While songstress Vanessa Williams may have seemed a peculiar choice to perform for Monday’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday concert, “Let Freedom Ring” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she was perhaps the best suited in the event’s 16-year history.
She has not only walked the walk, she has talked the talk, and according to the amazingly timeless singer, her musical selection for the free concert was “very carefully curated for appropriate songs.”
While many of us remember how she won, then lost, the Miss America crown, Williams truly made the most of adversity, becoming a popular singer, actress and Broadway star. Her albums “The Right Stuff,” “The Comfort Zone,” and “The Sweetest Days” received multiple Grammy nominations.
Her 1994 Broadway debut in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” became a box-office sensation, and she continued to star as the Witch in “Into the Woods” in 2002, “The Trip to Bountiful” in 2013 and “After Midnight” in 2014.
But between her movies, records and Broadway shows, Williams also won seven NAACP Image Awards and was honored with the Human Rights Campaign Ally for Equality Award for her work on behalf of the gay and minority communities.
Beginning her set with her hit “Dreaming,” Williams, looking stunning in a floor-length black sequined gown, went on to sing works that reflected the aims of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most famous dreamer. Her song “Colors of the Wind,” from the Disney animated film “Pocahontas” won the Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
”Tonight is about dreams, peace and love,” she commented before singing her soulful ballad, “Love Is,” and “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.”
She also graciously turned over the mic to her backup singers and fellow Broadway star Carmen Ruby Floyd. Following Williams’ tribute to Lena Horne, whom she called a “great activist,” Floyd performed Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Song,” which has no words, but Floyd’s dramatic facial expressions and stellar vocals drew rousing applause from the audience. Floyd will appear in the Broadway production of “Hello Dolly” in February.
Williams ended her set with two songs backed by Georgetown University’s “Let Freedom Ring” choir directed by Rev. Nolan Williams Jr., who started off the concert with an impassioned speech about inclusion and King’s work. The set-closers were “If There Were No Song,” from Williams’ latest album, “The Real Thing,” followed by “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
The annual John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award was given to Steve Park, who sat with the renowned basketball coach in the VIP box, for the work done through his Little Lights Ministries. The organization serves children and adults living in Potomac Gardens, Hopkins Terrace and Benning Terrace public housing projects.
His work, along with his wife Mary Park, focuses on enrichment activities for children and their parents living in Ward 8 whose incomes often fall below $12,000 a year. It was established in 1995 inspired by a 13-year-old child Park met who could not read.
The urban ministry is dedicated to enhancing the lives of at-risk and underprivileged children. Park and his family moved to Anacostia, where they still reside, in order to be closer to the families they serve.