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Outstanding artists of many disciplines unite to explore African American stories touched by the ‘soft, dangerous beauty’ of cotton

This first annual Washington Performing Arts Ruth Bader Ginsburg Memorial Recital offers a powerful song cycle drawing on premier talents in both the performing and visual arts—including the legendary mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, Washington Performing Arts’s 2016 Ambassador for the Arts, a favorite artist of Justice Ginsburg’s, and a performer at the late Justice’s funeral.

COTTON was imagined, curated, and commissioned by Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest recital series in commemoration of their 20th Anniversary. The work was inspired by photographer John E. Dowell’s similarly named exhibition, COTTON: THE SOFT, DANGEROUS BEAUTY OF THE PAST, whose own inspiration was a dream of Dowell’s, in which his late grandmother called upon him to visit the cotton fields of South Carolina, where their ancestors were likely enslaved. Dowell’s haunting and often surreal images situate cotton in an African American narrative both past and present, from rural Southern fields to the concrete canyons of New York City. Rising-star composer Damien Geter, hailed by the Washington Post for “an ambitious, transformative vision—one fully and radically realized,” has crafted an intensely moving song cycle rooted in Dowell’s work, with lyrics by a phenomenal list of poets: Nikki Giovanni, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Afaa Michael Weaver, Lauren Alleyne, Charlotte Blake Alston, Glenis Redmond, Alora Young, and Trapeta Mayson.

Joining Ms. Graves in performing COTTON are the up-and-coming singer Justin Austin, praised for his “mellifluous baritone” (Wall Street Journal), who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2021/22 Season; and pianist Laura Ward, an international touring and recording artist and the director of Lyric Fest. With projections of images by Dowell accompanying the performance, COTTON promises to be a feast for the senses, a spark for the imagination, and a highlight of the season.

Note: Justin Austin also appears on February 10 in Our Song, Our Story.

This performance is an external rental presented in coordination with the Kennedy Center Campus Rentals Office and is not produced by the Kennedy Center.

National Endowment for the Arts Logo

Washington Performing Arts’s presentation of this project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Washington Performing Arts’s classical music performances this season are made possible in part through the generous support of Betsy and Robert Feinberg.

Special thanks to the following lead supporters of Washington Performing Arts’s mission-driven work: Jacqueline Badger Mars and Mars, Incorporated; D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts; The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; and the Dallas Morse Coors Foundation for the Performing Arts.


DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities

Washington Performing Arts is committed to ensuring visitors of all abilities can experience the performances and programs we present. We partner with our venues to ensure accommodations are available. For specific questions about accessibility at our Kennedy Center events, please visit https://www.kennedy-center.org/visit/accessibility or contact us at patronservices@washingtonperformingarts.org.

COVID-19 Health and Safety:
As Washington Performing Arts does not own nor operate its own venue, Washington Performing Arts audiences are subject to the current vaccination and face mask policy of the venue on the date of the event. Please see venue specifics here.