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WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 2,000 people braved temperatures in the teens to attend the 17th Annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration on Monday, Jan. 21 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Sponsored by the Kennedy Center and Georgetown University, the event, held in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., featured Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, along with The Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir.
The 2019 John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, named for the legendary former Georgetown head men’s basketball coach, was presented to Hawah Kasat, co-founder and executive director of D.C.’s One Common Unity. Over the past 18 years, the non-profit has worked with thousands of youth and families to teach peace education and non-violence through music and art.
The free concert was live-streamed on the center’s website and an overflowing audience watched the concert on a screen near the center’s Millennium Stage.
“It is important to remember the impact that Dr. King made, and we still have work today if you look at what is going on in the world today in terms of intolerance and issues like racial profiling,” said Marion Robinson, a Prince George’s County resident.
Nolan Williams Jr., music director for the event, set the tone for the evening with his opening remarks that noted, “Lest we forget, 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the first shipment of Africans to a North American colony. Yet, 400 hundred years later, African Americans are still striving to obtain the level of parity for which Martin Luther King fought and died: equal access to education and health care and healthy foods and housing; equal wages; and, equal justice under the law.”
Williams pointed out that despite some successes, in 2018, police were called numerous times to investigate black people for non-criminal activities as random as waiting for a friend at Starbucks; moving into an apartment; riding in a car with a white grandmother; babysitting two white children; and swimming in a pool.
“If that list sounds absurd—and it is—,” said Williams, “imagine what it feels like to live with the constant threat that even when you work hard, play fair and follow the rules, you still are assumed a suspect and presumed guilty. That’s why programs like these are important. Lest we come to sing songs that make us feel good then leave without ever addressing at least one or two of the elephants in the room.”
Williams called for “more folk who will stand up for what’s right…more everyday advocates for change…more everyday champions for justice.”
He then directed the choir, actors from Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts and special guest soloist Rayshun LaMarr from season 14 of the hit show “The Voice,” in the composition “Ripples of Hope” that Williams himself wrote. The work was inspired by the life of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the actors and LaMarr sang lyrics inspired by quotes from the slain senator.
McDonald and Mitchell came onstage to sing songs that they personally selected in memory of King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who Williams said if he were alive today, “would be found in some unpopular places doing some unpopular work.” This included being in Flint, Michigan asking why people still don’t have clean drinking water and on Capitol Hill, demanding, “that our nation make good on its promise of equality for all people.”
In the spirit of the evening, McDonald performed a moving version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” along with a Negro spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” that had audience members singing along. Her rendering of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” was stunning in its meaning: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Mitchell performed “Make Them Hear You,” from the Broadway hit, “Ragtime,” and the lyrics about injustice rang through the center’s Concert Hall: “Go out and tell the story, Let it echo far and wide. How that justice was our battle and that justice was denied.”
Shifting gears, Mitchell brought an infectious and joyous energy to the hall with his breezy and upbeat rendering of the pop ballad “What a Wonderful World,” and he garnered a standing ovation with his powerful and stirring delivery of “The Quest” from the Broadway hit, “Man of La Mancha.”
“It’s not about doing the impossible. It’s about the trying. Only by trying can we get to the mountaintop,” the baritone explained.
The two singers closed out the evening with their duet, “Wheels of a Dream,” which they first performed 20 years ago on Broadway in “Ragtime.” The song, which talks about the dream that Coalhouse and Sarah would have for their son, was a fitting ending for an evening based on a world where Dr. King prayed would become one where his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”