jakub | March 24, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Billie Holiday Theatre Receives National Medal of Arts

President Joe Biden presents general manager Sabine LaFortune from The Billie Holiday Theatre with the 2021 National Medal of Arts. (Photo by Cheriss May)

WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Biden presented the 2021 National Medal of Arts to the Billie Holiday Theatre (The Billie) on March 21, as part of a ceremony belatedly honoring that year’s dozen awardees. The event, which took place in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., was not held in 2021 or 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this was the honors’ first in-person ceremony since 2020. The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the federal government. It is awarded by the president of the United States to individuals or groups who are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.

Founded by the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in 1972 during the height of the Black Arts movement, the Billie opened as a means of exposing America to Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of its largest artistic Black communities. Since its inception, the Billie has elevated and promoted the critical voices of artists in the Black diaspora such as Samuel L. Jackson, Debbie Allen, Tichina Arnold, Bill Cobbs, Smokey Robinson, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Carol Woods, Elaine Graham, and Ebony JoAnn. Now in its 50th year, the Billie’s programming largely focuses on producing, presenting, and commissioning new and classic works and festivals in theatre, dance, music, visual arts, and film; providing artistic and institutional residencies; and serving all ages with educational programming. Among the highlights of the Billie’s work: The theatre transferred the hit play Inacent Black to Broadway in 1981 after having derived 50 percent of the financing from the Black community; co-organized New York City’s first Black Lives Matter street art mural in 2020; and launched The Black Seed initiative.

“Congratulations to Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and the Billie Holiday Theatre for this
well-deserved honor,” said U.S. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer in a statement. “Bedford Stuyvesant is one of the nation’s historic birthplaces of Black culture and creativity, and the Billie Holiday Theatre upholds that tradition by providing a dedicated space for Brooklyn’s next generation of leaders in dance, theatre, and the visual arts. The arts have always been central to the services that Restoration provides to thousands of residents in the community, from youth arts education to personal financial counseling and technology fellowship programs. This outstanding honor reflects the profound impact the
organization has made in the lives of so many people.”

In attendance on behalf of the theatre were Restoration President and CEO Blondel A. Pinnock, Billie board chair Toni Yuille Williams, former Restoration board chair Wayne C. Winborne, and Billie general manager Sabine LaFortune.

“We are honored and grateful to have received a National Medal of Arts in recognition of the Billie’s
impact and continued commitment to telling Black stories and redefining the arts community in New
York,” said Bed-Stuy Restoration Corp. president and CEO Blondel A. Pinnock in a statement. “Culture is at the center of all we do, and we are thrilled to see the Billie receive the nation’s most prestigious arts award as it celebrates 50 years of essential and unwavering support for Black creative expression. The award comes at an auspicious moment as Restoration prepares for a dramatic transformation, including the expansion and reimagining of the Billie to serve as a 21st-century hub for the next generation.”

Additional 2021 Medal of Arts recipients include Judith Francisca Baca, Fred Eychaner, Jose Feliciano, Mindy Kaling, Gladys Knight, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Antonio Martorell-Cardona, Joan Shigekawa, Bruce Springsteen, Vera Wang, and The International Association of Blacks in Dance.

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