How is it that at the unofficial “protest” ball of the 2017 inaugural party circuit, the name Donald Trump hardly came up? Easy. The soon-to-be president served as the event’s Lord Voldemort — he who shall not be named, but whose presence cast an inescapable shadow over Thursday night’s celebration at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
What started in 2009 as a love fest meant to prolong the feel-goods following President Obama’s election continued in its third iteration as a party with a purpose, as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called it. Fiery speeches about social activism once reserved for marches on the Mall ended up on the main stage of the makeshift ballroom. It was the kind of event where you get a glass of champagne with your community organizing message, trading the trench coats and comfy shoes of Rep. John Lewis’s generation for natty tuxedos and too tight stilettos.
“For people who are activists, there’s always ups and downs. They look beyond a single president to see change happen,” said Andy Shallal, the owner of popular Washington watering hole Busboys and Poets, which has organized the Peace Ball since its inception. “Change happens because of the movements that are created, and the people in this room are the ones who are making those movements happen.”
So just who are those people? The diverse crowd, which mingled throughout the museum’s multiple exhibition floors, was an unsurprising cross-section of vintage dashikis and saris, intricately patterned turbans and sparkling hijabs, plus plenty of dainty frocks paired with chunky pink pussy hats.
On the red carpet downstairs, Ashley Judd, who plays President Obama’s mother in the Netflix film “Barry,” showed up wearing a navy lace pantsuit and feather fascinator. After a photo opp, she quickly disappeared upstairs to the museum’s main lobby, where the DJ was already underway.
Actress Ellen Page, who we hear was filming an episode of her Viceland show “Gaycation,” also shunned the press line, although she popped back up on the red carpet for a chance to chat with Lana Wachowski, the film director behind Netflix’s “The Matrix” trilogy. Wachowski, who is transgender, had a message for LGBTQ youth: “If you can, come to this museum and remember that struggle is a part of the progressive agenda.”
“The Nanny” star Fran Drescher (yes, that laugh is real) toyed with the idea of running for office one day and said she personally wanted to be on the president-elect’s “cancer panel.” (Drescher is a uterine cancer survivor who now advocates for early diagnoses.) Chef and Washington native Eddie Huang, whose life story as a first-generation American is the basis for ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat,” said he would guest-cook as a White House chef if invited — say for a state dinner — on one condition.
“I would cook if I was guaranteed a conversation that was recorded and disseminated because I don’t like how he keeps meeting people behind closed doors,” said Huang, who earlier that night made sure to snap a photo of himself in front of one the controversial Don’s John portable toilets set up near the Mall. “I would love to sit down and talk to him and shine some logic and reason on some of the policies he has, because they don’t make no sense.”
Last up on the celebrity cattle call was actor and activist Danny Glover, the most fired up A-lister by far. By the time the 70-year-old made his way down the red carpet to us he was sweating from all of the enthusiasm (or maybe it was that black Cohiba-brand ball cap he was sporting).
“I’ve been fired up since November 9,” said Glover, who then went on to give a mini-lecture on the challenges of the neo-liberal paradigm. Listen, the man knows his stuff.
“I’ve been involved in some kind of struggle since I was 20 years old,” added the “Lethal Weapon” star who is clearly not too old for this stuff. He’s currently helping organize a march of auto workers in Canton, Miss., and plans to keep showing up on Capitol Hill. So basically, Mr. Glover, your dance card is full? “What else I’m gonna do?” he said. “I can either do that or go shopping.”
But enough with all this progressive talk. Isn’t there supposed to be a party going on? (Read: Where is Solange?)
Upstairs, Booker rallied his “brothers and sisters” in the crowd to match the hate that many saw bubble up during the election with “our collective love.” The senator, sliding into the cadence and volume of a Baptist preacher, then added, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. … This is a time when we bring the thunder.”
“You tell ’em,” yelled a man in the crowd, thrusting his drink in the air.
And the liberal rallying cries from the likes of poet Sonia Sanchez, Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, commentator Van Jones, professor Melissa Harris Perry and “Vagina Monologues” author Eve Ensler continued to flow liberally (as did the libations) far into the night while a pumped-up and sauced-up crowd waited for the headliner.
“I’ve been inspired since 8,” complained one guest as the party wore on and as Knowles, who rumor had it would appear by 10:30, was still nowhere to be seen.
About an hour later, civil rights icon Angela Davis took the stage. Would this be more motivation? Hopefully not too much because already two women close to the stage had nearly passed out — one was promptly diagnosed with acute “open bar” syndrome (a condition that was spreading rapidly), and the other was escorted from the claustrophobic area by a man who said he was a doctor.
“An inauguration is happening tomorrow,” said Davis, as the crowd booed. She then declared a “1,460 day” countdown, until the “last gasp of dying white male supremacy.” Thankfully the crowd didn’t have to wait that long for Solange. At 11:40, Davis introduced the “Seat at the Table” singer who stepped onstage in all her Diana Ross-meets-Martha Graham glory. She performed a 30-minute set that included “Weary,” “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
The artist, who was in Washington earlier this month performing alongside her sister Beyoncé and brother-in-law Jay Z at the Obamas’ farewell bash, stayed away from the politics that permeated the night. After satisfying a crowd that would spend Friday morning mourning, Solange declared it “an honor” to be in “such a beautiful room” and exited stage right with a blessedly brief “Peace and blessings to all.”
Veronica Toney contributed to this report.