The political leader of the free world was absent from the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday night, but that didn’t stop presenters and performers from making a slew of political statements.
A high-powered and diverse slate of artists celebrated the lifetime achievements of singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, television producer Norman Lear, rapper and actor LL Cool J, dancer Carmen de Lavallade, and musician and producer Lionel Richie at the 40th edition of the national ceremony.
It was perhaps the art center’s most diverse class, which Lear noted in a taped segment from the medal presentation the night before. “I’m very proud to be among these honorees representing my race,” Lear cracked.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump announced in August that they would skip the event — becoming the first presidential couple to do so — after Lear and de Lavallade suggested they would boycott the White House reception, a key piece of the weekend. In a statement, the Trumps said they would not attend “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.”
But this is Washington, so politics found their way into the show.
Caroline Kennedy set the tone in her welcoming remarks by reminding the well-dressed crowd of her father’s liberal values.
“My father’s commitment to freedom and the rule of law, to religious tolerance and racial justice, to nuclear disarmament and scientific innovation inspired a generation who transformed our nation,” she said.
The show started with each honoree receiving an individual introduction, eliciting some groans from the crowd, who were obliged to give five standing ovations in the show’s first few minutes.
The artists were seated, as usual, in the prime Opera House box, where they waved, sang and even cried as their peers paid tribute to their achievements. Joining them were Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and President Deborah Rutter. Even without Trump, the black-tie event still brought in about $6.4 million in donations, slightly higher than last year. A two-hour prime-time special will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26 at 9 p.m.
The first tribute, to Gloria Estefan, began with 2015 honoree Rita Moreno acknowledging their shared immigrant roots.
“It is not lost on me tonight that one immigrant girl is honoring another,” Moreno said in a segment taped from the State Department ceremony Saturday. “This is the American Dream, and Gloria and I are living every single minute of it.”
The honorees and their guests attended a dinner Saturday night at the State Department hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and emceed by 2001 honoree Julie Andrews, where Kennedy Center Chairman Rubenstein presented the recipients with their distinctive medals. Sunday’s traditional preshow reception at the White House was canceled, replaced by a party at the arts center.
Estefan’s tribute was an up-tempo, bilingual celebration of the Cuban American singer, songwriter, actress and author, who is considered the most successful Latin crossover artist in music history. Estefan has sold more than 100 million records, first with Miami Sound Machine and later as a solo artist.
“No one ever gave a song more emotional honesty than my Gloria Estefan,” said actress Eva Longoria.
Backed by Miami Sound Machine, Latina artist Becky G performed “Mi Tierra,” a big Spanish-language hit for Estefan, and Chaka Khan and the Howard University gospel choir sang “Coming Out of the Dark.” The segment concluded with the cast of “On Your Feet,” the Broadway musical based on the lives of Estefan and husband, Emilio, performing a medley of their greatest hits, including “Conga,” “Turn the Beat Around” and “Get On Your Feet.” The production will make a three-week stop at the Kennedy Center starting Jan. 9.
Small-screen giant Lear was honored as a television icon and a liberal lion who has fought for progressive causes on and off the airwaves.
J.J. Abrams, the creator of TV’s “Lost” and “Alias,” paid homage to the genius behind the TV series “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.”
“For those of us who write and create entertainment for a living, Norman Lear is a hero. For those of us who care about our fellow human beings, Norman is a superhero,” he said.
A World War II vet who flew 52 combat missions, Lear is still making comedy. His reboot of “One Day at a Time” on Netflix begins a second season early next year.
Actor Rob Reiner, who appeared on “All in the Family,” described Lear’s paternal influence. “Norman, I love you,” Reiner began. “I love you, too,” Lear shouted back.
Younger artists, including Rachel Bloom of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Kenya Barris, the creator of “Blackish,” described both the influence of Lear’s art and activism.
“Norman, because of you, there is me,” Barris said.
“There’s no question Norman Lear is a true champion of people of color,” said “Blackish” star Anthony Anderson.
The production made history by honoring rapper and actor LL Cool J, the first hip-hop artist to wear the rainbow-ribboned medallion. A two-time Grammy winner, Queens native LL burst on the scene in 1984 as one of the first successes of Def Jam Recordings. He stars in the CBS drama “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
“We are witnesses to history,” exulted Queen Latifah. “Tonight we honor L for his contribution to our culture that began with him banging on a garbage can on the corner of Farmers Boulevard.”
The stage was transformed into a dance club, with DJ Z-Trip directing a segment that featured Busta Rhymes and Spliff Star performing “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC offering a powerful “Rock the Bells.” The loud bass didn’t suit most of the audience, though, who remained seated even as the performers begged them to stand. Some even covered their ears.
Meryl Streep, a 2011 honoree, introduced the tribute to dancer and choreographer de Lavallade, a barrier-busting artist who began her career at 17 with the Lester Horton Dance Theater. The Los Angeles native performed dances created for her by Alvin Ailey, John Butler and Agnes de Mille and was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera and a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre.
While a teacher at the Yale School of Drama, she performed in a Yale Repertory Theatre production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that starred a young Streep.
Streep described a protective teacher who cared deeply for her students. But when it came to characterizing her unique style, she quoted Horton: “Her teacher Lester Horton called it Balinese top, African bottom. That combination of power and fragility, that is Carmen.”
Misty Copeland saluted de Lavallade’s role as a trailblazer. “Me, as a black prima ballerina dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House, I stand on your shoulders,” Copeland said before dancing a duet with Robert Fairchild to “Bill,” sung by Rebecca Luker.
They were joined onstage by current and former dancers from American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, as well as Howard’s gospel choir for “She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands,” a performance that brought de Lavallade — and many others — to tears.
The evening concluded with a joyful tribute to the music of Richie, a pop music superstar and Grammy and Academy Award winner who has sold more than 100 million albums.
Kennedy Center 1999 honoree Stevie Wonder kicked things off at a grand piano with “Hello” and “Easy.” Kenny Rogers — who had a hit record with Richie’s “Lady” — introduced the biographical video that tracked Richie’s start as founder of the Commodores before going solo.
Country singer Luke Bryan, who will join Richie as a judge on the next season of “American Idol,” performed “Penny Lover” and “Sail On” while Richie and LL chair-danced and sang from their seats.
Quincy Jones, a 2001 honoree, remembered putting Richie and Michael Jackson together for a fundraiser. They created “We Are the World,” a global sensation that raised $60 million.
And, to no one’s surprise, the three-hour show ended with a rollicking “All Night Long” that began with Leona Lewis and finished with Bryan, Wonder and Jones — and finally, the audience — dancing to the beat.