Open Studio with Jared Bowen


Project Step, Billy Porter, and stolen art at the MFA

Jared visits with Project STEP, whose mission is to identify musically talented children from underrepresented Boston communities and provide them with comprehensive music and string instrument instruction. Then, a conversation with Billy Porter who is in Boston to direct George Wolfe’s classic play exploring the African American experience, The Colored Museum.

AIRED: March 27, 2015 | 0:26:46

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen.

Coming up onOpen Studio...

The young musicians striking the right chords

with First Lady Michelle Obama.

>> Some kids are born with a musicality

that really shows through at age five.

>> BOWEN: Then Tony-winning sensation Billy Porter

on getting kinky and now saucy

in his directorial turn withThe Colored Museum.

>> It speaks to how,

in the most horrific of circumstances, we rise.

>> BOWEN: Plus, acquired by the Rothschilds, looted by the Nazis

and rescued by the Monuments Men, a prized collection of art

finds a new home at the Museum of Fine Arts.

>> She said, this contract is legally correct but morally not,

and we have to change that.

>> BOWEN: And a photographer trains his lens on his heritage.

>> Most people look at the images...

and try to connect them to reality,

and I think that's a mistake.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, if you take a look at orchestras across the country,

you'll find a striking lack of black and Latino players.

For more than 30 years, Project STEP,

based just beneath the Symphony Hall stage,

has been trying to change that.

Now its mentoring program for young musicians

is even getting attention from the White House.

They have all the bearings of the classically trained

and the classically gifted.

Years of study at play, despite their few years.

And they are, in many respects, the unlikely.

>> Some kids are born with a musicality

that really shows through at age five.

You can see it in the way they move to music.

You can see it in the way they follow rhythms.

>> BOWEN: Mary Jaffee is executive director

of Project STEP,

an organization that teases talent

out of kids who might otherwise find it squandered.

Its reason for being is a sobering one.

>> There are so few,

in fact, virtually almost no African American

and Latino musicians in orchestras and in audiences.

>> BOWEN: Since 1982, Project STEP has pushed

to correct that imbalance.

Each year it fans out across Boston kindergarten classes,

identifying students with unusual potential.

>> From that 50 to 100 kids, we take in three to four a year,

so it's a very narrow bottleneck.

Those kids are highly talented.

>> Personally, music just calms me down.

It makes me feel good inside.

>> BOWEN: At 11 years old, Ajani Boyd has now played

with Project STEP longer than he hasn't.

He's all about the bass now,

but he was four when he chose the cello.

>> I picked the cello, and honestly,

I kind of picked the cello because I could sit down.

>> BOWEN: He can be forgiven the easy choice

given the program's demands today:

practice daily and up to nine hours every Saturday.

>> It's pretty intense,

the new measure of 10,000 hours of preparation,

rehearsal, practice, whatever it is.

They put it in by the time they're in high school.

It's just an awful lot.

>> BOWEN: But it served Njeri Grevious well.

She's now a sophomore at Yale University

studying mathematics.

Do you think about what would have been

if you didn't have an opportunity like this?

>> Very difficult, almost impossible.

I actually don't want to think about that.

I've been so blessed.

>> BOWEN: Grevious spent 12 years in Project STEP

including a time, she says, when her family was left homeless.

>> When we were living out of the car,

when sometimes it was very, very cold waking up in the morning,

no heating in the house, and trying to practice...

We, you know, are able to put all that aside,

because when we're engaging with our instruments,

it's just us, ourselves, our instruments, our music,

and then when we're playing with other people,

it's all of that to the "nth" power,

depending on how many other people that you're playing with,

and we're able to find peace and solace.

>> BOWEN: Project STEP subsidizes

virtually all the students' expenses,

roughly $9,000 to $11,000 annually.

It gives them opportunity,

while their base in the basement of Symphony Hall

gives them access.

>> One parent put it

that she didn't think she could touch Symphony Hall.

She used to walk by it,

and thought it just wasn't for her,

and now she's learned to navigate the halls

and say hello to some of the musicians.

>> BOWEN: And even play with them.

There are not many people, let alone 11-year-olds,

who can claim to have performed on-stage

with one of the most famous musicians of our time.

>> Here is Yo-Yo Ma...

and then, you know, a little bit next to him is me.


That was an incredible opportunity that I got,

and I will never forget that moment.

>> BOWEN: The moments don't get much bigger, though,

than when Project STEP was honored by the White House

late last year with a National Arts and Humanities

Youth Program Award presented by First Lady Michelle Obama.

>> That's just crazy to be able to say

when I came back from the White House.

Going to the White House was amazing.

It was such a fun experience.

Met a lot of people, got to meet the First Lady.

So it was just awesome and all.

>> BOWEN: All of this is a testament

to the music and the instruction,

that in an age of attention deficits,

these students will practice thousands of hours.

In moments of crisis, music is their salvation.

Every single Project STEP student graduates high school

and half of them go on to the country's

most prestigious Ivy League universities or conservatories.

I can tell that you're a practical person,

and I'm about to ask a lofty question,

but does the program change lives?

>> It does change lives.

I believe it does change lives.

It certainly changed my life.

>> BOWEN: Next, Broadway song-and-dance man Billy Porter

has been better known of late for what he's wearing.

He won a Tony for his strutting star turn inKinky Boots

as Lola, a drag queen who wins over

a group of British factory workers.

He returns to the role next month.

But now, he's in Boston directing the outrageous comedy

The Colored Museum for the Huntington Theatre Company.

Here's a look.

>> When you wearing me, you letting him know,

he ain't gonna get no sweet talking comb through your love

without some serious resistance, no!


The kink of my head is like the kink of your heart,

and neither is about to be hot pressed into surrender.


>> BOWEN: So Billy Porter, thank you so much for joining us.

>> You're very welcome.

>> BOWEN: I was caught by a description

ofThe Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe,

its playwright, where he called it

both a celebration and an exorcism.

How is it both of those things?

>> Well, as the African-American experience sort of shows...

it speaks to how, in the most horrific of circumstances,

we rise, and that's what it means.

And in terms of how the darkness can kind of take over,

the pain can kind of take over,

the madness, he speaks of madness all the time,

the rage, it can take you over.

In order to move through it, one must embrace it.

My music is in my madness, he says,

and my colored contradictions.

You know, there's madness in me, and that madness sets me free.

>> BOWEN: So, I saw the show a couple of nights ago

and I'm laughing, and I want to laugh,

but at the same time have a deeply unsettled feeling

for laughing, especially as a white person.

So how does being afraid fit into it?

And what is your hope that audiences will feel

as they're having this full mix of emotions?

>> You know, this particular struggle,

this African-American struggle,

is very resonant because the more things change,

the more they stay the same, so...

I feel like this is a call to action,

a reminding call to action,

to sort of encourage all of us to not get complacent

and to remember that the fight still continues,

you know, the journey still continues,

and we have to stay present.

So I hope that's what people leave with:

stay present and focused and forward moving.

>> BOWEN: So Billy Porter, you're a busy guy.

>> Yes, I am.

>> BOWEN: You're directing this at the Huntington.

You have this special that's about to air

onLive from Lincoln Center,

which is your music, and I love how you begin it.

You begin the piece by saying, the program by saying,

you want to do music that's going to inspire people,

make them hopeful and happy.

How did you arrive at that place right now?

>> It's just the way that I've always lived.

You know, I grew up in a family that was about embracing that.

You know...

It's easier to choose joy.

It's easier to choose hope, because ultimately

in the long run, that keeps you safe.

It keeps you sane.

♪ No, no, no

♪ Just be

♪ With dignity

♪ Celebrate your life triumphantly ♪

♪ You'll see

♪ You'll see

♪ Just be

♪ Oh, just be

♪ Oh, you'll see

♪ You'll see

♪ Just be

♪ Just be...

>> BOWEN: Did you always go to music as a place

to help you get to those places?

>> Oh, yeah.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Music was always my source of peace.

You know, music was always my savior.

I found out I could sing when I was about five and, you know,

the bullying stopped when I sang.

>> BOWEN: Really? >> Oh, yeah.

All I had to do was open up my mouth and sing,

and the bullying ceased.

And that's when I knew: oh, wait a minute.

I might, wait, this thing that is sort of a passing fancy,

might be something that I can turn into a life.

You know, people changed.

I saw people relax.

>> BOWEN: But, what was it about the music?

You know, dancers for instance will say

that because they're dancers, male dancers,

they drew more bullying.

>> Well, when I started dancing, the bullying began again.

But, singing is not the same as dancing.

Singing is not perceived the same way as dancing.

You know, singing is like Michael Jackson.

You know, you could equate that, you know what I mean?

Like, singing is Stevie Wonder.

Singing is Donny Hathaway.

For where I grew up, singing was the Hawkins Family or,

you know, like singing, that was acceptable.

>> BOWEN: And you could stop people in their tracks

with your voice, I would imagine.

>> And I could really do it well.

So, you know, it was helpful for me.

It was my savior.

Yes, so it was a go-to place for me

that has really brought me lots of joy.

>> BOWEN: Including now Kinky Boots.

It's really interesting to think about your life story,

to think about your positivity,

to think about what you've endured, the bullying.

And then you have this character, inKinky Boots,

where all of this is her story.

>> Right.

>> BOWEN: But it's in a lot of ways your story.

>> Right.

>> BOWEN: It's kind of eerie to think about

how it came together.

>> Right, all the way down to the compromised

and sort of complex relationship with the father.

You know, it's easy to be who you are

when what you are is what's popular.

So, to show up and to be this thing that nobody wants,

that everybody is afraid of,

nobody knows how to deal with, you know,

and you hear it for decades and decades and decades,

it's very easy to internalize that

and turn it into something that isn't productive.

To have this experience and to have it show up

in the way that it has is so awe-inspiring to me.

You know, it's a healing.

It really, truly is a healing every single day.

When I walk on that stage and I sing "Not My Father's Son,"

that was the first song I learned,

and it was like, wait a minute, really?

You know, I went into a room to do a table reading,

and I met Cyndi Lauper,

and that was the first song they played for me.

And I thought, oh my God, this is, can it be?


You know, can it possibly be that it's this specific?

♪ The endless torrent of expectations ♪

♪ Swirling inside my mind

♪ Wore me down

♪ I came to a realization...

>> BOWEN: You're going back to perform

as Lola inKinky Boots at the end of April.

What happens?

Is there a physical transformation

when you put on those boots?

I saw the show, but when I was looking

at the Lincoln Center special

I realized how high the boots come up.

You immerse yourself in those boots.

>> You know, Lola is a creature.

Lola is a whole other thing.

She's really a creature.

And so when I was editing the show,

when we were working on editing the special,

the difference between Billy and Lola was just like,

it was so funny to me.

I just laughed.

I thought, "“Who is this woman? Harpo, who this woman?"

Like I had no, it was like, that's what I'm doing?

Like she is, she's so empowering.

She's grounded me.

She's helped to ground Billy,

in every way, in every single way.

You know, the embracing of that femininity,

that feminine side as well as that masculine side

in front of the world,

in public without apology has changed my life.


Stop making me talk about that,

because I didn't come on here to cry.

>> BOWEN: Billy Porter, such a pleasure

to have you on the show.

Thank you so much.

>> Thank you for having me.

>> BOWEN: During World War II,

the Nazis waged a relentless campaign

to loot many of the great art treasures of Europe,

with some pieces even hand-selected by Hitler.

The legendary Rothschild family was among the victims.

And while much of what was stolen from them was recovered

by Allied troops, it was decades before all art

was returned to the family.

Now, Rothschild heir Bettina Burr

has found a new home for some of her family's collection

at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Bettina Burr, thank you so much for joining us.

What is this moment like?

I mean, the objects in your family

have had such an extraordinary history,

to be collected, to be in the family,

and then of course to be looted by the Nazis,

and now you're passing them on again.

>> Yes, but it feels like a homecoming, really,

to have them here in the Museum of Fine Arts,

where I expect they'll be well cared for

and perhaps enjoyed by people, which is my hope.

>> BOWEN: In reading about your family's history,

I was really struck by,

it seems that it became a mission in the family,

especially among the women,

to seek the restitution of these pieces

and bring them home to the family.

Was it so deliberate?

Was it something you spoke about with your mother,

your grandmother?

>> Both women were forces of nature,

and so they took on this project

because of course they cared deeply about it.

My grandmother had, of course, lived with these works of art.

My mother had grown up with them,

and they felt very strongly

that they should be back in the family's arms.

They had been taken, as you know, by the Nazis in 1938,

and then they were restituted after the Second World War,

but for every object that was returned,

another was kept back by the Austrian museums.

>> BOWEN: Yeah, I mean this is the really fascinating part:

it enters Hollywood to some degree, too,

because your family worked with the Monuments Men

to identify the pieces that were in your family.

And how did it come to be that you were only allowed to bring

one piece for those that had to stay back in Europe?

>> It's a great question.

The Monuments Men, of course, recovered the loot,

and my grandmother went to the salt mines and saw the crates

that the Monuments Men had labeled "AR"

for Alphonse Rothschild,

and so on.

The custom was for the art objects to be returned

to the country of origin,

not to the individuals.

And then the country would return them, or restitute them,

to the individuals.

When my grandmother went to lay claim to the works,

the government told her that there was a law

that had been passed in 1918 that forbade art exports.

And as a result, if she wanted to take anything out,

and this was after long negotiation,

took at least two years,

that she would have to donate to the Austrian...

to Austria

works that the Austrians wanted to keep in their museums,

and so the works stayed in the museums for 50 years,

until finally my mother was able to get them back.

>> BOWEN: What did that do to the family's psyche

in those 50 years

to know that they were being held and to know why...

the horrific history, to begin with,

with the Nazi looting and what had happened

with the Nazi party taking over.

How did that impact the family

to be separated from these pieces?

>> Well, to be perfectly honest,

my mother took it upon herself

to go back to the museums on a regular basis

and to check on the works of art.

And she never looked back,

so it was not something that hung over us like a dark cloud.

We really were not that aware of it.

Of course, we knew that the works of art

in the museums that were ours,

but there had been a contract that was created

when the works were left there,

and what was so superb on the part

of the Austrian minister of culture, Elisabeth Gehrer,

was that she said,

"This contract is legally correct but morally not,

and we have to change that."

Mother was able to get the law changed

and have the works restituted.

>> BOWEN: As we're seeing in these pictures,

these are very beautiful pieces, very well ornamented.

What do they tell us, what do they tell you

about your forebears and how they collected,

who they were, how they lived?

>> They loved French 18th century art

and Dutch 17th century art.

I think they particularly loved the French...

that period of French art making was that it really was a time

when the craftsmanship reached the highest level.

They also loved the Dutch works of art because I think they felt

that they were simply beautifully,

beautifully painted.

They had other works of art, by English masters, for instance.

They also had wonderful works on paper

that were by German artists, as well as Austrian artists,

in addition to the French, the English,

Italians, Dutch, et cetera.

>> BOWEN: Well, as somebody who has covered

the Nazi looting story for a long time,

it's pretty stunning for me to see them

now come to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Bettina Burr, thank you so much for joining us.

>> My pleasure.

Thank you.

>> BOWEN: Finally now, photographer Steve Sabella

was born in Jerusalem

and his work often focuses on his Palestinian identity.

Recently at the Fotofest 2014 Biennial in Houston, Texas,

Sabella's work was front and center as part of an exhibition

of contemporary Arab photography.

>> Most people will look at the images

and try to connect them to reality.

And I think that's a mistake.

We need to look at the image itself

and see how it tries to communicate with us.

I grew up in Jerusalem under Israeli occupation.

It took me 38 years to free my imagination

from the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem.

It's not an easy life.

Most people think when they are under occupation,

it's only physical.

I found it's not only physical, it's mental.

So I grew up living in mental exile in Jerusalem.

And I had to suffer a lot from this.

So I needed to cleanse my system from this occupation.

And once I did, I went back on track to decode

what it means to live in this world.

When I left Jerusalem, I felt completely in exile,

in a state of alienation.

In London, living in that hyper city,

it intensified my feeling of alienation.

So I did windows for two reasons.

First of all, you look from inside outside

and how the world looks at me.

But I felt completely out of place.

I neither belonged here or there.

So I questioned my belonging.

Where do I belong?

Usually I deal with windows, but inMetamorphosis,

I dealt with barbed wire.

I stitched my wound with barbed wire,

and it became an organic extension of my body.

And once I did that, I became very strong.

I freed myself.

If you look at this image there, you can see the wall,

a reflection of the wall in the water.

It looks concrete, but look very carefully.

It's liquefying, it's dissolving.

And this is how I started to free myself.

But notice something.

It's all done in the imagination,

so there is the power of the mind that can achieve freedom.

I have a show in London, a retrospective show.

I took out all text.

I even took out the titles of the works.

So, I wanted the spectator to enter the gallery space

to go through a visual journey.

They understood everything I needed to say

without me saying it.

Most galleries, they start with text.

No, let's go back, let's start with the image itself.

The text is secondary

to the understanding and appreciation of art.

If I look at my art, I see I was going through a process

of finding my own freedom, of reclaiming myself.

And I see my work is about consciousness.

If we manage to convince ourselves that we are free,

we are a free people.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, not one new piece of art

has gone into the gardens of Versailles in 300 years,

until now.

We'll talk with the artist making French history

and how he found his inspiration right here in Boston.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at,

and you can follow us on Twitter, @OpenStudioWGBH.

♪ That madness sets me free

♪ There is madness in me

♪ And that madness sets me free... ♪

Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH,


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