The 2021-22 fall season opened with hope and anticipation following the COVID-19 shutdowns and mandates of the previous 18 months. And despite a new wave of cases, the season carried on. As the spring begins, cases and hospitalizations are at new lows and most venues have removed their mask, vaccination and testing requirements. There is hope that future waves will be in a minor, not major, key.
In our spring preview, among the shows we’re the most eager to see is the welcome return of the 45th annual Atlanta Jazz Festival, the free concert series that comes back to its home of Piedmont Park and its normal Memorial Day weekend with a Hall of Fame line-up of performers.The Alliance Theatre will produce the world premiere of a stage version of “Trading Places directed by Kenny Leon. The Horizon Theatre will produce Roe, a stage play based around the Roe vs. Wade decision that is now appears on the verge of being overturned.
In dance, there are performances by Atlanta Ballet and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre to look forward to. And in art and design, we have high hopes for the Deborah Dancy: Body of Evidence exhibit at the Marcia Wood Gallery and to the arrival of Bob Thompson: This House is Mine, the first major survey of the African American artist’s work in two decades, at the High Museum of Art.
The spring is definitely back in the step of Atlanta arts.
The 43rd annual Atlanta Jazz Festival was canceled in 2020 and last year’s version was held on Labor Day weekend rather than its traditional Memorial Day weekend. This year, the venerable festival returns to Piedmont Park May 28-30 with its strongest lineup in some time: Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Kenny Barron and Atlanta pianist Joe Alterman. The festival will also sponsor the 31 Days of Jazz series throughout May with jazz events across the city. The three-day festival is one of Atlanta’s benchmark annual events and, best of all, it is free.
Maestro Robert Spano announced in 2018 his plans to retire from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra after 20 years as music director, but the pandemic kept him here an extra year (as co-artistic advisor). Spano officially hands over the baton to incoming music director Nathalie Stutzmann at the end of this season and he will go out with performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on June 9, 11 and 12 at Symphony Hall. Mahler’s work is a homage to nature and to bring it to life, Spano will be joined by mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, the Georgia Boy Choir and the Women of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. Spano will be remembered for his steady hand at the podium and for his passion in nurturing modern composers. He will still be on the scene as the ASO’s conductor laureate, but this concert will mark a changing of the guard for the orchestra.
The Atlanta Opera closes its season with the Come As You Are Festival at Pullman Yards, anchored by a performance of “Cabaret” that runs June 2-19. The festival will also include two performances of the chamber opera “As One,” which includes a transgender character. In addition, Jay Hunter Morris, the Roswell tenor who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, will step out with a concert titled “An Afternoon Cabaret” on June 18. The festival will include a June 10 screening of “The Sound of Identity,” a documentary about Lucia Lucas, the first transgender woman to perform in an opera lead in a professional company in the United States. Lucas will be on hand for a talkback session after the screening.
It’s too bad that Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre and Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M. are performing the same night, each for one night only. Both are good choices, if very different in tone. Terminus’ “Everything is Waiting” was first performed in March 2019 at the Off the EDGE festival. Choreographed by Tara Lee, it expresses the joy that awaits if we can transcend the anxiety and perpetual discontent of contemporary existence. The work promises to be all the more relevant in light of the pandemic. It is set for May 21 at the Stillwell Theater at Kennesaw State University.
“It’s a Black love sitcom.” That’s how Catherine Kirk, a dancer with Kyle Abraham’s New York company A.I.M.,described “An Untitled Love” in a recent New York Times interview. Unlike some of Abraham’s earlier, darker works, this full evening contemporary ballet exudes joy, flirting, community and girls sitting on the couch talking about ashy ankles. It’s set to music by Grammy-winning R&B legend D’Angelo and is a nod to his hit single “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” Abraham hasn’t forgotten his social justice conscience, however, and there are some darker moments as well. One night only, May 21, at the Rialto Center for the Arts.
Atlanta Ballet closes its season May 13-15 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre with a dynamic mixed bill “Strike Your Fancy” that features something for everyone: the 19th-century classical purity and virtuosity of “Paquita,” Claudia Schreier’s contemporary and beautifully sculpted “Pleiades Dances,” and a world premiere from company dancer Sergio Masero. His “Schubertiada” is set to (no surprise) Schubert and features a rarely seen, all-male corps de ballet. Look for Ukrainian principal Denys Nedak, whose silky smooth power and splendid technique make him a company standout.
The nationally touring exhibition “Bob Thompson: This House is Mine” arrives at the High Museum of Art June 17 and runs through September 11. It is the first major survey of work by the African American artist to be presented in more than two decades. Between 1958 and 1966, when he died at age 29, Thompson’s success in the New York art world was nothing short of phenomenal. He was inspired by European old masters such as Jacopo Tintoretto and Francisco de Goya, developing a highly personal and symbolic visual vocabulary known for vignettes of silhouetted figures and animals in pastoral settings.
On those hot late spring days, when the kids are restless and the humidity is high, head over to the High Museum to see Oliver Jeffers’ whimsical drawings and books. “Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picturing Books” features 80 original drawings, sketches and finished illustrations by the award-winning artist and children’s book author. There will be space for families to sit and read “The Day the Crayons Quit,” “Once Upon an Alphabet” and more of the author’s wildly popular books. The exhibit is up through August 7. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Alliance Theatre will present the world-premiere musical “The Incredible Book Eating Boy” (July 13-August 7) based on Jeffers’ beloved book.
“Deborah Dancy: Body of Evidence” is an astonishingly diverse and provocative solo exhibit that features the artist’s large abstract canvases, photographs, painted china plates and engraved silver flatware that deliver a punch to the gut and make the viewer rethink American history. All the works were created since 2019. On display at Marcia Wood Gallery through June 18.
Aurora Theatre isn’t being bashful about its ambitions for its season finale: It wants to send the comedy “Swindlers,” opening May 19 and running through June 5, to the Great White Way. “With the opening of the new Lawrenceville Arts Center, we can now commit to being future contributors to Broadway and commercial theater,” says Ann-Carol Pence, Aurora Theatre co-founder and producing artistic director. Aurora is working with Broadway Factor, whose partners claim a track record for hit musicals including Mrs. Doubtfire and Kinky Boots as well as the acclaimed revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Chris Anthony Ferrer’s first play, “Swindlers” is a farce about a pair of bungling burglars whose plans to make easy pickings of a Miami mansion housing a $300 million diamond go way wrong.
Hot-button topics don’t get much hotter than the abortion debate in our country, and Horizon Theatre boldly brings the issue center stage with “Roe,” running through June 12. The play follows Roe vs. Wade through the personal journeys of Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued the landmark case to the Supreme Court. “I wanted to know why this issue is something we can’t talk to each other about, why is it somewhere where people immediately start shouting and shutting down,” playwright Lisa Loomer has said. “I wanted to show the passion and ferocity of both sides and also the humanity of both sides.”
The Alliance Theatre launches its world premiere musical “Trading Places,” loosely based upon the 1983 Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd film, on May 25 and running through June 26. Loosely is probably the operative word. Featuring music from Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner and a book from Thomas Lennon, the musical is a contemporary reimagining that’s still set in the 1980s. Directed by Kenny Leon, the musical will star Broadway actress Aneesa Folds as con artist Billie Rae Valentine (the Murphy role) and Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham as financier Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd’s role). Valentine and Winthorpe are manipulated into switching jobs and fortunes after two rich brothers mess with the characters’ fate. “We’re exploring the idea of what would happen if we all traded places with someone else, even for a day, literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” former Alliance artistic director and True Colors Theatre Company co-founder Leon says. “It’s relevant; it’s uplifting; everyone will feel heard and represented.”
When playwright Cheryl L. West began researching the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, she was amazed. “The more I read, the more I said, ‘What a story!’ This woman was one of the best grassroots leaders our country has ever produced. She was fearless,” said West, whose “Fannie: The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer” will be staged at Southwest Arts Center starting June 14 and running through July 10 by Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company. Born in 1917, Hamer was the 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers. She left school at age 12 and worked on a plantation until 1962, when she was fired for her voter registration efforts. Permanently injured in a police beating in 1963, Hamer continued her political activism, launching the Freedom Farm Cooperative and low-income housing projects, among other accomplishments. “So, the show asks the question,” West adds, “‘What can we do at this point?’”
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