In 2021, Brooklyn's The Billie Holiday Theatre was awarded the National Medal of Arts. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts and culture organization founded by the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation was unable to celebrate in style at the White House—until now.
At a ceremony held in the East Room, Restoration Corporation's President and CEO Blondel A. Pinnock accepted the honor from President Joe Biden on behalf of The Billie Holiday Theatre. It was the first in-person ceremony to be held since the beginning of the pandemic, and celebrated 2021 National Medal of Arts honorees. The ceremony was attended by Dr. Jill Biden, The Billie Holiday Theatre's Chair for the Board of Directors Toni Yuille Williams, Restoration's former Chair for the Board of Directors Wayne C. Winborne, and The Billie Holiday Theatre's General Manager Sabine LaFortune.
“For 50 years, The Billie has served as a mecca for bold and daring artists and audiences to come together in a rigorous artistic space that tackles racial injustices, presents new and unapologetic voices, and imagines a world where all people can flourish. Under consistent strong leadership, The Billie has been able to maintain its role as a beacon of its community from Herbert Scott-Gibson to Marjorie Moon to Dr. Indira Etwaroo. In this moment, we also have to acknowledge the visionary leaders over the last five decades who all picked up the mantle to steer and lead this incredibly important institution to this point,” said Williams in a statement. “We are deeply encouraged and honored by the administration’s and NEA’s unwavering belief in the power of the arts to make a positive difference in the world."
Dr. Indira Etwaroo, the theatre's executive artistic director emeritus, shared, “The intersecting pandemics of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustices in 2020 defined the most consequential moment in modern history. The Billie Holiday Theatre stood on the front lines of the fight against long-standing systemic racism with the largest African American community in the nation—Central Brooklyn—disproportionately impacted by both pandemics and our rallying cry was the arts, a cry heard across the nation and the world." Etwaroo continues, “To lead an institution of extraordinary people, to galvanize a group of committed artists and community members, and to collectively use the arts to condemn racial injustice with a sense of urgency and humanity in 2020 is what this particular National Medal of the Arts embodies.”
The Obie-winning Brooklyn theatre was founded in May 1972 in the midst of the American Civil Rights and Black Arts movements. Continuing the work established in its roots, The Billie Holiday Theatre is committed to creating and presenting art rooted in racial justice. The National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States federal government and bestowed by the president, recognizes this work as the theatre heads into its 50th anniversary season.