }