In a surprise, free performance at Gallaudet College, Prince, the rock star, dazzled and thrilled about 2,500 handicapped students from the campus and the city's public schools yesterday afternoon.
There were blind students who could not see him. There were deaf students who could only feel the vibrations of the songs that have made Prince one of the country's most popular performers. But none of that seemed to matter.
As Prince performed, often smiling and grinning as he played, hundreds of students raised their hands with thumbs, index and baby fingers extended and the two middle ones curved inward to tell him in sign language, "I love you."
For Prince, the controversial performer whose risque "Purple Rain" tour has sold out a record seven concerts at the Capital Centre, the show was a bit toned down, apparently for the young "special" audience.
Promoters said Prince requested to do the show for handicapped students who would not otherwise be able to see or hear him perform. It was his second charitable appearance this week.
On Tuesday night he was the featured guest at a reception held to raise money for maverick Chicago educator Marva Collins and Big Brothers of America, which has more than 1,000 black males in D.C. waiting to be matched with role models, spokesmen said.
Prince wore a psychedelic crushed velvet Edwardian suit. Later, he threw his white glove, and some of his jewelry into the crowd. Members of his back-up band, The Revolution, tossed flowers and masks to the excited students, many of whom did not learn of the concert until yesterday morning shortly before they boarded for the trip to the quiet campus.
Several interpreters for the deaf, standing on podiums throughout the Gallaudet field house, translated the lyrics, danced and tried to convey what Prince meant when he screamed, screeched and plucked his guitar's strings.
"I had a lot of fun. I felt his music," Angela Maxey, 18, a deaf student at Gallaudet, said through an interpreter. "I couldn't hear the words, but I could feel the vibrations. Deaf people really appreciate and love loud music."
The interpreter, Joyce Doblmier, said, "Some deaf students have dim hearing ability and can hear when" the music is pounded into their eardrums. "They can't feel the notes, but they can feel the rhythms."
Joan Lee, the wife of the president of Gallaudet College, and several students presented gifts to the 26-year-old performer. Then Prince and The Revolution took to the stage for an encore rendition of the moody "Purple Rain."
In all he played more than a dozens songs and melodies, including "1999," "Little Red Corvette," and "When Doves Cry." Noticeably missing were his more erotic songs.
"He didn't really go all out like he has before," said Warren Graves, 19, a Prince fan and a student at Spingarn High School who said he recently overcame emotional problems that interfered with his ability to learn. "He really respected these young kids."
During several songs, Prince emphasized phrases as if trying to motivate the handicapped youths, often discriminated against, ostractized and left out of normal activities.
"Be glad that you are free; there's many a man who is not. Be glad for what you got," he sang at one point. And later he sang, "God made you. God made me. He made us all equally."
"The whole performance was touching," said Carol Kirkendall, whose G Street Express company has promoted the Prince tour. "I've seen many shows and he was really at his best. I know that he was touched, you could sense it."