“The arts are back,” proclaimed the White House’s Kareem Dale to cheers at last night’s celebration of the Washington arts community. With the President’s recent boost to arts funding in the stimulus bill and the First Family bringing attention the arts in the White House, the night’s theme seemed appropriate.
Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn conceived of the night as an opportunity to bring together a sampling of the region’s impressive arts talent for the benefit of the new administration. A mostly young crowd of staffers, lobbyists, and aides packed the theater to near capacity after mingling in the lobby with cocktails, Champagne, miniature burgers, tarts, and other snacks.
The event featured a host of old and new Washington, from longtime arts patrons Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt and local designer Victor Shargai to Kareem Dale, special assistant to the President for disability policy; Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair; and DC mayor Adrian Fenty.
Photographs by Kevin Allen.
Kahn, in his welcoming remarks, amusingly promoted DC councilmember Jack Evans to “congressman”—although if he were a congressman, Evans probably wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of his DC Council license plates and park illegally outside the Verizon Center across from the theater. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito made a brief appearance during the cocktail hour before ducking into his town car just before the show started. The night was also remarkable for bringing together nearly every arts director and executive in town as well as a number of artists sprinkled among the audience.
While security checks made for long lines in the rain outside Harman Hall, guests were rewarded as First Lady Michelle Obama snuck quietly into the theater and sat in the sixth row with a Secret Service agent, White House social secretary Desirée Rogers, and another woman. Most of the audience didn’t realize Obama was there until Kahn announced her presence, leading to sustained applause and cheers. And because we know there are those of you who care, the First Lady—who’d spent the afternoon planting trees at the National Arboretum—wore an outfit including a black cardigan and a wide, gold-studded black leather belt.
The two-hour show featured a mix of Washington groups, from the rollicking Step Afrika! to the Washington Bach Consort. Actor Avery Brooks—who has performed in a number of Shakespeare Theatre productions over the years and who elicited cheers as his name was announced—performed a scene from Othello. The Washington National Opera’s Dario Volonté performed a rousing aria from Puccini’s Turandot, and a chorus from Arena Stage—whose colorful outfits and fancy hats appeared to be an unintentional homage to Aretha Franklin’s famed inaugural attire—sang selections from Arena’s current production of Crowns.
The Washington Ballet performed a Celtic-inspired number with amazing grace, while Synetic Theater’s impressive and dizzying performance of a selection from its recent production of Dante—complete with creepy spider characters—was enough to leave young children with nightmares for weeks. Performers from Signature Theatre reprised songs from its recent productions, and the broad smile of actress Felicia Curry underscored the delight the performers seemed to share in last night’s celebration.
Between acts, various artists, including actor Floyd King and soprano Harolyn Blackwell, extolled the richness and diversity of the local arts scene, the jobs it creates, the size of its audience, and the money it contributes to local economy. For the closing number, the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of the Gospel Choir had the audience—including the First Lady—on their feet.
On the way out, guests were offered bags containing information on more than 50 local arts groups. As the crowd moved on to more miniature burgers, Michelle Obama snuck backstage to greet and thank the performers.