Once upon a time under the stars at Wolf Trap: Shakespeare Theatre’s gala

Once upon a time under the stars at Wolf Trap: Shakespeare Theatre’s gala

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players… and one man in his time plays many parts.” (As You Like It)

William Shakespeare said it first and said it best as a star-studded array of local players, luminaries, and homegrown talent took to the stage under the stars at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts to celebrate Shakespeare Theatre Company’s magnificent reopening, “Our Town, Our Shakespeare in the Park,” STC’s 2021 gala.

The effervescent Artistic Director Simon Godwin dynamically led the charge of a light brigade of supporters, dignitaries, and performers for “theater reborn” as he welcomed the rebirth of live theater in the DMV, applauding “our town for supporting the arts during this most trying of times.”

“Strong reasons make strong action.” (King John)

Last year’s gala went virtual. This year’s was live.

STC’s annual event—singled out by Washington Life Magazine since 2006 as the “most buzzed-about gala”—provides funds for STC’s artistic, education, and community programs year-round.

Gala Co-chairs Dame Karen Pierce, DCMG; the British Ambassador, Alka Kesavan; Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath; and Nicole Francis Reynolds gave voice to their “belief in the power of live theater” after 18 months without it.

The gala raises funds to bring back live theater after the pandemic and makes world-class drama and arts education available for students throughout the DMV.

Dean Phylicia Rashād. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

“How far that little candle throws his beams.” (The Merchant of Venice)

Howard University brought it home and then hit it out of the park with a lineup from the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts and Department of Performing Arts, a testament to the talent available right here in our own backyards to fill the stages and concert halls of the DMV.

“Our Town” was a grand theme that rocked a fast-moving variety show of a program showcasing Howard University alums—Dean Phylicia Rashād; LeeAnét Noble, STC’s Director of Equity and Education; Frenchie Davis, Broadway star; Greg Watkins, performer and super-smooth piano accompanist for the evening; a rousing Howard University Showtime Marching Band; and an ensemble of Broadway-bound musical theater student performers.

Congresswoman Jane Harman and Dame Karen Pierce DCMG. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

“Some are born great; some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night)

Congresswoman Jane Harman (widow of the Sidney Harman Hall namesake) presented the Arts on the Hill Award to Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) for their “outstanding commitment to the arts locally, state, and federal levels,” politically quipping about the drama of the moment with “It would be a Shakespearean tragedy if we don’t get an infrastructure bill”!

In a videotaped message, Murkowski and Jeffries, respectively, echoed praises to STC for its “timeless support of the arts to heal a nation” and for “advancing the cause of art and culture in society… as a vehicle to communicate our life experience to each other.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaned in with a video message about “the power of the arts to bring humanity to our government.”

Dean of the College of Fine Arts Phylicia Rashād gave introductory remarks, including an announcement about a new “collaboration and partnership” between the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Howard University, before Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, President of Howard University, quoting Teilhard de Chardin, spoke of the arts as the “amplification of each other’s humanity” upon receiving the first annual Phoenix Award.

Student performers from the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

An ensemble of eight musical theater student performers followed Dr. Frederick’s honors with a show-stopping performance of “Why We Tell the Story” from Broadway’s Once on This Island. Broadway-bound for sure, these shining stars have a bright future before them in the performing arts as they instantly transported the audience to the Great White Way with their wonderful talent.

Each student deserves name recognition: Taylor Crawford, Cecily Davis, Deidre Dunkin, Daniella Ochman, Malachi Sauls, Lauren Smith, Jordyn Stroman, Chafik Waddy.

Frenchie Davis. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

“The object of art is to give life a shape.” (Midsummer’s Night Dream)

Frenchie Davis is a known performer in the DMV who graced local stages for many years with her formidable talent before taking it to Broadway and beyond. She opened the gala in song and brought the whole affair home, with “Home” from The Wiz, accompanied by Greg Watkins on piano. Singing for a purpose, Frenchie is a belter whose vocals touch the heart and soothe the senses with her soulful sound. Beautiful song, incredibly beautiful rendition.

Dean Phylicia Rashad, Dean Denise Saunders Thompson, and Justin Guarini. Photo by Margot Schulman.

“Coming out, we need a party” per Simon Godwin re a Britney Spears–inspired musical, Once Upon a One More Time, an STC season headliner featuring Justin Guarini, of first-season American Idol fame. The Broadway and U.S. touring entertainer performed a jot-and-tittle of what we can excitedly look forward to in the upcoming Spears musical with a male take on “Oops… I Did It Again.” A Britney Spears/Shakespeare Theatre Company hookup might seem elusive at this point, but the mystery alone should make it an STC sellout.

Guarini’s “If It’s Magic,” a dreamy hit from Steve Wonder’s famous ’70s Songs in the Key of Life album, was a magical ballad that collapsed time into present-moment loveliness.

F. Murray Abraham and Senator Mark Warner. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

“Action is eloquence” (Coriolanus)

F. Murray Abraham is perhaps best known for his Academy Award–winning Best Actor performance as Mozart’s rival, Salieri, in the film classic Amadeus. Also stage royalty in performing the classics, Abraham closed the evening as Shylock in a scene from Merchant of Venice, donning a yarmulke as the anguished Jewish bargainer. His quality of mercy was certainly not strained. Retelling a story when he performed the role onstage, Abraham said he could not get enough of playing a role he absolutely loved: “Eight shows a week weren’t enough.” And we could not get enough of F. Murray Abraham as he embodied the role with palpable passion and the stage presence of a master.

With the eloquence of the most charming philanthropist at this party with a purpose, Simon Godwin took the mic to make a final fundraising push to top off monies raised at the gala for the District Shakespeare Program. The school-based program makes it possible for kids in the DMV to attend free Shakespeare programs throughout the school year.

The Chuck Brown Band. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” (Twelfth Night)

All things local with “Our Town, Our Shakespeare in the Park,” The Chuck Brown Band with Sugar Bear brought it home, again, wrapping it up with “Da Butt” from School Daze, a Spike Lee joint. A little dancing in the aisles to DC’s official beat. Go-Go forever.

Mike McIntyre, Executive Director Chris Jennings, Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, Debi Jarvis, and Ernie Jarvis. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

“Finds good in everything.” (As You Like It)

Welcoming host Edward Gero, decades-long STC Affiliated Artist, quoted Shakespeare that everything was good about STC’s worthy cause to support community engagement through classical theater.

Yea, I give this to thee, as well!

Raj Kumar, Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, María Teresa Kumar, Steve Clemons, and Alka Kesavan. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

“Our Time, Our Shakespeare in the Park,” Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2021 gala, played one night only, October 4, 2021, at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Vienna, VA.

Sudhakar Kesavan, Manjula Aggarwal, Dharini Aggarwal, and Alka Kesavan. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

Gala Artistic Team
Directed and Produced by LeeAnét Noble and Alan Paul
Written by LeeAnét Noble, Alan Paul, and Neal Racioppo

SEE ALSO: Single tickets now on sale for 2021/22 at Shakespeare Theatre (includes show descriptions for the season)