“Alicia [Keys] was born a child-woman,” actress Elain Graham told the crowd of artistic enthusiasts in the final moments of Harlem School of the Arts’ 50th anniversary gala at the historic Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday night. “Her mother and I would look at her and say, ‘yup, she’s been here before.’ It’s those knowing eyes,” the dear friend to Alicia Keys and mother Terria Joseph, together recipients of the night’s Visionary Artist Award, continued.
Though, “visionary artist” is a phrase which could rightly describe many of the HSA honorees, from Grammy-winning soprano Jessye Norman, to portrait painter Kehinde Wiley, to Keith Wright of the New York State Assembly, to actress Cicely Tyson — who founded the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in New Jersey, and who couldn’t be present, but with reason.
“Because of my duties on Broadway with James Earl Jones in the play ‘The Gin Game,’ I’m unable to be with you this evening,” said Tyson in a message delivered by the two young HSA students who served as comedic co-hosts alongside NBC news anchor David Ushery. “Having my own performing arts school, I know the value of creative artistic expression through a structured educational preparation,” declared Tyson. “Priceless.”
Prices could, however, be attached to auction items (such as a seafood gumbo dinner prepared by restaurateur Alexander Smalls, a trip to the 2016 Havana Jazz Festival in Cuba and a stay on Guana Island in the British Virgin Islands — this latter won by two bidders, one being Keys’ young son, acting for Keys).
To hear the teenaged students perform spirited song and dance routines was to understand the necessity of the school, founded to create opportunities for underprivileged Harlem kids 50 years ago by opera singer Dorothy Maynor in the basement of the St. James church. NBC talent show host Nick Cannon, who honored Steinway & Sons piano company, was noticeably touched. “I’ve never seen so many talented young people… you guys need to come on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ for real!” he implored.
But most touching was when Graham introduced her close friend Joseph, “a gifted actor” who she met at NYU in 1969, and who supports causes from AIDS to female trafficking. “It is said, ‘we choose our parents,’” she expressed, “And if this is true, Alicia knocked it out of the park.” Turning her praise towards Keys, she spoke of the 15-time Grammy winner’s similar devotion to philanthropy (Keys is attached to 28 charities, from Keep a Child Alive to Giving From The Ground Up to Girl Be Heard); her “musical prowess”; and her “stunning prose about life, living and loving.”
From where that creativity came was easy to deduce once Joseph took the stage. “From the moment Alicia was born, I tried to juggle motherhood and my passion for acting, singing and dancing,” she said. “Today, when I look at her, I see that my taking her to Broadway musicals via the half-priced ticket line, my dragging her to both my rehearsals and her auditions or ballet classes or piano lessons… must have inspired her!”
Keys was visibly inspired as well, articulating the energy and “great powerful limitlessness” that she felt upon walking through the door. “It’s a part of every heart of every child that I’ve been able to see tonight. I’m just like, over there having a ball!” she said (which, the awe and appreciation she wore all throughout the children’s performances undeniably indicated).
But her message of gratitude was clear. “Tonight, this honor here is really all about my mother,” she said. “I can only say… and she’s standing behind me so I can’t even see her… I can only say thank you, and it’ll never, ever, be enough.”
“I want to thank her for all the Sundays she played Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington on vinyl,” Keys continued. “I want to thank her for being my mother, my father, my best friend and my biggest fan — even when nobody knew a thing about me.” Then Keys grew increasingly sentimental and poetic: “I want to thank you for being my example of dedication, of loyalty, of determination, of dreams, of compassion, of kindness, reciprocity and womanhood. I want to thank her for everything that I am, because without her, I wouldn’t have the soul that I have, I wouldn’t have the love that I have, the will that I have, the versatility that I have or the strength that I have… Because without you, there would be no me, and that’s actually and artfully.”
“And I thank you all so much for just welcoming us into the HSA family, which is built on inspiration and never giving up,” pledged Keys, before students began chanting “Freedom Is Coming Tomorrow” for a grand finale. “We thank you for recognize us, because we recognize you, completely.”