Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Come Together: Chuck Berry at the Howard Theater

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2012

An elderly, city-dwelling African American couple, a similarly-aged white couple from the suburbs, two 30-something Gen-Xers from Southern Maryland and a 20-something couple recently transplanted from Indiana walk into an urban bar to share a dinner table and an evening’s entertainment…

What?  You haven’t heard this joke?  That’s because it’s not a joke.  It’s not even fiction.  This diverse cast of strangers randomly assembled and, within moments, conversed like best friends.  So you’re thinking, “okay, it’s not a joke…but is there at least a punch line?”  There is…or at least there’s a point to consider...which I’ll get to later. 

From its opening in 1910, Washington D.C.’s Howard Theater was fortunately (because it existed at all) and unfortunately (because the segregated entertainment industry sadly mirrored society) THE place see the great African American entertainers of the period.   Legends such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown filled the Howard with their musical genius.  The Howard closed in the early 1980s and for three decades emitted the worst of sounds for a historic, musical treasure: silence.  That changed this year when, after an extensive renovation, the Howard re-opened.  Being a nostalgic soul and someone lacking any recollection of the original, it’s hard to say that the Howard has never looked better…but it simply couldn’t have ever looked better.  Adorned with its iconic “Howard” sign on the theater’s facade and modern flash inside, the Howard is a spectacular venue befitting its place in American history.

My cousin and I were the two 30-something Gen-Xers; to pacify his extensive vanity, I’ll disclose that he’s seven years my junior.  The two elderly couples and the carefree young lovers from Indiana will remain unidentified.  What won’t is the urban “bar”: the Howard Theater.  As the eight of us were seated at a second-row table, the diversity of the group immediately struck me.  What on earth were we going to discuss until the show started?  A nervous panoramic view slightly tempered my initial unease.  Our situation wasn’t unique; nearly every table looked like a cross-section of America.  The average age was probably 45 but the distribution around that mean was enormous.  There was no identifiable majority race or gender.  Regarding the attire, I’ll offer this: at one adjacent table sat a gentleman in a tuxedo…at the other was a dude wearing well-worn jeans and a tattered t-shirt from the movie “The Big Lebowski” that read, “The Dude Abides.”   Indeed he does. 

Our social dilemma was resolved quickly.  We talked about…what else…why we were there: a common love of music and, specifically for this night, of Mr. Chuck Berry.  During our introductions, an immediate conversational catalyst was identified: the elderly African American couple was from D.C. and were original Howard patrons.  They offered a fascinating account of some of the best and most under-appreciated acts in music history.  The conversation then naturally meandered to other greats such as Bob Dylan and a band from across the pond that was heavily influenced by Chuck Berry.  You’ve probably heard of them…they’re called the Rolling Stones. 

Showtime arrived before a moment of uncomfortable silence found our table.  The curtains dropped and before our star-struck eyes appeared a living legend and a (if not the) godfather of Rock and Roll.  Before Elvis Presley, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there was Chuck Berry.  For the next hour differences in race, religion and politics were put on pause by what bound us together: the infectious blues-infused Rock and Roll of Chuck Berry. 

And that’s when the correlation hit me – save for the 9/11 tragedy, sports is the only thing that’s created such beautiful unity amid such diversity.  I love sports for that.  Here’s my short list of sports moments whose shared euphoria completely drowned out petty differences: storming the field after the last ‘Skins game at RFK Stadium, attending Cal Ripken Jr’s record-tying 2,130th straight game (thanks for ticket, sis) and being in Canton, OH for Art Monk’s and Darrell Green’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  What moments made the stranger next to you a good friend?  If only they could penetrate our daily lives more often.

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