A few dozen visitors gathered in the Kogod Courtyard yesterday to watch a student performance entitled "2009 Portraits Alive! Lost and Found." The sunlight reflected off the dress of one Washington DC-area student portraying dancer Irene Castle and illuminated the shrouded face of another teen dressed to the nines as actor Rudolph Valentino.
The event was a culmination of a summer-long program administered by the DC Department of Employment Services. The students spent eight weeks learning about careers in the museum and preparing for their big debut—a full-dress theatrical tour highlighting the personalities and stories of the people whose portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery. Each student researched and wrote a monologue in character and submitted it the museum's historians for careful analysis of the facts. "The monologues were pulled from quotes so the students didn't interpret too much," says Rebecca Kasemeyer, director of education at the museum.
The first performer, Jasmine Clark, a recent graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School, chose Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low, largely because she fancied the pretty pink dress she would get to wear. (The students also spent the summer creating their costumes to match the outfits their historical counterparts wore in the portraits.) "When I was writing my monologue, I found that we're very similar in our personalities," Clark says. "I like to help people, but I'm not going to start an organization. I want to be a lawyer."
The performances are timed in lock-step fashion—not one minute is wasted or ignored. After James Tindle's, a senior at Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, monologue as Rudolph Valentino ends in one room, Aysha Preston, a graduate of Grace Brethren Christian School, is already singing as Lena Horne, on the upper level. Arena Stage provided the students with performance tips, assistance in script writing and other acting exercises.
Tiana Long, who chose opera singer Leotyne Price, sings the beginning and ending of her monologue. Her long green jacket and pearl necklace are stunningly identical to the outfit that Price is wearing in the painting hanging on the wall behind her. Long was lucky she got to borrow her costume, the only one the museum owns. The others had to pieced together their outfits from other costumes and purchases at thrift stores. Clark's Juliette Low costume, her much fancied pink dress, was bought from a thrift shop and Clark and the staff gussied it up with additional layers.
See each student's historic portrayal in the photo gallery below.