The feathers were swaying and sequins were glittering at last night’s star-studded Wearable Art Gala, a benefit celebrating the 5th anniversary of WACO Theater Center, founded by co-artistic directors Tina Knowles-Lawson and Richard Lawson. Inspired by the aesthetics and Black excellence of the Harlem Renaissance era, the benefit is designed to support the company’s artistic and youth mentorship programs through a fine art auction.
“Each year we find a theme that connects us historically with our past,” Richard Lawson told THR. “[We explore] the evolution of African culture in the western world.” Previous themes have included The Lion King and Black Panther‘s Wakanda. But this year, 50,000 square feet of the Barker Hanger at Santa Monica Air Center was transformed into a full-blown Harlem experience. Guests arrived in vintage automobiles and 40-foot-tall backlit backdrops were designed to look like a set in Harlem featuring notable arts institutions like the Savoy Ballroom, Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club.
“As Black people, we do things differently … everything is with flair,” Tina Knowles-Lawson said. “We are fashion. That’s such a big part of the gala and we wanted to create something where art can occur. We want everything to be art.”
Last night’s gala was hosted by Keke Palmer and was a musical affair with a live band on the red carpet, a traditional New Orleans “second line” parade and performances from people including Daytime Emmy Award winner Obba Babatundé. Other notable guests included Tyler Perry, singers Chloe and Halle Bailey, Vivica A. Fox, Lela Rochon, Marsai Martin (who donned an intricate, styrofoam floral headpiece), Lori Harvey, and Magic and Cookie Johnson.
Every member of Destiny’s Child was in attendance — Kelly Rowland stunned in a statement-making red gown, Beyoncé arrived in support of her mother with husband Jay-Z and daughter Blue Ivy — and Michelle Williams spoke to THR about the importance of arts mentorship for the youth. “Ms. Tina has been mentoring since I met her in the year 2000. This is what she does,” Williams shared. “Also, this is her favorite era, so when I saw this was the [theme], I knew this was going to be exciting.”
The genesis of WACO began as two separate efforts Knowles-Lawson and Lawson were pursuing individually, but ultimately married themselves to each other when the two came together as a couple in real life.
“I grew up with a mentor that I met when I was 14 and she changed the trajectory of my life by exposing me to the arts and to life in general, so I always wanted to have a community center where kids could come and meet with visual artists and performing artists and just have a place to hang out,” Knowles-Lawson said. “Also, when my kids were little there were two community centers in Houston that I used to take them to, where they really honed their skills and their performing confidence. So I know that it really changes kids’ lives when they have a place like that.”
Simultaneously, Lawson had built an acting school and theater, so “we just decided to join forces and open WACO,” Knowles-Lawson said.
“We both had the same intention in slightly different ways so it was just a natural thing for us to put this together because we were both operating in the space of being of service and developing and supporting and mentoring people,” Lawson said. “WACO is a theater where we have performing arts and have a mentorship program of 100 kids which is growing every year.”
Last night, guests understood the thematic assignment. ESPN correspondent Angela Rye channeled Dominique La Rue (played by Jasmine Guy) in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights, wearing a red, floor-length dress. Rye, who is also the CEO of IMPACT Strategies — a political advocacy, social impact and racial equity firm based in Washington, D.C. — said that the arts can magnify political advocacy efforts in “remarkable ways.”
“Sometimes the only [mediums] that we have to really be able to tell our stories and to advocate in ways that people don’t see as violent is through art and through media,” she told THR. “We can confront issues that sometimes folks are too uncomfortable to touch through those forms.”
Issa Rae, whose multi-faceted Hoorae Media company develops content across the film, television, music and management industries, says that “building our institutions is what separates the now from what was.”
“When I think about previous renaissances, there were specific outlets we [participated in] that weren’t ours. So it was easy for them to wipe us out or say ‘that’s enough of that,’ but I think the more we own our institutions and platforms, the more we can own our voices and the more longevity we’ll have.”
Due to the proliferation of Black images and ownership in entertainment and media today, the Black community in Hollywood and Los Angeles, more broadly, is arguably in the midst of an artistic renaissance. One that echoes Harlem’s a century ago. “I think at that time it was so especially revolutionary because it was a conscious effort to celebrate our art,” Rae says. “We’re constantly looking toward the past to inform the present. It’s just important for us to champion ourselves.”
To that end, Angela Bassett was honored with last night’s Film & TV Icon Award. “I am completely and utterly humbled,” the award-winning actress told THR. “Because what you endeavor to do is to work hard … so to be able to do that and then to be appreciated and supported at this moment for your body of work is very exciting.”