Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This Emile Griffith jazz opera strives to understand boxing and masculinity Terence Blanchard asks, ‘What makes a man, a man?’ in ‘Champion’

The use of massive projection screens is one of the most remarkable things about Champion composer Terence Blanchard‘s opera about the life of boxer Emile Griffith, which debuted recently at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The screens, which flank either side of the stage, do more than provide a bridge into the world of film, where Blanchard has found a home crafting the sonic atmospheres of many of Spike Lee’s movies. And they don’t just help to establish Champion, with its heavy jazz influences, as a contemporary opera — a rarity when traditional operagoing audiences want and expect Verdi and Puccini and Mozart. No, the screens in Champion are central because they help the audience, who may not be familiar with Griffith’s story, understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s own story, but our understanding of it.


The opera tells the story of Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands who gained notoriety in 1962 after his blows put an opponent, Benny Paret, in a coma. Paret died in the hospital 10 days later from his injuries. Underscoring the tragedy was the fact that Paret had taunted Griffith, who was gay, with anti-gay slurs. “Hey, maricón,” Paret apparently said it in a “cooing lisp” at a weigh-in before the two met in their third fight. “I’m gonna get you and your husband.” Maricón translates roughly to an anti-gay slur.

And because this took place in the days when boxing was still broadcast on network television in prime time, Paret’s fatal fall, after a savage round, was broadcast live into living rooms across the country. The fight, and Paret’s subsequent death, haunted Griffith for the remainder of his life.

The production originated with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, which commissioned it from Blanchard, a three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter. With his first opera in the can, Blanchard is now working on his second, an adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which will likely debut in 2019.

Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny Paret and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile Griffith in ‘Champion.’ In front of the bed: Arthur Woodley as the elderly Griffith.

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

The violence of Griffith’s story — “Paret’s head rocked on a neck that looked like a broken plinth” — presented a question: How would it be depicted onstage, in a way that would give audiences an understanding of Griffith’s complex talents as a boxer, with his incredible left jab and quick-moving hands? Griffith was said to have landed 17 punches in seven seconds in his fight with Paret.

The screens in Champion help the audience understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s story, but our understanding of it.

Choreographer Seán Curran (Stomp, L’Etoile, Alcina) chose to slow things down in the pivotal fight of Griffith’s life. Onstage, the two men playing Griffith (Aubrey Allicock) and Paret (Victor Ryan Robinson) are isolated in spotlights, surrounded by a sea of red. The punches are drawn out so that the fight looks more like a dance, with the actors bending their bodies, Matrix-style, in response to each blow. The flashes of white light that capture the blows echo the flashes of photographers who documented the fight. You needn’t see the literal depiction of the violence in the ring, because, on either side of them, the screens flanking the stage show the real-life grisly imagery of Paret sliding down the ropes and out of consciousness.

By incorporating the actual footage of Paret, Champion underscores the role television and newspapers had in framing our understanding of what happened. The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture. That even now fight night is still so often relegated to pay-per-view and premium cable is part of the legacy of the Paret-Griffith fight.

Andre McLaughlin and Aubrey Allicock in an encounter in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

But the discrepancy between the fight occurring onstage and the imagery framing it serves another purpose as well: depicting the art and the beauty so many boxing fans see in the sport, even as the fatal violence of the fight became a political football in the aftermath. “I’ve been such a big fan of boxing and, to me, it’s one of the most misunderstood sports on the planet,” Blanchard said. “We try to have some elements [showing] the rigorous workout that goes into it, the science behind it. It’s not just guys up there whaling on each other and throwing their hands around and beating on each other. It’s not that. It’s really a scientific dance.”


Media didn’t just influence how Americans saw the Paret-Griffith fight. It determined how they perceived Griffith’s masculinity, and Paret’s taunting, as well. At the time, homosexuality was still so taboo that The New York Times dared not speak its name. In the 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, journalist Pete Hamill described his colleague Howard M. Tuckner as “furious” when The New York Times copy desk changed the word “homosexual” to “unman” in Tuckner’s story about the weigh-in standoff.

Griffith is played by three actors. (That fact, along with Champion’s themes of homosexuality and black masculinity, are certain to attract rudimentary comparisons to recent Academy Award best picture winner Moonlight.) Arthur Woodcock portrays a hobbled, hunched-over, elderly Griffith, near the end of his life, whose brain is so addled by dementia that he doesn’t remember putting one of his shoes in the refrigerator. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks from Griffith’s life, with Allicock playing Griffith as a young man and Samuel Grace playing Griffith as a boy growing up in the Virgin Islands. With his bell-like vocals, Grace exhibits a stunning vulnerability in his turn as Little Emile. It becomes clear that the adults around him realize Griffith is “different” when his surrogate mother, Cousin Blanche (Leah Hawkins), forces him to hold a cinder block above his head for hours because, Little Emile sings, “She say I have the devil deep inside of me.”

The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture.

Through Curran’s choreography, Champion portrays Griffith as a figure who was repeatedly goaded into displays of aggression, which at the time were conflated with masculinity. When he first meets his manager, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges), Griffith is a fairly subdued man, new to New York City, who wants to make hats. But Albert pushes Griffith’s buttons, hoping to unleash his “killer instinct” lurking within, and Griffith sends Albert careening to the floor.

“Throughout all of Emile’s journey — of course he got a lot of accolades and all of the great things that he deserved — he’s kind of just the pawn in the bigger structure of what this field was, or continues to be,” said Champion fight master Joe Isenberg. “And, he’s pushed to kill this guy. Of course, not intentionally, but it’s a part of this journey that he didn’t really intend to fall into, and then he continues a whole life of regret … dealing with that situation.”

Further complicating Griffith’s inner conflict is his tortured relationship with his birth mother, Emelda (Denyce Graves), who left him and his six brothers and sisters sprinkled among various caretakers in the Virgin Islands. When Griffith journeys to New York as an adult, his mother Emelda mistakes him for his brother, Frankie. While Griffith’s story is portrayed as an epic tragedy, Emelda is a tragic figure in her own right and in Champion, her relationship with Griffith is forever tainted by the fact that she left him.

“I know I’m not the mommy you want, but I’m all the mommy you got,” Emelda tells her son, who is still trying to outrun the specter of Paret’s death even after his success in the boxing ring climbs to greater and greater heights.

“You’re nobody’s mommy,” Griffith tells her, practically spitting the words in contempt. “You’re just a money-loving whore with a s–tload of children.”

Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

Blanchard fills in Emelda’s story with two arias that provide some explanation for Emelda’s decision to leave her children, and the complicated feelings she has about it. And while Verdi and Puccini seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in pushing singers to the brink of their capabilities with vertiginous, superhuman upper-register runs, Blanchard brings forth revelations in plumbing the low end of the scale in Emelda’s second aria, allowing Graves to show off her range.

“She’s like Muhammad Ali,” Blanchard said of Graves. “You don’t want to teach your kid to box by watching Muhammad Ali, ’cause he always kept his hands down. She’s like that. She breaks all the rules. Her low register is impeccable. It’s amazing to listen to her sing.” There’s also a moment in Champion after Griffith defeats Paret and he’s standing over his opponent, both arms raised, seemingly not unlike the famed photograph of Ali standing in victory over Joe Frazier.

But alone, the triumphant pose belies what’s really taking place. In that moment, Griffith isn’t just a winner. He’s the little boy who grew up in the Virgin Islands, holding a cinder block over his head at the behest of Cousin Blanche. He’s the man Blanche and Albert goaded him into being, and what of it? His rival is conquered, defeated, dead. But so is part of Griffith. And the devil he’s been trying to shake still clings.

“What makes a man a man?” a forlorn Griffith asks of himself. “Who is this man who calls himself me?” Even by the end of the opera, it’s not clear that Griffith really knows.