By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009
As President Obama and the first lady sat front-row center, a gaggle of stars paid stirring tribute last night to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and to two Americans -- "Star Wars" director George Lucas and barrier-breaking actor Sidney Poitier -- who were awarded Lincoln Medals for holding to the ideals of the 16th president.
The occasion was both Ford's Theatre's celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and a coming-out black-tie party for the newly refurbished playhouse, which underwent an 18-month, $25 million renovation. The Ford's audience was as power-packed as a theater crowd gets in this town. Much of official Washington filled the seats around the president, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, several of Obama's newly installed Cabinet members and at least as many members of Congress.
The 90-minute production, hosted by actor Richard Thomas, featured such luminaries as opera singer Jessye Norman, and actors Kelsey Grammer, Ben Vereen, James Earl Jones, Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald, performing spirituals and reading from Lincoln's great speeches. But the appearance that drew the night's biggest round of "oohs" was that by an inanimate object.
After violinist Joshua Bell performed early in the program, it was revealed to the crowd that the instrument he used during "My Lord, What a Morning" was last played at Ford's on April 14, 1865 -- the night of Lincoln's assassination. The violin was part of the orchestra that night, Ford's officials said, and was donated in 1991 by the family of its original owner to the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the historic theater.
The other goose-bump moment occurred after Poitier, who turns 82 next week, walked slowly but confidently to the stage to accept his medal. In a slightly raspy voice, Poitier -- the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Actor -- used the occasion to describe how gratifying it was to be honored in Washington at this juncture of history.
He spoke briefly not about his own achievements in the entertainment industry but about the political progress the country has made, in following up on ideas Lincoln had championed. "His values are very, very much alive," Poitier said. "Alive in our homes, or our streets, in our towns, in our cities -- in every one of these United States."
"And now finally," he added, "we have lived to see the election of an African American to the highest office in the land."
When Poitier utters such things, an entire room seems to draw a collective breath. At evening's end, as the Obamas walked onto the stage to shake hands with the cast members, you could see from the giddy expressions of Vereen and McDonald, Norman and Wright, how much the moment meant to them, too. They all watched as David Selby, the actor playing Lincoln in Ford's current production, "The Heavens Are Hung in Black," presented the Obamas with a gift on behalf of the Ford's Theatre Society: an illuminated copy of the Gettysburg Address.
Given the president's oft-professed admiration for Lincoln -- and his desire to cast himself as a keeper of the flame -- the event had less of a feel of something manufactured for public consumption than these occasions can often project.
"Michelle and I are so pleased to be here . . . to rededicate this hallowed space," Obama said after the entire cast sang a finale of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," backed by the gospel choral group the Ministers of Music and the U.S. Marine Band. "We know that Ford's Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln's legacy . . . where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education, have a home."
Lucas was honored with his Lincoln Medal, awarded each year since 1981 by the Ford's Theatre Society, in part for efforts in the educational sphere. The foundation that bears his name is involved with spreading the word about successful schools and programs. Looking a little nervous -- and diverting from the prepared remarks on the TelePrompTer visible to the front row of the balcony -- Lucas issued a warning from the stage.
"The most important thing the human race has for survival is our brain," he said. "If we don't learn and take that information and pass it down to the next generation, we will become extinct."
The carefully choreographed evening had only one glitch near the end, when that TelePrompTer went on the fritz and Thomas was forced to dash to the theater wings to retrieve a script. Vereen followed him onto the stage with a loose-leaf binder and, putting on glasses, read from the Emancipation Proclamation. When Vereen finished, he clamped the binder shut and declared triumphantly, "Without prompter!"
The show, written by Mark Ramont and Allen C. Guelzo and directed by Peter Flynn, was otherwise smooth. Particularly effective was a short video, in which the four living former presidents -- Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- in turn recited portions of the Gettysburg Address, as period war photos flashed on the screen.
Bell's performances, particularly his witty handling of variations on "Yankee Doodle," were especially well-received. No one seemed to like them more than Michelle Obama, who could be seen in her front-row seat, responding vigorously to Bell by clapping her hands practically over her head.