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It’s Black Tie, Grass Skirts, and Coconut Bras at THEARC’s Seventh Annual Gala in Anacostia (Photos)

The celebration drew more than 400 to the theater’s campus on Mississippi Avenue, Southeast.

One of the Gabonese dancers whose performance was a gift to the evening from the Ambassador of Gabon, Michael Moussa-Adamo. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

Do dress codes mean anything anymore at so-called formal events? Are we so trussed up during the workweek that it’s a relief, come the weekend, to wear—short of flip-flops and cutoffs—what makes us feel good? Do we have more fun? A petri-dish variation of this theory was on view in Anacostia Saturday night at the lively and entertaining seventh annual gala for THEARC, also known as the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus. The invitation called for “after-dark chic,” and what we got was everything from black tie and business suits to open-collared shirts and blazers on the men, and evening gowns, cocktail dresses, and day suits on the women. Add to that a number of tutus, grass skirts, and coconut bras.

The tutus were on the adorable young ballerinas who greeted guests as they arrived on a beautiful, breezy, and sunny evening, so beautiful that most people sipped their orchid martinis and watermelon cocktails outside, lingering as the sun set and before everyone was called into the theater for a program that included offerings from the Washington Ballet, the Levine School of Music, dancers from the DC Arts and Technology Academy, and Anacostia’s own Denyce Graves, the acclaimed mezzo-soprano. The grass skirts were on a troop of Gabonese dancers, a gift to evening from the event’s diplomatic chair, the Ambassador of Gabon, Michael Moussa-Adamo. Their rhythmic gyrations delighted the audience. We now know where Beyoncé got her moves.

“Ours is the only theater of its kind,” said the executive director, Edmund Fleet, referring to the state-of-the-art rehearsal, performance and exhibition space. “If THEARC is the heart of this community then this theater is the soul of the community.” Graves called the neighborhood outside “my old stomping grounds.” She said she grew up in Southeast, one of three children, raised by a single mother. “It’s like coming home for me.”

Ambassador Moussa-Adamo said he was introduced to THEARC when he first arrived in Washington one year ago. “It made a powerful impression on me. Quite literally, it is changing the neighborhood.” He said, “THEARC neighborhood is home to nearly 50 percent of the children who live in DC, but their neighborhood has no movie theater.” He praised THEARC for their “Showtime Thursdays,” when Anacostia area children come to the center to see movies.

At the end of their two numbers, the Gabonese dancers high-stepped off the stage and, chanting and singing, literally dance-marched the audience from their seats down a long hall and into the large room where dinner would be served. It had been transformed into what felt like a black-and-white deco supper club. On the dance floor, men and women in suits and cocktail dresses paired up with the dancers in grass skirts and coconut bras.

“It’s a magic trick, putting on this evening,” said Michelle Freeman, the gala’s chair for the second year in a row. “But it’s the best party east of the Anacostia River.” Helping her create the magic was Kay Kendall, who, once everyone came into dinner, treated herself to a vodka tonic, because “now I can.” Mayor Vincent Gray came for the stage show and stayed for dinner. “Let’s be honest with ourselves,” he said. “How many people envisioned this place, in Ward 8, and on Mississippi Avenue?” Moreover, he asked, “how many people would envision Denyce Graves singing on Mississippi Avenue?” On stage with him was Chris Smith, THEARC’s board chairman. Together they presented to Gina Adams of FedEx the Bridge Builder Award, named in honor of the organization that runs THEARC. When the speeches and award presentation ended, dinner was served. The menu included individual chicken pot pies and half-smokes from Ben’s Chili Bowl. Dessert was even more pies: deep-dish apple, strawberry, peach, lemon chess, chocolate cream, and pecan, served with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. No wonder people stayed until midnight to dance to DJ Pitch One. Quite a few pairs of shoes got kicked off, too, which is another reason to say “whatever” to a dress code.

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