Entertainment :: Celebrities

James Earl Jones Receives Humanitarian Arts Award

by Lewis Whittington
Contributor
Wednesday Nov 28, 2012
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Stage and screen star James Earl Jones gave an impassioned speech in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia after being honored as the recipient of the Marian Anderson Award. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter introduced the star at the end of the gala evening, hosted by actor Terrence Howard, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.

The Anderson Award honors critically acclaimed artists who have impacted society in a positive way, either through their work or their support for an important cause. The event featured performances by The Philadelphia Orchestra, tenor Lawrence Brownlee and Philly R&B vocalist Jean Carne. In his remarks, Mayor Nutter said he has seen the "Lion King" the animated film blockbuster in which Jones was the voice of Mufasa, at least 50 times. He called Jones as "a true legend" and "A man of great conscious." Previous awardees include Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Gere, Mia Farrow, Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis, Norman Lear, et al.

Jones was seated in a mezzanine box during the ceremony with his wife and son to the right of the stage, Howard spoke of Jones’ influence on him and to a generation of minority actors. In her remarks, Phylicia Rashad spoke of seeing Jones in the pre-Broadway tour of his Tony Award-winning performance as Jack Johnson in "The Great White Hope" in the 60s, while she was a student at Howard University.

Rashad and Howard co-starred with Jones in the famed African-American production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" directed by Debbie Allen in 2008. "In any room he is in...he’s always Big Daddy," she joked. She also described Jones’ reserved demeanor in rehearsals while preparing a role and to his meticulous craft. Ryshad then narrated the film biography of his illustrious stage career from his start in Shakespearean roles at the Public Theater as well his clips from Jones’ film and TV roles.

Earlier in the evening, Conductor Christian Macelaru led the Philadelphia Orchestra in symphonic overtures and John Williams’ ’Imperial March’ from the film "The Empire Strikes Back" while a film montage of Jones as Darth Vader played onscreen. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang a Strauss song and a thrilling character performance of Donizetti’s ’Ah! mes amis ... ’ from "The Daughter of the Regiment," nailing all of those, nine sustained high Cs with ease. R&B vocalist Jeane Carnes entertained with a medley from the famed soul sound of Philadelphia.

A musical highlight was 18-year-old Christian Eason, recipient of the Anderson Grant program award that finds a path for financially strapped students to study and train in a top music program. Eason received the largest ovation of the evening for his rendition of ’On the Street Where You Live’ from "My Fair Lady."

Jones appeared onstage at the end of the evening and related reading about Anderson’s achievements before he became an actor, "she defined above all else, by her excellence in her craft...even when a part of that world told her ’you can’t do that.’ What affected me most about her was that she was an inadvertent hero." He said that he was most honored to be in the company of previous awardees, particularly actor Sydney Poitier, but that his path was not one of direct activism.

He acknowledged his own personal struggle to overcome a severe stutter he’s had since childhood. He credited a teacher who introduced him to Shakespeare and the poetry of Poe, as well as his training as an actor, as the way he conquered it. The star did though admit that he still struggles to express himself in public and remarked that without prepared text or a teleprompter, his speaking ability could "collapse." But, no problem on this night, as his rich baritone commanded without pause.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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