News & Politics

A Night Out: Ford’s Theatre Gala

Political comment and strong performances as gala returns to renovated Ford’s Theatre

Check out the red carpet at the Ford's Theatre gala with our slide show.

When the President’s in attendance, the intimate stage at Ford’s Theatre provides performers with a powerful political and artistic platform—and artists took full advantage of both opportunities at the theater’s annual gala on Sunday night.

Comedian and talk-show host George Lopez kicked off the evening’s occasional politicized moments with a series of jokes about Arizona’s recently enacted immigration law before noting that his favorite part of the evening was observing the mostly white crowd “get stopped and detailed to show proper ID.”  

Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, presenting a Lincoln Medal to South African Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs, praised his skills “in the art of gentle persuasion,” a perhaps unintentional comment on the increasing polarization of her own court. Sachs himself called President Obama’s first selection for the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor (later spotted at dinner wearing gold and patiently working her way through a field of petitioners, as was Sachs, who lost an arm in an assassination attempt, rebuffing offers of help at the buffet table) as “new energy on the brilliant Supreme Court.” The evening’s main sponsor, General Dynamics, has a business partnership with BAE Systems’ South Africa division as part of its vehicle-building portfolio.

But the evening’s toughest words came in the package that has the most reputation for kindness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu complimented Sachs, saying he “represents a community that has always been at the forefront of our liberation in South Africa, the Jewish community.” The tone of his remarks quickly shifted. Tutu said he “object[s] most strongly to the vicious attacks that have been leveled at Judge Richard Goldstone,” a South African whose report on the 2008-09 Gaza war concluded that both Israel and Palestinians had committed serious violations of international law.

“We cannot accept, unless we want to destroy ourselves . . . the blockade of Gaza,” Tutu said in an invocation calling for peace and recognition of human rights across the world “but especially that critical part of the world, the Middle East.” Tutu said that relief supplies brought in by ship should be allowed to land in Gaza and insisted that “true security is not something that comes at the barrel of a gun.”

President Obama’s remarks at the end of the evening ignored the more charged comments of the stars who preceded him, focusing instead on the music and on five Medal of Honor winners who attended the festivities as part of a presentation by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Obama wasn’t wrong to focus on the performances, which were often excellent. Original American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson stretched her voice a bit too far before settling into a deeply felt cover of “Way Over Yonder.” Opera soprano Renée Fleming, promoting her new rock album, took the stage first for homages to indie band Death Cab for Cutie and Peter Gabriel and returned later for a more traditional rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” accompanied by the Soldiers’ Chorus of the US Army Field Band. Dick Van Dyke—remarkably game, remarkably mobile, clearly touched by the occasion, and accompanied by his hilariously Las Vegas a cappella group—dedicated a Mary Poppins medley to the Obama girls, though he was careful to ask their parents’ permission first.

Between Van Dyke’s willingness to attempt a hip-hop rendition of “A Spoonful of Sugar” and Lionel Richie’s channeling of Beyoncé and Shakira (nervous decision in the moment or not, the crowd loved it), the evening had plenty of good humor. Host Ty Burrell, who stars in ABC’s Modern Family, coached the crowd through the necessary changes to make the show a plausible broadcast (it will air July 2 at 9 on ABC). The Ford’s Theatre audience may have been more receptive to Lopez’s teasing about immigration law than Burrell’s self-deprecating jokes about naked barbecuing, but Burrell’s gentle humor tied together the disparate parts of the evening well.

And the night was not without solemn moments, appropriate to both the setting and honorees. The decision to place Richie’s African-American backup singers in the box opposite the site of Lincoln’s assassination may have simply been a matter of acoustics, but it felt like a direct conversation with past. The Soldiers’ Chorus’s understated performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” had a particular poignance. And Montego Glover’s stirring rendition of “Colored Women,” the song from the Broadway show Memphis that helped her win a Tony nomination this year, was particularly powerful and poignant. “Mama told me there are limits for dark-skinned girls in this light-skinned world,” she sang to the Obamas, who were seated in the front row. And when she was done, she acknowledged the First Couple, her hands over her heart.

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