Review: THE PASSION OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON at The Kennedy Center

The final performances are January 22 at 2pm and 5pm.

By: Jan. 22, 2023
Review: THE PASSION OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON at The Kennedy Center
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It's 1943, and Mary Cardwell Dawson's production of Carmen at the National Negro Opera Company is in trouble. Dawson planned to use a floating barge on the Potomac for the performance, but the weather is "not cooperating" - and the indoor DC concert hall she would like to book insists on segregated seating.

This is the backdrop for the Washington National Opera production of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a new play by Mark Twain Award-winning playwright and librettist Sandra Seaton with original music by Carlos Simon. The show provides a window into a pivotal moment in the life of its titular impresaria as she navigates a world that has belittled her artistry since she first discovered her love of opera. Inspired by the true story of the founder and director of the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson packs untold history, outstanding vocal talent, and intensity fit for its title into a short 70 minutes.

Review: THE PASSION OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON at The Kennedy Center
Denyce Graves in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson (Photo credit: Jati Lindsay​​​​​)

The show's powerhouse cast is led by the legendary Denyce Graves, who played the role of Dawson at the Glimmerglass Festival, where the work was commissioned in 2021. Graves was inspired by Dawson's story to launch the Denyce Graves Foundation to honor the achievements of America's hidden musical heroes and share their stories with the world. In The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, Graves embodies different parts of Dawson's trailblazing journey, exploring her roles as a vocal teacher, businesswoman, artist, and champion of opera talent.

Through soliloquies - both spoken and sung - and vignettes from the hours leading up to the piece's final meta-performance, The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson illustrates the tension between striving to be part of an artistic community and uncompromisingly pushing back on the deep racism in that community. The structure of the show itself, which includes selections from the repertory of the NNOC as well as original songs, captures the delicate balance of depicting marginalized artists taking their place in history while denying white supremacist norms and creating something new.

The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson also shows the tension between owning a vision and providing a platform to let new talent shine. In the show's first scenes, we learn about Dawson's past and the obstacles she faced pursuing her art, and Graves' performance illuminates how much Dawson brought these experiences to her work as a director. The scenes of Dawson giving real-time notes to the NNOC cast as they rehearse scenes from Carmen are at turns laugh-out-loud funny and heart-wrenching as the director punctuates performances with biting critique.

While Isabelle (Amber Monroe), Phoebe (Taylor-Alexis DuPont), and Frank (Jonathan Pierce Rhodes) execute beautifully polished renditions of songs from Carmen, Graves as Dawson seems to flicker between memories and the present. These moments - even more than Dawson's solos and monologues - paint a vivid portrait of this opera pioneer, revealing the incredibly high standards that she internalized while advocating for her own art over the course of a career and her vulnerability as she entrusts her vision to others.

Review: THE PASSION OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON at The Kennedy Center
Jonathan Pierce Rhodes and Denyce Graves in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson (Photo credit: Jati Lindsay​​​​​)

The sole musical accompaniment for the singers is provided by an onstage pianist (Marvin Mills, who is also The Passion's musical director), and his presence intensifies the intimate, dreamlike feel of the performance. At times, transitions from recollections to asides are difficult to track, but this disorientation feels appropriate: Dawson herself is caught between her internal values and the current challenge of saving the NNOC. She is resolute about where she will not compromise but often pauses to anchor herself - and the audience - in a collage of memories.

The show's final moments emphasize that the hard work and dedication that goes into making great art is often unseen. The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson shares a brief but powerful glimpse of the vision that powered the groundbreaking NNOC and gives voice to a previously unsung heroine of opera history.

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The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson from the Washington National Opera is at The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater (2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC 20566) through January 22. Tickets can be purchased at Kennedy-Center.org, and health and safety information for The Kennedy Center can be found here.




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