Wonder was the unofficial theme of Smithsonian magazine’s 2018 American Ingenuity Awards. The crowd at the National Portrait Gallery, buzzing Wednesday with conversations sparked by the night’s featured guests of honor, could be overheard discussing everything from space travel and Afrofuturism to self-driving cars. Even music legend Stevie Wonder made a surprise appearance.
The evening honored nine trailblazers — from singers to scholars to scientists — for their groundbreaking contributions to American culture. Recipients included performer Janelle Monáe; actor and director John Krasinski; comedian John Leguizamo; U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith; Parkland, Fla., shooting survivors and March for Our Lives founders; Mónica Ramírez and Mily Treviño-Sauceda, co-founders of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance and #MeToo activists; Scott Bolton, associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and a principal researcher on the Juno mission to Jupiter; Jean Bennett and Albert Maguire, medical researchers who developed a pioneering gene therapy; and John Krafcik and Dmitri Dolgov, executives at the self-driving technology company Waymo.
The night’s biggest shock came when Wonder delivered the opening remarks for Monáe’s achievement. Four-hundred faces — and their smartphones — lit up when Wonder whipped out his harmonica and began singing “Isn’t She Lovely.”
The love fest was reciprocated when the “Dirty Computer” singer took the mic. “Your music has helped heal me during my toughest times,’ ” Monáe told Wonder, her voice breaking with emotion. “When I was trying to make the decision to come out to my family, I’d listen to ‘Girl Blue’ and ‘Love’s in Need of Love Today.’ ”
Monáe said her performance later in the show, in which she performed an energetic, three-song set that ended with a dance on top of a banquet table, was elevated by Wonder’s presence.
And there was another man of the hour: the late former president George H.W. Bush. “I’ve had dinner at his house with him and his wife, Barbara,” comedian and presenter Cheech Marin told reporters. “It was right in the middle of the O.J. [Simpson] trials, so it was a lively discussion, of which me and Barbara were on the same side.”
And what side was that? “You know, [that] he was guilty,” says Marin.
Another president brought up in discussions was Donald Trump. Both Marin and Leguizamo agreed that the current president could benefit from watching Leguizamo’s one-man show, “Latin History for Morons.” Also invited to the watch party: Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller and Stephen K. Bannon. “You know, people who may have never lifted a book before about history at all, especially not Latin history,” Leguizamo quipped.
That said, the comic is optimistic about the state of the country. “It’s like [Trump] is an enema for the whole country,” he told reporters. “We’ll be better and thinner at the end of it.” He’s also grateful for “powerful motivators” such as congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her pioneering grass-roots campaign efforts.
The final honoree of the night was Krasinski, who rose to fame as Jim Halpert on “The Office.” Krasinski pointed to the show’s relatability as the reason for the hit sitcom’s longevity and mass appeal. “In some way, shape or form, it’s the people in your office or your own social dynamic that you know,” he told The Washington Post. “Everybody knows a Dwight or a Michael, whether it’s a teacher or a friend. It’s one of those things where you think you feel like you know these people and, because it’s a mockumentary, they feel real.”
The actor, who directed and co-write “A Quiet Place,” which also stars his wife Emily Blunt, invited the other actors from the film, Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds, to present his visual arts award. “This experience [filming ‘A Quiet Place’] has been the most genuinely special experience of my entire career,” he told the rapt audience, which included his parents. “I got to make a movie that was really a love letter to my kids and I got to do the whole thing with the love of my life right by my side.”
He choked up at the last line: “I just don’t see how it gets any better than that."