The Kennedy Center Honors bestowed recognition upon its 2015 elite group of recipients from the performing arts in December 29’s broadcast, and despite one reviewer’s disdain that it is a “stale but satisfying” tribute, even with the new creative vision of producers Ricky Kirschner and Glenn Weiss taking over from George Stevens Jr., the production elevates true respect for those who give their lives to provide a higher glimpse of humanity through their gifts. Far too often, the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Emmys have resorted to posthumously presenting awards to deserving artists too late, or given as a game of “catch-up” for years of worthy performances never noted, which by necessity, lessens the honor’s significance. The esteemed night at the Kennedy Center allows the artists to sit back and be celebrated, or stand, sing, shout, or move, in whatever way they each are moved, and that is a joy to behold, and there are seven spectacular examples from this year’s event.
Actress, Gina Rodriguez, of “Jane the Virgin” was her own love letter to mentor and TV grandmother, Rita Moreno. Moreno has been more present and omnipresent in every sort of stage and screen over the past two decades than ever in her career, in every type of role, and that status as a constantly working actress speaks more of this resilient legend’s status than anything, including her being in the rare company of having an a EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award). Without cards or notes, Ms. Rodriguez poured out recollection of writing and rewriting her e-mails to her idol, years before they would meet onset. Her earnest question to her mother, “Where were we?,” unable to see any Latin American female presence on any media she saw, was answered in a single viewing of West Side Story, and the little girl grabbed a powerful vision of who she was, and that her dream was possible, as her grandfather inspired. Now, she is living that dream, and sharing scenes with Rita Moreno. The gushing gratitude went both ways.
Something “Star Wars” pops up every 2 seconds currently, and it would be understandable to be a little bit dismissive of George Lucas, and his prominence in all that is CG-animation, and modern film making, but it was something different to see his wife, Melody Hobson, look into his eyes, and talk about his human qualities, and particularly, his devotion as a dad, that took him most willingly away from his craft in person for 15 years, but not in vision. There are few truly great filmmakers. There are even fewer truly great dads.
Speaking of filmmakers, filmmaking engineer and emperor, Tyler Perry, was first to pay his homage to Cicely Tyson. He lovingly wove a story of great humor retelling their first meeting, and expecting her to be somewhat demure and less powerful at her station in life, but instead, being very surprised by her “death grip” around his waist, and her “spinning me around like one of those white girls on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’!” That spark of levity was soon transferred as pure sincerity, as Tyson’s independence came early, with her mother turning her out from their home because she saw acting and modeling as careers completely surrendered to Satan. Instead of spurning her mother's devotion, the daughter paid tribute to it, by marking her place in her church pew as a permanent reminder. The actress who always takes great pains to play parts that matter was moved in unparalleled gratitude to see her mother's favorite hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” sung by CeCe Winans and accompanied by trumpet great, Terrence Blanchard, backed by students from her own Cicely L. Tyson Community School for the Performing Arts. She stood, she cheered, she celebrated her moment, and her face was an unforgettable vision. Usher was in tears from the audience, and Melody Hobson wiped away her own. Kerry Washington and Viola Davis also paid tribute to the “TV mom,” but nothing matched the moment in song. It was a blessed sight to see recognition come with long-held respect for the ground-breaking star at 90. She had to take a night off from Broadway to be there.
For acclaimed Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor, Seiji Ozawa, the most meaningful moment came with his opening tribute, from none other than violinist, Itzhak Perlman, now, at 70, motoring out on his scooter. He recalled every performance that he shared with the maestro, with every orchestra, in every city, for 40 years. The petite prodigy looked down from the balcony, brushing away a tear. The great Yo- Yo Ma came next, but nothing matched the feeling in the eyes for the violinist.
Looking at Carole King, her wish to be known as “a down to earth person” comes through without a hint of pretense, and her entire tribute came as a delightful surprise, as gauged by her response of utter stunned surprise to every performer there in her honor. The star of her Broadway musical, Beautiful, Jessie Mueller, offered a reverent sort of road map through the songwriter's life journey, and of course, proved she had the voice for it, as did songwriter Sarah Bareilles, but two other luminaries really lit her night. James Taylor was a vision sitting atop a literal roof prop of a New York City apartment building, giving a beautiful rendition of “Up on the Roof” which sent the audience into a roar. Taylor's long hair has departed, but the warm resonance of his voice is even more rich and defined, and his tribute in song was a delight. Nothing approached what or who came next as the ultimate living diva, Aretha Franklin, entered from behind a stage divider donned in her fur coat. In a fearless and unforgettable moment, Franklin went straight to the piano, sat on the bench, and played the opening to “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) flawlessly, as her voice stormed with passion through the lyrics, owning it in every sense. King was pleading for more from her high seat, and she, and the audience, got it. As she got to the final verse, Lady Aretha, shed the coat, raised her arm, and the audience rose for her, including the President and First Lady. There was not a still body, and not a stale note of any variety in the room.