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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.

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.

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


DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities