DC has a weird relationship with its artists. It balances on amusement and indifference. You’re considered not-good-enough for the big time if you stay; forgotten as home town talent if you leave. Even our own Mayor Fenty was getting kudos for scoring Chicago’s Kanye West during the inaugural festivities; not for hometown or even home-born talent.
In the last 20 or so years the city has been claiming DC artists like Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye; and those who passed through like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman. The goal is to become famous to the point of iconic, take some really cool pictures while you’re living, and then you can be immortalized royalty free by developers when you’re dead.
A few living artists make the recognition cut like comedian Dave Chappelle and Opera singer Denyce Graves. And others, like Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre have established their DC celebrity in magazines like “Washington Life” and “Washingtonian.” Political pundits are still more desired at cocktail parties. DC just doesn’t have the same vibe regarding pride in their own that other cities have for their hometown artists.
Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., on January 23, 1933. She attended Dunbar Senior High School in its hey day, and took dance classes at the Jones-Hayward School of Ballet run by two Black women, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. It was there that she was invited to audition by a teacher from the American School of Ballet in New York (choregrapher George Ballanchine’s academy). In her autobiographical show “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” she recalls the advice Doris Jones gave to her before she set off for New York:
“Don’t worry about the long bodies and blond ponytails lining up next to you for the auditions; be who you are!”
Apparently the White House is ahead of any home town recognition for Chita Rivera’s artistry. This week she was one of 16 honorees to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian achievement award in the United States.
A little funny factoid — Chita Rivera played Anita in the Broadway production of “West Side Story” in 1957. She married fellow cast member, Tony Mordente who played Action in the Jets gang. Does life imitate art or the other way around? They divorced in 1966.
In 2008, Rivera came home to the Washington area to perform in a new musical production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit” with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and book by Terrence McNally at Signature Theatre. Again, I remember no ticker tape parade.
Perhaps Chita’s roots are more firmly planted on the stage and in the legacies of teachers like Doris Jones who nurtured Chita’s future stardom. The Kennedy Center has honored her as a national treasure, but again, no ticker-tape parade from the hometown crowd.
If I documented her impressive CV of performances, this post would go on forever. I’ll link to the IMDB page for her.
Or maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I just didn’t get the invite to the banquet. But I’m not waiting for an obiturary to claim this DC hermana.
Note: Below is the complete list of the 2009 Medal of Freedom Award recipients. Quite impressive in its diversity. More information is available at WhiteHouse.gov.
Nancy Goodman Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s leading breast cancer grassroots organization.
Pedro José Greer, Jr. is the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs and Florida International University School of Medicine. He is also the founder of Camillus Health Concern, an agency that provides medical care to over 10,000 homeless and low-income patients each year in Miami.
Stephen Hawking is an internationally-recognized theoretical physicist, and is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.
Jack Kemp was a U.S. Congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Republican Nominee for Vice President in 1996. He died in May, 2009
Sen. Edward Kennedy is one of the longest-serving and greatest Senators of all time. He has worked tirelessly for health care reform over the last five decades.
Billie Jean King is known for winning the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, and championing gender equality issues not only in sports, but in all aspects of life.
Rev. Joseph Lowery has been a leader of the civil rights movement since the 1950s, and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow is the last living Plains Indian war chief, and author of works on Native American history and culture who has served as an inspiration to young Native Americans across the country.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official from a major city in the United States. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, and encouraged LGBT citizens to live their lives openly.
Sandra Day O’Connor was a Supreme Court Justice from 1981 until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court, and has received numerous awards for her outstanding achievements.
Sidney Poitier is an actor known for breaking racial barriers. He is the first African American to be nominated and win a Best Actor Academy Award.
Chita Rivera is an actress, singer and dancer, who has broken barriers and inspired a generation of women. In 2002, she was the first Hispanic to receive the Kennedy Center Honor.
Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Since 2002, she has been the President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.
Janet Davison Rowley, M.D., is the Blum Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago. She discovered the first consistent chromosome translocation in a human cancer.
Desmond Tutu is widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience,” and was a leading anti-apartheid activist in South Africa.
Muhammad Yunus is a global leader in anti-poverty efforts, and pioneered the use of “micro-loans” to provide credit to poor individuals.