The 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Let Freedom Ring Celebration at the Kennedy Center was an evening of great music and recognition of an outstanding leader. Music producer Nolan Williams Jr. created an evening of original music backed by the Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir and Orchestra. Performing with the choir and orchestra were members of the Georgetown University Jazz Band and other Georgetown students in a spoken word performance. Tony and Grammy winner Leslie Odom Jr. was the special guest artist.
The evening opened with Williams’ new composition, “We’re Marching On,” commissioned for this event. The music and lyrics were influenced by a March 1965 speech from Martin Luther King Jr., delivered in Mobile, Ala., called “Our God is Marching On.” Georgetown University students Cameren Evans, Isaiah Hodges and Lucy Lawlor delivered in spoken words their thoughts about underfunded schools, acceptance for who one is, living with doubt, and weariness with life.
“The struggle is exhausting. Not being seen when I walk into a room. not being regarded when I open my mouth to speak, even when I have said the same thing as another peer – only she has less melanin, or he has less colored skin,” said the students in their spoken word delivery.
Later in the program, Williams directed a social-justice-themed ballad, “We Are the Ones to Heal Our Land.” The song charges everyone to lead the positive change we all want. Featured vocalists Roy Patton Jr. and Laura Van Duser blended their voices seamlessly with the choir.
John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, then presented the 21st annual John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award. DeGioia explained the creation of the award in 2003 and Thompson’s legacy.
“Coach Thompson was far more than our head men’s basketball coach, the role he excelled at for 27 years,” said DeGioia. “His moral leadership had a national platform. He used his position to bring about change, opportunity, and a deeper commitment to racial justice.”
Paula Fitzgerald, executive director of Ayuda was this year’s Legacy of a Dream honoree. The award is given to a local individual who exemplifies the spirit of Dr. King. Fitzgerald’s agency provides legal, social and language services for low-income immigrants in the D.C. area. In a video introduction, Fitzgerald said the busloads of migrants arriving in the District have increased the need for services that Ayuda offers.
Odom, the main attraction, did not disappoint– performing a nine-song set.. Accompanied by guitarist Steven Walker, pianist Christopher Cadenhead, bassist Eric England and drummer Gene Coye, Odom performed classics from the American SongBook, including “Autumn Leaves” and “Smile.” He also reminded the audience about his portrayal of singer Sam Cooke in the movie “One Night in Miami.” That led to Odom singing a powerfully beautiful version of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The Tony award winner also performed “Wait for It,” one of his standout songs from “Hamilton.”
At the end of his set and after long thunderous applause, Odom returned for an encore and sang “Ave Maria,” accompanied only by his pianist, which this reporter must add, was truly stupendous.
All I could think is, “Who does ‘Ava Maria’ for an encore?” That would be Leslie Odom Jr.