President Barack Obama on Wednesday bestowed prestigious National Medal of Arts to famed New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint, Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines, and Lake Charles-raised playwright and “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner.On three occasions, I met Ernest Gaines and his lovely wife, Dianne, once when he received an award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, another time when he was honored at a reception in New Roads, Louisiana, and at another gathering in Baton Rouge. As a young African-American boy, Gaines' life in rural Pointe Coupee Parish was hard. In his fiction, which is set in Bayonne, a fictionalized Pointe Coupee Parish, Gaines does not gloss over the reality of life in rural Louisiana, but what amazes me about his writing and my conversations with him is the absence of bitterness. Dianne is originally from New Orleans, so we shared stories about growing up in the city. Gaines and his wife now live in Oscar, Louisiana, on land that was part of River Lake Plantation, where he lived until the age of 15, when he moved to Vallejo, California, to live with his mother. The Gaines' present home is near the small farm where Grandpère grew up and which he inherited when his parents died.
Obama called it a special treat to honor all the musicians, writers, directors, artists and others who have inspired him and the rest of the nation.
“Frankly, this is just fun for me, because I feel like I know you all because I’ve enjoyed your performances,” Obama said. “Your writings have fundamentally changed me — I think for the better.”
Obama singled out Gaines, 80, who is best known for his novels “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” along with singer and pianist Toussaint, 75, for their inspirations.
What I miss today more than anything else - I don't go to church as much anymore - but that old-time religion, that old singing, that old praying which I love so much. That is the great strength of my being, of my writing.
When I'm sitting in the church alone, I can hear singing of the old people. I can hear their singing and I can hear their praying, and sometimes I hum one of their songs.
(Ernest Gaines) from BrainyQuote.
Allen Toussaint is one of the best of many excellent New Orleans musicians, one who came home after Katrina and the federal flood to help his city recover and to help and encourage local musicians. As an ambassador for New Orleans music, Toussaint traveled with the local musicians to show off their talents around the world.
Afterward, Toussaint called the day historic and said that getting the Medal of Arts from the president was the greatest award he could receive.Below is a video of Toussaint performing "There's a Party Goin' On".
“I’m so glad that America treats its own in such fine fashion,” Toussaint said. “It’s absolutely wonderful. And the president and the first lady as hosts, they are impeccable.”
“Me being from Louisiana, I feel all of where I’m from wherever I am,” he added. “As I was there receiving my award, I was thinking of New Orleans and Louisiana, etcetera.”
The third honoree, Tony Kushner, spent his formative years in southwestern Louisiana.
Kushner also spoke fondly of growing up in Lake Charles.If I ever knew Kushner spent his childhood and youth in Lake Charles, I had forgotten.
“It was a great blessing to grow up in Louisiana, and I think it heightened my awareness of the beauty of the world because it’s such a beautiful place,” he said. “I love the people I grew up with. I think being a Southern writer had an enormous impact on the way that I speak and the kind of lyricism that I aspire to.”
Frank Rich’s original review of the 1993 Broadway run of Millennium Approaches, published May 5, 1993Three honorees from Louisiana out of a total of twenty-three makes me proud. Despite the politicians' low regard for funding education and the arts, the gifted excel anyway.
This play has already been talked about so much that you may feel you have already seen it, but believe me, you haven’t, even if you actually have. The new New York production is the third I’ve seen of “Millennium Approaches,” as the first, self-contained, three-and-a-half- hour part of “Angels in America” is titled. (Part 2, “Perestroika,” is to join it in repertory in the fall.) As directed with crystalline lucidity by George C. Wolfe and ignited by blood-churning performances by Ron Leibman and Stephen Spinella, this staging only adds to the impression that Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years.
“Angels in America” is a work that never loses its wicked sense of humor or its wrenching grasp on such timeless dramatic matters as life, death and faith even as it ranges through territory as far-flung as the complex, plague-ridden nation Mr. Kushner wishes both to survey and to address.
The names of the other recipients of the National Medal of Arts are here.