Aja Naomi King, Issa Rae and Janelle Monae Saluted at Essence Gala

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Issa Rae, Aja Naomi King, Yara Shahidi and Janelle Monae

There was an A-list prayer circle and touching tributes at the 10th annual pre-Oscars event celebrating black women in Hollywood.

A diverse spectrum of barrier-breaking black talent from legendary actress Diahann Carroll to acclaimed writer/producer Shonda Rhimes packed the Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom last evening for Essence magazine’s annual Black Women in Hollywood Awards & Gala. Embodying this year’s “Next Generation” theme were honorees Aja Naomi King (Lincoln Shining Star Award), Issa Rae (Vanguard Award), Janelle Monae (Breakthrough Award) and Yara Shahidi (Generation Next).

As one guest noted before the evening got underway with host Gabrielle Union: “Look at all the magic in this room.”

In honor of the Oscar week event’s 10th anniversary, Essence opted for a formal dinner instead of its traditional brunch. Opening remarks by actor/rapper Common and Queen Sugar cast member Kofi Siriboe set the tone for the evening’s additional themes of perseverance and paying it forward.

“Whether you’re an actress, writer, editor, director, producer, attorney or cinematographer, succeeding in this town is never easy,“ said Common. “[But] you keep going when doors seem closed. You keep going because little brown girls need to see images of themselves onscreen.”

The evening’s presenters included How to Get Away with Murder’s Viola Davis and Alfred Enoch, who presented to fellow castmember King, of whom Davis noted, “I can’t wait to see what you become”; director/actress Debbie Allen, who called Insecure actress Rae an “OBG: original black girl”; music artist/songwriter/producer Pharrell Williams to fellow Hidden Figures colleague Monae: “She plays by her own rules and wins every time”; and Tracee Ellis Ross to her Black’ish TV daughter Shahidi:  “You are hungry for knowledge and willing to use your platform to inform others about racial justice and gender parity."

More often than not, the evening felt more like a big family reunion than an awards gala. In one touching moment prior to the ceremony, the four honorees huddled together in a private prayer circle for a few minutes as cell phone cameras clicked around the four bowed heads. Singer and The Fast and the Furious franchise member Tyrese Gibson chatted up Viola Davis, while a few tables away, actress Angela Bassett hugged Underground actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Bassett’s husband Courtney B. Vance snapped a photo. And one of the evening’s favorite selfie subjects was Insecure cast member Yvonne Orji. Also spotted in the crowd: Holly Robinson Peete, entertainment attorney Nina Shaw and Alfre Woodard.

Providing the evening’s entertainment was Tony Award- and Grammy Award-winning actress/singer Cynthia Erivo of The Color Purple, who gave a two-song performance that included a reprise of “God Only Knows,” which she movingly sang with John Legend at the recent 59th Grammy Awards. Erivo is also set to perform at the Oscars’ Governors Ball this Sunday (Feb. 26).

The 10th annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards & Gala was presented by The Lincoln Motor Company and will air as a primetime special on the Oprah Winfrey Network on March 5 (10 p.m. ET/PT). This will mark the third year that OWN has broadcast the event.

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