Arena Stage hosted its gala on May 22. A party with a purpose, part of the event celebrated the new leadership of Artistic Director Hana Sharif. (WI File Photo/Matthew Bailey)
Arena Stage hosted its gala on May 22. A party with a purpose, part of the event celebrated the new leadership of Artistic Director Hana Sharif. (WI File Photo/Matthew Bailey)

In a creative celebration of theatre, improving access to the arts, and fostering the next generation of theatremakers, Arena Stage鈥檚 gala on May 22 was not only a party with a purpose, but a powerful showcasing of the strength, beauty and breadth of Black Girl Magic.

Let鈥檚 first set the scene. Guests stepped into Arena鈥檚 Mead Center for American Theatre where a diverse crowd of District arts lovers donned fancy clothes, and gathered to honor the Honorable Marcia Fudge, listen to the entertaining quips of Symone Sanders-Townsend, who served as mistress of ceremonies, welcome the theatre鈥檚 new artistic director Hana Sharif, and witness actress and singer Patina Miller bring down the house.  

Last year, Arena Stage announced Sharif would step into the role of artistic director, filling the shoes of Molly Smith, the celebrated 25-year leader of the arts organization, who helped construct the very building where the 2024 gala was hosted.  

, who served on the search committee to find Arena鈥檚 next artistic director, explained her excitement for having Sharif join the more than 70-year-old District arts organization. 

鈥淎s we sat in the selection committee, we met Hana. Her breadth of experience in American theatre, her leadership and ability to proficiently communicate her vision for new artistic directors and radical access to the healing power of theatre, we knew we had found the one. Hana believes that theatre should not live just within these walls, but if done right, should permeate throughout the community, the city and the nation,鈥 Jackson said of Sharif, who previously served at the .  

In her opening remarks, Jackson shared Sharif鈥檚 strong belief in theatre as a lifeline and emphasized her notion in its power to bridge the past, present and future, and offer audiences 鈥渘ew ideas, wild dreams, and even sometimes harsh realities.鈥

鈥淲e talked to Hana for several hours, and at the end she asked, 鈥楧o you have any more questions?鈥 I just sat and thought, honey you had me at 鈥榟ello,鈥欌滼ackson said. 鈥淲e are so excited to have Hana. She鈥檚 exactly what we鈥檙e looking for.鈥

In her first gala since becoming Arena鈥檚 artistic director, Sharif greeted the audience with a dazzling gown, warm smile and determined nature.  When an audience member briefly fell just as she was beginning her welcome speech鈥 and others worked to come to the rescue鈥 Sharif summarized exactly what she felt about her first year at Arena.

鈥淚 love this community at Arena taking care of each other,鈥 she said.

She thanked Jackson and fellow co-chair Nicholas Goad, the Arena Stage Board, including former chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele, and all supporters of the theatre鈥檚 efforts.

鈥淚 thank you for your partnership, for your advocacy, for your energy. I thank you for being on the search committee, for finding me and bringing me to this beautiful new home. It has been a remarkable year and it has been, in no small part, because of you,鈥 she said to Jackson and Goad, before addressing the larger crowd. 鈥淭hank you to each and every one of you.鈥

The thankful Sharif turned the microphone to Sanders-Townsend, who kept the audience entertained with her electric energy, hilarious anecdotes, and constant emphasis on supporting the arts.

鈥淲e are here to celebrate Arena Stage鈥檚 Community Engagement Department and the life-changing work they do all over the DMV area,鈥 Sanders-Townsend said.

As she encouraged audiences to be generous in their donations, she shared her own life-changing experience with Arena鈥檚 programming. Her stepson enrolled in the theatre鈥檚 camp last year.

鈥淗e鈥檚 very artsy, he鈥檚 brilliant鈥 but he went to Camp Arena because we wanted him to meet and engage with some other young people that are as creative as he is,鈥 she said. 鈥淲e knew the babies were somewhere safe, doing artsy, fabulous, mind-blowing things, and were very tired by the time they got home. Okay? The camp works鈥 He鈥檚 going back this summer.鈥

While the audience roared with laughter at the author, barrier-breaking former campaign manager, and television show host, they also happily lifted up their paddles to offer $2500 or more to support 鈥渢he next generation of theatremakers,鈥 as Sanders-Townsend called the campers.

鈥淟ast summer, the camp served 262 campers and they ranged from the ages of 8-16,鈥 she said. 鈥淟ast year, 31 children attended on scholarships鈥 Here at Arena Stage we believe that finances should not be a barrier to your participation.鈥

Sanders-Townsend encouraged audiences to consider the talent they could be fostering.

鈥淭hey might get bit by the acting bug, the theatre bug, and next thing you know they鈥檙e the next Patina Miller.鈥

Patina Miller Brings Down the House 

Featuring a setlist that opened with the popular 1956 song 鈥淔ever,鈥 and included hits from artists such as Nina Symone and tunes from musicals like 鈥淚nto the Woods,鈥 Miller blew audiences away with her powerful voice and stunning ability to share the raw emotions found in music.

鈥淭his is new for me. I have never done a concert in the round,鈥 she told the crowd, inviting them into the magic of live theatre, workshopping, and even a bit of improvisation.  鈥淚 like to think when I perform, when I tell stories鈥 I think of it as an opportunity to invite you into my living room.鈥

In an intimate performance, which was divided into two sets鈥 with Sanders-Townsend鈥檚 donation segment as the intermission鈥 Miller shared glimpses of her journey navigating life as a Black woman and mother.

From tales of studying musical theatre at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to having a mentor like fellow CMU alumnus Billy Porter to stepping into the iconic role as the Witch in Sondheim鈥檚 鈥淚nto the Woods,鈥 in 2022, the Tony winner鈥檚 storytelling served as soothing transitions between her exhilarating sets.聽

鈥淎s a mother, in this time, in this new space, this world, this climate鈥 doing a show nightly, and singing this material, and being with so many other parents, and talking about children, 鈥榗hildren will listen,鈥 and all of the other things, it stuck with me. I think the music, the lyrics, were things that I needed to hear on my journey now. And it鈥檚 made an impact on me on this new journey in my life,鈥 Miller said, reflecting on her time as the Witch in Broadway鈥檚 鈥淚nto the Woods.鈥

Inspiration and a Call to Action from the Honorable Marcia Fudge

While the crux of the event celebrated theatre’s transformative power, Fudge, as the, left audiences with advice and a call to action.

鈥淚t is my life鈥檚 work to do work for other people,鈥  said Fudge, who formerly served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the 21st National President of Delta Sigma Theta. 鈥淒r. King said life鈥檚 most urgent and persistent question is 鈥榃hat are you doing for others?鈥 I鈥檓 going to give you a few things that I know everybody is going to remember.鈥

The recent HUD secretary began with common phrases about being kind and giving back.

鈥溾楲ove your neighbor; share; do unto others as you鈥檇 have them do unto you; to whom much is given, much is required; service is the rent we pay for living.鈥 All of those things say to us that it is relationships that make a community,鈥 Fudge explained. 

She then offered advice for how to put those phrases into action.

鈥淪o often we find people who are willing to come out, but they want to stand on the shore. Sometimes you鈥檝e got to get wet. You鈥檝e got to get in the water, because when you get in the water, it becomes personal. You can鈥檛 just always look from the outside,鈥 Fudge told the crowd. 鈥淚鈥檓 just going to ask you when you go out, don鈥檛 stand on the sidelines, get in the race. If you don鈥檛 do that, if you鈥檙e sitting on the bench, say 鈥楥oach put me in.鈥

The longtime public servant ended with a charge for all present. 

鈥淚t is our time to make this world what we know it can be.鈥

WI Managing Editor Micha Green is a storyteller and actress from Washington, D.C. Micha received a Bachelor鈥檚 of Arts from Fordham University, where she majored in Theatre, and a Master鈥檚 of Journalism...

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