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A Kennedy Center Honors with the presidential box used as intended


Justino Díaz at a ceremony for Kennedy Center honorees at the White House in Washington, Dec. 5, 2021.

By Emily Cochrane


The orchestra cycled through an early homage to the latest class of honorees: an excerpt from the opera “Carmen,” a tribute to the sounds of Motown, the chorus of “Wind Beneath My Wings.”


But the 44th Kennedy Center Honors did not begin in earnest Sunday night until President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrived to their seats in the presidential box in the opera house and were introduced to a standing ovation from a crowd of thousands wearing masks and black tie.


Biden’s presence — the first time a president has attended the event since 2016 — heralded the restoration of tradition for the Honors, a star-studded event that recognizes lifetime achievements in the arts, including music, dance, theater, film and comedy, and helps raise money for the arts complex. The event had been rattled in recent years by former President Donald Trump’s decision to skip the festivities altogether after some recipients had announced in 2017 that they would not attend a gala event at the White House. Then in 2020 it was derailed, or at least delayed, by the coronavirus pandemic.


“It is quite nice — very nice — to see the presidential box once again being occupied,” comedian David Letterman declared in opening remarks, prompting a standing ovation from the crowd as the Bidens waved. They were joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.


Just six months after an abbreviated celebration of the 2020 nominees, there were glimmers of both political and artistic normalcy. The show returned to its annual December slot, providing nearly four hours of tribute performances and speeches to more than 2,000 guests, who packed the opera house in shimmering gowns and tuxedos.


In addition to attending the event, Joe Biden revived the practice of hosting a White House reception for the five honorees: screen and stage actress Bette Midler, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, Motown founder Berry Gordy, opera singer Justino Díaz, and Lorne Michaels, creator of “Saturday Night Live.”


“For this pandemic of profound loss and pain, as we move forward toward repair and renewal, the artist vision is important as it ever has been — I would argue more important,” Biden told the honorees in the East Room. “We’ve seen the power of art in every form to heal, to comfort, and recover.”


He lavished praise on the honorees, calling Midler “a performer without peer” and praising Díaz for bestowing “the sound of soul” on audiences. He thanked Gordy for helping to create “music that lifted us higher” and told Mitchell, “You sing poetry, it seems to me.”


And he called Michaels “Mr. Wise Guy,” joking about the number of actors tapped to play the president on “SNL” over the years, and noting, “If you can’t laugh at yourself, we’re in real trouble — and you make me laugh at myself a lot.”


Echoes of the pandemic still reverberated. Attendees had to repeatedly show proof of vaccination, an existing policy for all performances at the Kennedy Center. Masks — an array of medical, satin and sequined — were required, but removed for photos, performances and food.


Saturday evening’s medallion ceremony, a traditionally more intimate dinner where the honorees receive the rainbow-ribboned awards, was held at the Library of Congress in order to host just over 200 people and accommodate coronavirus protocols.


Seated at library desks with the lamps on, the honorees were feted under the gaze of statues of Shakespeare and Plato, after guests perused exhibits dedicated to their work. As he received his medallion, Díaz, allured by the acoustics, burst into an excerpt from “Otello,” his deep voice reverberating throughout the room.


Mitchell, who spoke briefly with reporters after receiving her medallion, said that “there was a lot of heart to the whole thing.”


The Honors event is a key fundraiser for the Kennedy Center, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its opening in 1971. The event raised nearly $6.5 million, a spokesperson said, with the cost of tickets to the Sunday gala ranging between $600 and $10,000.


But for the honorees and the menagerie of lawmakers, donors, artists, colleagues and family members arriving to pay tribute, it was a celebration of not just their legacy, but of the return of their communities and live performances after the pandemic devastated arts industries around the world.


“It’s very special and it’s a different perspective — I get to enjoy, not suffer with nerves,” said Díaz, who performed during the Kennedy Center’s inaugural year in Ginastera’s “Beatrix Cenci” (and who sang in the first performance at the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in 1966).“It’s like coming home again, except a different part of the house.”


Members of the cast of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations,” the Broadway musical, sang a cappella on the red carpet in between interviews, before performing in character onstage as part of a tribute to Gordy. For Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, the evening was their first date night since their twins were born. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and a host of bipartisan lawmakers could be seen applauding and dancing in their seats before the end of the night.


“I think I’m in a dream,” Gordy proclaimed. “And it’s a wonderful dream.”


To honor Mitchell, the ceremony included Brandi Carlile, a friend and collaborator, performing “River,” Ellie Goulding singing “Big Yellow Taxi,” and Norah Jones performing “The Circle Game” and “A Case of You.”


Díaz grew emotional as his daughters, Natascia and Katya, sang “En Mi Viejo San Juan,” before excerpts from “Carmen” and “Faust” were performed. Midler cheered as a trio of her “Hello, Dolly!” castmates performed “Friends,” before Billy Porter, the actor and singer, emerged from a clamshell to lead a medley of her songs.


A parade of comedic veterans from “SNL” alternated between gently ribbing Michaels, their former — or current — boss, and thanking him for his influence on their careers. It was punctuated by a trio of mock “Weekend Update” segments hosted by Kevin Nealon, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, and Colin Jost and Michael Che. Paul Simon concluded the tribute to Michaels with a performance of “America.”


During the tribute to Gordy, the show paused to restart after an apparent technical mishap. But when the set parted to reveal Stevie Wonder at the piano, breaking into a medley that included “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” the crowd erupted into raucous applause.


By the finale, “Higher Ground,” the audience was on its feet.


“To be part of this sort of lineage and this long line of people who have contributed so much to the culture, it’s just staggering to me,” Midler said. “I am so thrilled.”


The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 22.

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