Forest Whitaker may have been the one receiving the award, but it was Idina Menzel who brought the house down at the Kennedy Center's Human Spirit Awards on Wednesday evening.
The annual gala, now in its fourth year, honors artists and philanthropists who have had a significant impact on the arts through their generosity and service. Whitaker was chosen for the award because of his ongoing work with the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative as well as with the Kennedy Center's Turnaround Arts program, which was founded under President Obama in 2011 to help strengthen schools through arts enrichment.
His co-honorees were Chicago-based billionaire philanthropists Pat and Shirley Ryan. Past recipients include Gary Sinise, who won the award in 2018 for his eponymous outreach program that connects U.S. military defenders with free arts and entertainment programs.
Whitaker talked to the The Hollywood Reporter about his experience working with former child soldiers in war-torn countries, including Uganda and South Sudan, helping them build mediation and conflict-resolution skills through educational arts programs. Did these kids realize they were working to heal trauma and build active listening skills with an Oscar-winning actor? "No, no," Whitaker demurred, "We're working with really remote places that sometimes don't even have electricity, so they certainly don't have films or screens."
Whitaker also told THR that these programs are extremely effective at the schools he's worked with in the States, both in Des Moines through the Turnaround Arts program and in L.A. through his namesake initiative: "For the past three years, we've partnered with L.A. City schools, using painting, drawing, talking about conflict … using the arts to help kids deal with self-esteem issues and develop communications skills." He points to the overwhelming evidence that an arts education boosts math and science scores and reduces rates of absenteeism.
Big-name donors and political figures dotted the audience at the ceremony (Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao). When Whitaker mentioned "my work on the Presidential Commission for the Arts and Humanities under the leadership of first lady Michelle Obama," the rest of his sentence was drowned out by applause.
In his acceptance speech, Whitaker gave a shout-out to the center's founder. "For as long as I can remember, President Kennedy's ideals of service, courage, justice, freedom and gratitude have inspired my work in my life. … President Kennedy also saw clearly how important art and artists are to the health of a democratic society," he said. "Throughout my life, I've strived to be one of [the] Americans that President Kennedy believed in. I believe, like him, in the power of art to change the lives of the whole society up to a higher standard. I stand before you today the proud child of East Texas and South Central Los Angeles, a kid whose life was completely transformed through and thanks to the arts."
In a post-ceremony performance, Idina Menzel was tapped to entertain an audience of 1,000 fans. Menzel belted out a roster of songs that included such disparate artistic choices as Cole Porter, Modern English, and a Beatles/Frozen mashup. Right before launching into a bring-the-house-down version of "Let It Go," Menzel laughingly acknowledged, "You either love me or hate me for this song." With an uproarious standing ovation, the D.C. crowd made it clear it was the former.