"If we don't win, we're burning down the place," joked Amy Ziff of the pop trio Betty before the sixth annual Mayor's Arts Awards at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts last night.
Betty didn't win in the Outstanding Emerging Artist category -- mural artist Jorge Luis Somarriba did -- but the place didn't burn.
It was, however, warm. In fact, the night was something of a lovefest of local talent, as Washington dancers, actors, artists and poets cheered enthusiastically for Somarriba and 12 other winners in three other categories and then sang "Happy Birthday" to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which turned 20 this year.
Mayor Marion Barry, who stayed the entire evening, set the tone. "During tough times we need the artists most, because they're the ones who give us spirit," he said, then confided with a wink: "My spirit is way up there."
The pat-on-the-back mood was maintained by master of ceremonies Renee Poussaint, the WJLA-TV news anchor, who promised the gathering that "Washington is coming to appreciate you at a level you should be appreciated at."
Dressed in bright turquoise and tossing festive glitter from her pocket throughout the night, Poussaint also promised a show "shorter than the Emmys," referring to the overly long television awards ceremony the night before.
And she delivered. Though the ceremony, preceded by a cocktail party, started more than half an hour late, it lasted only two hours despite nattering between presenters, long thank-yous, artistic numbers and lots of applause. The KanKouran West African Dance Company, performance poets Essex Hemphill and Wayson Jones, singer Julie McGirt Nixon and the Adrian Bolton dancers performed for the full house.
The only sour note came from Hemphill, who complained that the Arts Commission, which sponsored the event, "attempted to promote censorship." He said he was upset because the commission asked him not to recite a poem about a black man not being able to get a cab in D.C. Hemphill presented it anyway, and the audience cheered, including most commissioners.
The evening ended with a passionate speech by outgoing, eight-year commission Chairman Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, who spoke about the progress the local arts community still needs to make. "Our culture is in your hands," she told the crowd.
Winners for Excellence in Service to the Arts were arts patron Max Berry, the Blues Alley jazz club, the D.C. Youth Orchestra, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the UDC Black Film Institute.
Winners for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline were ballet dancer Sandra Fortune Green, blues singer Bill Harris, jazz singer Shirley Horn, the Living Stage Theatre Company and sculptor Ed Love.
Singer Laura Pettaway and visual artist Georgette S. Powell received Special Recognition Awards.