There is something mysteriously wonderful about Theater Alliance’s Black Nativity sweeping the Helen’s Outstanding Musical, Musical Direction and Ensemble Awards with the cast standing on the stage that meant so much in our cultural history.
Built in 1922, the Lincoln Theatre was a major cultural center hosting such entertainers as Washington natives Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey as well as the renowned Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Nat King Cole. The theater struggled throughout the 1950’s and fell into total disrepair after the 1968 riots, closed and boarded up in the 1980’s, and finally reopened in 1994 after extensive renovation. Under relatively new management having barely escaped bankruptcy a time or two since the major overhaul, the Lincoln Theatre is booking more diverse shows appealing to wider audiences. The introductory film showing the venue as old, dilapidated and near ruins contrasted with the posh theater we were sitting in, with its history reclaimed as heralded by Harry Belafonte’s reference to the hope and aspiration of the new Lincoln.
I’m guessing that most of the Helen Hayes attendees had never been in the space—it’s not on the usual path. The several theater vets I talked to had crossed over to U Street to catch Arena Stage productions which used the theatre as their their swing space while refashioning and reclaiming their own history over in South West. The U Street venues generally haven’t drawn the traditional theater crowd—hopefully now that might change.
It takes a lot for participants to attend an after-set that’s not on the premises or nearby, so I was struck by my own tenacity and determination to walk the walk from the Lincoln to the Howard Theatre, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
It was like a beautifully dressed parade, thankfully on a gorgeous night (and fine for those in sensible shoes or just barefoot.) I had forgotten how relatively close the two stops are— it’s so easy to Metro, but there was something exciting about traversing above ground on foot, seeing the territory transition along the way, and finally arriving at the glamorous Howard destination.
It didn’t help our sense of victory to have to wait in a line that snaked around the block nearly 40-minutes until the doors opened at the appointed time. With the awards program zipping through in record time with its full functional format stripped of additional entertainment, the Howard just wasn’t ready to admit us. And so we waited, some peeled off to find food and rest, but others determined not to miss this part of history stuck it out, made neat new theater friends in line, and were eventually welcomed into the luscious site.
Actually, considering that the Howard had sat unattended and nearly demolished over three decades, our wait time wasn’t long at all. In its heyday, the Howard Theatre was the entertainment Mecca for black performances that rivaled the Apollo in New York in its draw and appeal. Opened in 1910 and known as the “Black Broadway,” it featured vaudeville, theater, concerts and inspired change with its own Howard University Players. Like the Lincoln, it nearly perished after the riots and closed in 1980, emerging after a 32 year hiatus to being a hub of creativity and artistic expression today.
The Howard was bright, hues of blue, levels and layers to sit and enjoy the impromptu show. And what a show it was. The usual celebratory exuberance was heightened by the diversity from Black Nativity and Memphis crowds that filled the stage with infectious energy on the dance floor, with everybody bouncing and slamming for a terrific time as part of a theater family. Unlike being in a hotel, we had a stage and spotlights—we were Home.
In the future, there will be nostalgic recollections on past Helen Hayes celebrations in larger venues in the center of the city. Walking city blocks, standing in lines without even having a bright colorful awards brochure to show for it will not go well for many. But history has a way of sneaking up on you, when looking back, and reflecting on the inclusive new system, making new friends, traversing parts of town off the beaten path, jamming at the Howard where so many icons made their mark will hopefully become an eventful and maybe even treasured memory.
This concludes our coverage of 2015 Helen Hayes Awards.
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