Actor Jeffrey Wright Featured at Nancy Hanks Lecture 

Like the arts that it celebrates, the 35th Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on March 12 was both  inspiring and entertaining. The blending of personal stories by each of its  renown presenters with our shared  American history and cultural life made the evening especially memorable.

Singer-songwriter-composer Ben Folds set the tone of the program by opening with two of his songs —   “Capable of Anything” and “What Matters Most.” His vigorous  piano performance matches  his passion  as an advocate of the arts.

The history of the United States, as it unfolds in life and the part that art has in that story, was the centerpiece in the program. Representative Hakeem Jefferies, the Democratic Leader of House of Representatives, gave a very special introduction to Rep. James E. Clyburn, as the recipient of the 2024 Congressional Arts Leadership Award.

Clyburn has had many roles in his life and  most in the public spot light while representing South Carolina in Congress since 1993.  His awards and achievements are too numerous. His stories of his experiences, such as childhood piano lessons that evolved into the clarinet which eventually into theater are  priceless. His passion for the study of  American  history is well known, his life story  now very much a part of American history.

While both leaders have proven experience as advocates of the art, it is a rare and delightful occasion to hear how it plays into their own life.

Tanya Lombard, vice president of Global Public and External Affairs AT&T, introduced Jeffrey Wright, the lecturer of the evening.

From the  political scene that is the Academy Awards, the  award-winning actor Wright spoke in a conversation with MSNBC host and political strategist Symone Sanders-Townsend about his life and his role as an artist and as an  advocate of the arts.

Wright’s Washington story starts from his boyhood in Hillcrest Southeast, D.C., to riding to St. Albans for school and to his theatrical experience on Arena Stage in 1988, when he landed a key role in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “Les Blancs.” He took note of D.C. as the birthplace of Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and GoGo.   

Wright connects these points in his career of an infinite variety of roles — most recently as fictional author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in the comedy-drama, “American Fiction.” This role earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, and  an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Add to that, his broad vision of art enlightening the human experience.

Of special note is Wright’s advocacy, with war veterans at Walter Reed. In  2018, he  produced the HBO documentary “We Are Not Done Yet,” giving voice to war veterans facing post traumatic stress, finding healing  through a USO-sponsored arts workshop at Walter Reed National Military Hospital.

A special nod of thanks goes to Nolen V. Bivens, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, who opened the program and to Edgar L. Smith, Jr., Board Chairman of Americans for the Arts.

Entertaining and uplifting, this evening presentation united the speakers and the audience in the significance of art beyond the personal with the political world that is America.

While the video can never match the energy that was in the audience nor the excitement that generates standing ovations throughout, the event is available for viewing at

Photo courtesy Americans for the Arts.


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