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The cognoscenti intersected with the glitterati Wednesday at Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Awards in one of Washington’s most glamorous yet under-the-radar galas of the year. The 2018 awards, which took place at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, celebrated a roster of innovators whose groundbreaking contributions have changed lives for the better and forever altered the way we look at and interact with the world around us.
John Krasinski, Janelle Monae and John Leguizamo were among the honorees in nine categories including arts, sciences, social progress and activism. They stood alongside a NASA scientist who sent a space probe to Jupiter, the engineers responsible for creating self-driving cars, the wife/husband medical team who discovered a gene therapy to combat heritable blindness and the Poet Laureate of the United States.
The co-founders of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, whose work protects female farmworkers against the sexual harassment that’s rampant in their industry, were introduced by fellow Time’s Up activists Rashida Jones and Laura Dern in a prerecorded message. The Parkland, Florida, survivors who founded the March for Our Lives movement received a standing ovation for “turning anguish into activism.”
All of which was impressive enough. And then Stevie Wonder showed up.
The 25-time Grammy-winner surprised friend Monae and all in attendance, presenting her with the performing arts award for her risk-taking and revealing audio/visual compendium, Dirty Computer, then pulling out a harmonica midway through his speech and singing “Isn’t She Lovely” to an audience that rose to its feet.
An emotional Monae, who recently publicly claimed her status as a “young, queer, black American woman,” joined Wonder onstage to express her gratitude for both his presence and the award. She became teary talking about how his music would “heal me during some of my darkest times. When I was trying to make the decision to … come out to my family, I would listen to “Girl Blue” or “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” and your voice always comforted me.”
Monae also offered Wonder a candid confession: “When I was 12, I wrote a full-length play inspired by your album The Secret Life of Plants. What can I say? I was obsessed with photosynthesis!”
As for the impact Dirty Computer may have on this cultural moment, Monae told The Hollywood Reporter that she hopes the people she wrote it for will “continue to walk more in their truths despite what society or media says about them, despite what the abusers of power say about them. That they just embrace the things that make them unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable. I hope they feel proud, I hope they feel celebrated, I hope they feel heard and seen.”
At the end of the night, Monae would return to the stage to put on a full-tilt performance of her singles “Make Me Feel,” “Electric Lady” and “Tightrope” — the last of which was dedicated to Wonder, who ultimately joined her onstage.
In presenting the history award to John Leguizamo for his one-man show Latin History for Morons, Cheech Marin joked that Leguizamo is “a star on the stage, screen and television … and it only goes to prove that Latinos have to have three jobs at all times.” But the show is really a labor of love from a father who wanted to give his son not only an anchor to his past, but a proud path forward.
“My son was being bullied at school, and I wanted to give [him] the ammunition to defend himself … because I’m a ghetto nerd and I wanted to weaponize his knowledge. Plus, I feel like violence is the lowest form of communication,” Leguizamo said. He was inspired to learn more about Latin heroes and their contributions to modern civilization — to fill in the gaps that are left out of textbooks and the absences that felt demoralizing. “How did we become so goddamn nonexistent? Because if you don’t see yourself outside of yourself, you feel invisible,” said the actor.
Leguizamo told THR that he hopes both his willingness to be vulnerable and his rigorous research ultimately reach a much wider audience: “There’s always consequences to revealing personal stuff, but I felt that it was the right sacrifice to help kids who are being bullied or racially profiled and Latin people being villainized in this administration. How do we support ourselves and build our own self-esteem?”
Presenting John Krasinski with the award for visual arts were his A Quiet Place co-stars Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds, whom Krasinski in turn showered with superlative praise: “These two kids are not only the most extraordinarily talented actors I’ve ever worked with, but they’re also the greatest humans. And I thought I’d asked the coolest presenters to present me the award and then … Stevie Wonder sang “Isn’t She Lovely”! Don’t worry, kids. I’m pretty sure that’s cheating.”
Being a father informed the making of A Quiet Place “in every single way,” the actor-director told THR at the event. “I don’t think I could have made this movie well if I wasn’t a dad,” said Krasinski. “It wasn’t originally built to be a family movie — when I read the spec script is was more of a horror movie. I was holding a 3-week-old baby when I was reading the script about a family trying to keep their kids alive, and it was like, ‘Why don’t I go further with that and make this whole thing a metaphor for parenthood and what I feel fatherhood is?’ I’ve never been more personally invested in anything in my career. I got to make a movie that’s really a love letter to my kids, and I got to do the whole thing with the love of my life [his wife, actress Emily Blunt] by my side. So I really don’t see how it gets any better than that.”
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