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’s 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’s first set the scene. Guests stepped into Arena’s 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’s 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’s next artistic director, explained her excitement for having Sharif join the more than 70-year-old District arts organization. 

“As 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,” Jackson said of Sharif, who previously served at the .  

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

“We talked to Hana for several hours, and at the end she asked, ‘Do you have any more questions?’ I just sat and thought, honey you had me at ‘hello,’”Jackson said. “We are so excited to have Hana. She’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

In her first gala since becoming Arena’s 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— and others worked to come to the rescue– Sharif summarized exactly what she felt about her first year at Arena.

“I love this community at Arena taking care of each other,” 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’s efforts.

“I 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,” she said to Jackson and Goad, before addressing the larger crowd. “Thank you to each and every one of you.”

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.

“We are here to celebrate Arena Stage’s Community Engagement Department and the life-changing work they do all over the DMV area,” Sanders-Townsend said.

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

“He’s very artsy, he’s brilliant… 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,” she said. “We 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… He’s going back this summer.”

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 “the next generation of theatremakers,” as Sanders-Townsend called the campers.

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

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

“They might get bit by the acting bug, the theatre bug, and next thing you know they’re the next Patina Miller.”

Patina Miller Brings Down the House 

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

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

In an intimate performance, which was divided into two sets— with Sanders-Townsend’s donation segment as the intermission— 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’s “Into the Woods,” in 2022, the Tony winner’s storytelling served as soothing transitions between her exhilarating sets. 

“As a mother, in this time, in this new space, this world, this climate… doing a show nightly, and singing this material, and being with so many other parents, and talking about children, ‘children will listen,’ 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’s made an impact on me on this new journey in my life,” Miller said, reflecting on her time as the Witch in Broadway’s “Into the Woods.”

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.

“It is my life’s work to do work for other people,”  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. “Dr. King said life’s most urgent and persistent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’ I’m going to give you a few things that I know everybody is going to remember.”

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

“‘Love your neighbor; share; do unto others as you’d have them do unto you; to whom much is given, much is required; service is the rent we pay for living.’ All of those things say to us that it is relationships that make a community,” Fudge explained. 

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

“So often we find people who are willing to come out, but they want to stand on the shore. Sometimes you’ve got to get wet. You’ve got to get in the water, because when you get in the water, it becomes personal. You can’t just always look from the outside,” Fudge told the crowd. “I’m just going to ask you when you go out, don’t stand on the sidelines, get in the race. If you don’t do that, if you’re sitting on the bench, say ‘Coach put me in.”

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

“It is our time to make this world what we know it can be.”

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

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