Every single one of us has missed something fiercely during Covid. Even the biggest introvert has experienced the pangs of loss over some part of their former routine or interactions. And while I’m an extreme extrovert and avid lover of the arts who stumbled through the past year feeling lost without my frequent touchpoints in the local arts and culture scene, there’s been one particular void in my life that’s been impossible to fill: the performing arts.
On May 21, along with a handful of other members of the press, I was lucky enough to walk into the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Hall of Nations and sit directly on the Opera House stage looking out into the audience I’d sat in so many times before. I was about to watch the 43rd Kennedy Center Honorees walk out onto the same stage and sit opposite us, and at that moment, I knew this cloud was being lifted from our city and our lives. The arts had returned.
As each honoree walked across the stage, my heart grew happier and happier. The Kennedy Center could not have picked a more accomplished group of powerhouse talent: the legendary Dick Van Dyke, who stole the show with perfect comedic timing at 95 years old; iconic singer-songwriter and activist Joan Baez, who broke into song mid-answer with “(Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody) Turn Me Around;” country singer-songwriter Garth Brooks, who answered questions with a quiet grace and solemnity that resonated long after he’d finished speaking; artist, choreographer and actress Debbie Allen, whose presence alone commanded the attention and respect fit for the performer who helped pave the way for women of color; and violinist Midori, who spoke of her philanthropic efforts and unique approach to famous works.
The camaraderie onstage was palpable; several honorees spoke to the silver lining of receiving this award during the pandemic. The experience has been more intimate, with more time spent just the five of them. They are really getting to know each other, and while large audiences are universally missed, they don’t seem to mind the extra time together.
“I have to say that an award is only as good as the names that are on it,” Brooks said in response to a press question fielded by Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter, who moderated the group interview. “When you walk in the door and see the list of names and then you sit in this group and get to be a part of this, it’s pretty cool. For the first time in my life, I don’t mind being the weak link in the chain. I’m in the chain. This is a cool thing and I just feel very, very lucky to be among people who look at life this way. Being among this level of character is good for me.”
The country star then looked at his fellow honorees and spoke to some of their key attributes: Baez remaining cool, decade after decade. Van Dyke exuding a timelessness, or as Brooks put it, “If he shaved his beard, he’d be a kid.”
In fact, when the honorees first climbed the stairs to face opposite us, Van Dyke pretended to trip and Brooks, who was nearby in case he needed assistance, was “scared to death.” Without missing a beat, the legendary comic turned around to the press and gave one of his classic mischievous smiles.
Every response Van Dyke gave felt like watching the actor on his beloved sitcom or in a famous scene from “Mary Poppins” or “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which I’ve now rewatched hundreds of times with my four-year-old. There was clearly no separation between the impish charm on camera and off; the Dick Van Dyke we’ve known through the screen is exactly who he is in real life. And he was equally grateful to be honored by the Kennedy Center, grinning from ear to ear with each response.
“Recognition from your peers is always icing on the cake,” he said. “But this? This moment? This is Westminster Abbey. This is one of the highest awards. I can’t believe it. This is really a capper for my life. How I got here, I don’t know. And I’m not going to ask.”
When Rutter asked what’s ahead for the comedian, he replied with no hesitation, “I think the next thing is knighthood.”
While Van Dyke provided a lightness to his responses that was very welcome after such a challenging year, some of the other honorees spoke on more serious topics.
Allen spoke about being instrumental in launching WE tv, the Women’s Entertainment network, something that came naturally to her after years of often being the only woman, and the only Black person, in the room making creative decisions. And even though she says the entertainment industry now has a much more diverse range of actors and creators painting their palates on television, there’s still work to be done.
“I’m in a place of authority where I see very clearly because I hired more women to direct network television than any,” she said. “I just knew growing up that I didn’t have opportunity and women are so capable of [creating] opportunity, and certainly more Black people. And then, it’s just turned around a little bit where the young white male is somewhat the endangered species. I’ve been hiring some really talented white boys who I love — that’s right, I’ll say it out loud, it’s true — because I think we have to keep that space open, and we have to look at things with open eyes.”
She also touched on the isolation we’ve all felt over the past year, which is what she sees as the greatest problem we currently face in the wake of Covid. Most of the honorees mentioned some of the devastating impacts of the pandemic, and how excited and grateful they are for the opportunity to start reentering the world again as performers with live audiences and more interaction with collaborators and fans.
Midori spoke with me for an interview several weeks before her arrival in the District, noting the many livestream performances she’s given, in addition to online workshops for youth orchestras and other virtual events in support of performing artists and those that had been hospitalized during Covid. And while these experiences were invaluable to the humanitarian, she cannot wait to be immersed in live performances again.
“I’m really looking forward to being able to be face to face, in person, with others to feel the same atmosphere in the same physical place,” she told me on our call. “I think this is one thing we really missed during the pandemic. We do see things opening up very, very much so now in different parts, and I hope it’s going to safely be able to continue that way. And that we can always appreciate how special and how privileged we are to be able to do that. I hope we’re all going to be able to really embrace the opportunities and things that are coming back to us — and do so safely.”
Rutter ended the group interview with this year’s honorees on an uplifting note, with a question for the queen of folk.
“So Joan, I know you have a special guest joining you tonight,” Rutter said of the center’s evening festivities for the honorees. “That would be Dr. Anthony Fauci. I’m curious how you got to know him and how you extended the invitation.”
“I painted a portrait of him,” Baez said. “There was a mutual fanship. Since then, we’ve texted periodically. A lot of it’s been kind of silly and a lot of it’s been not. I could call him and ask him directly questions all of us have. He’s Mr. Science, so there he was. For this evening, I was just texting and said, ‘Would you like to come to the black-tie event at the Kennedy [Center] Honors?’ And he said, ‘I would love to. There’s one little glitch. You need to call me.’ So, I called him and before he could say what the glitch was, I said, ‘Tony, you’re not going to tell me that the sexiest man in the world doesn’t have a tuxedo, are you?’ And he said, ‘No, I have a tuxedo.’”
My fellow journalists and I chuckled, Rutter thanked the honorees, we applauded them with the energy of a full audience, and they left the stage beaming. For several minutes, as we all packed up and reveled in the conversation we had just experienced, I looked out at the Opera House seats and imagined myself sitting in one of them, watching intently as the curtains rise for my first Kennedy Center play in many, many months.
Soon enough. On a call with Rutter, we spoke about the center’s recently announced 2021-2022 season, which will include everything from “Hamilton” and “Dear Even Hansen” to “Mean Girls” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the months leading up to the season’s start, she’s looking forward to engaging the local community with the center’s Millennium Stage Summer Series — and celebrating the 43rd annual Kennedy Center Honors with this year’s honorees on Sunday, June 6. While the festivities leading up to this grand event, and the event itself, are much different this year with virtual streaming opportunities available to the public, she says the activities the center has created are a great way for fans and art enthusiasts to take part in the celebrations.
“If we hadn’t moved through the year as we have lived, and if we hadn’t had the experience of really completely changing the way we do our business, it might have been harder to really break all of the traditions,” Rutter says of planning this year’s honors. “We’re keeping certain traditions. We’re just doing them differently. And as a result of having a year of really thinking outside the box, we have created activities, and ultimately a show, that is completely outside the box.”
When I asked Rutter what it’s like to put together the group of honorees each year, she said, “It feels like we put together the most perfect dinner party — just because of the balance, trying to think about music versus bands versus actors and different genres, etc. I have to say, in this case, all of these names have been on our list. It’s just about finding the right time.”
She went on to say how fantastic she thinks the timing of this year’s honors is, because of the unique situation we’re all in as the world starts to reopen.
“Frankly, it’s a time of optimism. It’s a time of looking forward. I do believe the timing of the filming and broadcasting on June 6 is really somehow magical because increasingly, there’s a sense that artists will soon have the opportunity to go back to something like normal. I don’t know how many programs have really been aired [recently] that are live and have an audience sitting socially distanced from one another. We may be one of the first to have a live show like that. It will certainly be emblematic of the time: Finally, live artists performing all different genres with a live audience eager to be there.”
I think Garth Brooks summed it up best during the interview, when Rutter asked him: “If you were using this moment for inspiration for a song, what do you think the title would be?”
“’All The Good Things,’” he replied.
Watch the 43rd annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday, June 6 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS and stream on Paramount+. Go to www.kennedy-center.org/whats-on/honors to learn more about this year’s honorees, what activities are being offered and what performances are available to livestream.
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