Here’s a word you don’t hear often associated with official Washington get-togethers: groovy. But that’s just how Deborah Rutter, who took the reins as president in 2014, hoped her guests felt— fun and groovy. This spring gala, which raised $2 million for the center, was effectively her baby. The first black-tie affair she’d shepherded from start to finish. Another first was the inaugural Kennedy Center Award for the Human Spirit, also conceived by Rutter, and given that night to artist Theaster Gates Jr. and philanthropist Wallis Annenberg.
“The Kennedy Center is a place to have fun with your friends,” said Rutter, who made the meet-and-greet rounds during the pre-show dinner that transformed the terrace level into a sort of psychedelic prom. It’s a place “to experience all the different arts. We don’t just have one thing or another. This is your living room, so come and have a great time.”
Hundreds of guests, including BET founder Bob Johnson and his new wife, Lauren Wooden, Vernon and Ann Jordan, Newt and Callista Gingrich, and Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and his wife, Alice Rogoff, then headed to their communal living room for a concert dedicated to the Motown-bred musician whose canon curves from smooth duets to consciousness-raising protest songs.
Rutter said she wanted folks singing along, and many did, as artists such as Ledisi, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Leslie Odom Jr. (who took a night off from Broadway’s “Hamilton”) covered some of Gaye’s greatest hits, including “Trouble Man” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Even Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes, showed up, gliding onto the stage like a super diva to sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with all the hair and all the sequins but sadly not enough of the vocals.
Surprisingly, the evening’s most memorable tribute didn’t come from a singer at all. Goldberg, a Mark Twain Prize recipient who’d warned the crowd earlier that she was “trying to be clean because, you know, it is the Kennedy Center,” somehow managed that during a spoken word performance of Gaye’s seminal hit “Sexual Healing.” The church giggles soon turned to uproarious laughter.