Tonight, the District will see a rare spectacle: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) dancing.
Norton is expected to be among the luminaries who will grace the stage at Lincoln Theatre as part of a benefit for the Arena Stage’s education and outreach programs. The 18th annual fundraiser raises about one-third of the budget for those programs, according to Anita Maynard-Losh, director of community engagement.
“Not all but almost all of the programming we do is offered at no or very little charge to students in the region,” she said. “It’s a really important event to make sure we’re able to do that kind of work.”
This year’s program will be a little different than those of years past, Associate Artistic Director David Dower said. With Production Manager Carey Lawless, Dower created a program based on Arena Stage’s current production, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies.” Its top-notch cast, including nationally known performer Maurice Hines, will perform highlights from the musical throughout the evening.
Like in previous benefits, this evening will include a number from famous-for-D.C. performers, like Norton. In previous years, however, the non-professionals were asked to show up for a rehearsal the day before and each was given a line to deliver during the performance. What happened was that on the night of the performance, the performers would scramble to deliver lines they had just learned backstage.
“That had its charms, but it wasn’t going to really feel sophisticated,” he said.
This year, those who can make the Monday night rehearsal will learn choreography to “Satin Doll” and will dance with professional partners from the show (much like the TV show “Dancing with the Stars”). Those who can’t make the rehearsal will be introduced onstage during what Dower calls the “Sophisticated Ladies parade.” Others expected to perform include Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), D.C. Councilmembers Jim Graham (D), Jack Evans (D) and Tommy Wells (D), as well as local newscasters Lindsay Czarniak and Tom Sherwood.
At performances in previous years there has been a big difference between performances given by professional actors and the individuals brought in just for the evening. This year, though, Dower suspects there will be some extraordinarily talented dancers among the amateurs who choose to participate.
“I think they’re a little stealth, the people who said yes,” he said. “They know that they can do it.”
The fundraiser supports activities that supplement arts programs in local schools. For example, local students are invited to attend productions at Arena Stage, where they’re taught about the plot and theater-going behavior beforehand and follow up in their classrooms afterward. After-school and summer programs also engage students in theater. The evening fundraiser provides a welcome boost to these programs, Maynard-Losh said.
“It helps us not only financially but also emotionally because it lets us know that other people understand how important theater is for young people,” she said.
The evening will also bring awards for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who will receive the American Voice Award, which recognizes advocates for the arts, and actor James Earl Jones, who will be honored with the American Artist Award. Until February, Dicks served as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, which oversees federal arts funding.
“Congressman Norm Dicks is a true impact player,” Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith said via e-mail. “His leadership as Vice-Chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee is unique in that he genuinely cares about funding the arts. He was instrumental in increasing the Capital Arts Program funding, benefitting arts organizations across the region, including Arena Stage. We are honored to call Congressman Dicks a friend, and I cannot think of a more deserving recipient of the Arena Stage American Voices Award.”
Dicks isn’t the first Member of Congress to receive the award. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), ex-Reps. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.), and Norton have all received the award.