Review: ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ MLK Celebration Featuring Vanessa Williams at the Kennedy Center

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The 16th Annual Let Freedom Ring! Celebration honors the life, legacy, and dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds of people from all walks of life filled the pews of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. As the program began the mood mirrored that of an intimate church service.

Vanessa Williams. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The Let Freedom Ring Choir stood regally in their blue robes to begin the opening song, titled, “The Promise Land (Someday)” composed by Music Director, Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. The choir blended all 140 of their unique voices together in a powerful harmony, at the heart of which was a call to action captured in these words:

I’ve been to the mountain top
Seen the Promised Land
Though I may not
Live to get there with you
Don’t you stop
Till, as a people,
We get to the Promise Land
– Nolan Williams, Jr.

The song’s lyrics were directly inspired by Dr. King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which he delivered in Memphis Tennessee the night before his assassination on April 3, 1968. His words, like those of the song, serve as both a plea to keep fighting for equality and a warning that silence is our most dangerous adversary to achieving this goal.

A youth-driven spoken word performance was fused into the opening number to underscore this very point. They noted police brutality, mass incarceration, suppression of LGBTQ rights and “inhumane” immigration policies as current injustices that hold America back from living up to the promises it “made on paper.”  Rev. Williams later reaffirmed this message in his remarks, stating that, “the mantle of social justice passes on to every successive generation like a torch; we are all called to do our part [and] push our nation toward a more perfect union.” His speech was a sermon that energized the audience and set the stage for the awards ceremony that followed.

Steve Park was the 2018 recipient of Georgetown University’s John Thompson, Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award – named for the institution’s first African American head basketball coach who was an inspirational leader in his own right. Through his non-profit, Little Lights Urban Ministries, founded in 1995, Park has touched the lives of 900 children living in the poorest neighborhoods of Washington, DC, recruited more than 2,000 volunteers and provided employment opportunities and job readiness training for community members.

The celebration’s featured performer was none other than the Grammy and Tony award nominated artist, Vanessa Williams, who took the stage in a show-stopping sequined black gown and sang several of her greatest hits, including “Colors of the Wind,” “Dreamin,” “Love Is,” and “Save the Best for Last”. She also performed the timeless classic “Stormy Weather” by Lena Horn, which put the sultriness of her voice on full display. She let loose while singing “Work to Do,” an upbeat R&B number. The audience was fully enthralled by her energy, and the song’s hook was an affirming nod to the theme of the celebration.

Throughout the evening, Ms. Williams ceded the spotlight to two emerging talents, Carmen Ruby Floyd who performed a jaw-dropping rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” and Cartier Williams who dazzled the audience with his tap dance performance.

She concluded the evening with a joint performance of “Let there Be Peace on Earth” with the Let Freedom Ring Choir. Hope resonated in her voice and that was the emotion left with the audience as the celebration ended.

MLK Day is a holiday like none other in America. It’s a day that motivates our nation, and each of us as individual citizens, to stare injustice in the face and ask, “how can I do better?” As we embark on the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s passing, this question takes on even greater importance. While we’re closer to achieving his dream than we were in 1968 there’s still much more work to do. Over the past twelve months, the nation has been tested in ways we never expected and grave injustices continue to occur. At the same time, new voices and activists have stepped up to do their part in carrying the mantle of justice and equality forward. From the Women’s March on Washington to the Times Up movement, people are making their voice heard. This year’s Let Freedom Ring Celebration bottled all that up into an evening of healing, rejoicing and readying ourselves for the future. A future paved toward reaching the Promised Land.

Running time: 82 minutes with no intermission.

Let Freedom Ring! played one-night-only on January, 16th, 2018 at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming Kennedy Center performances, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.