by Frances Novack
Mel Brooks set the tone, as President Obama quoted him telling his writers: “Write anything you want, because we will never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie” (“Blazing Saddles”). The President then awarded him and 21 others the National Medal for the Arts or Humanities Medal at a laughter-filled ceremony at the White House.
Brooks, the first recipient, bowed low after Obama draped the medal around his neck — perhaps to emphasize its five-pound weight — evoking laughter from the President, who had cited him for his “hilarious, thought-provoking work on film and theater” in “a lifetime of making the world laugh.”
Obama noted that the arts and humanities “lift up our identities, and make us see ourselves in each other,” calling them both “reflective of our national soul” and “central to who we are as Americans — dreamers, storytellers, innovators and visionaries.” He remarked on the diversity of the honorees with poets, musicians, writers, artists and historians, among others. The awardees mirrored the diversity of Americans, ranging from authors Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Cherow and Sandra Cisneros to Broadway star Audra McDonald, composer Philip Glass, journalist Terry Gross, and historian Isabel Wilkerson.
Another of the Jewish honorees, playwright/director Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”) cited his 13 years of Yeshiva study (in his native Venezuela) as the basis for his later theatrical life. At school he learned “rigor,” especially about intellectual pursuits, to analyze, and to take ideas seriously. He explained to the PJV that the Yeshiva training had given him the tools to “draw out ideas in a visceral way,” a key element in his theater. The national medal citation honors his “powerful contributions to American theater,” especially his Tectonic Theater Project, which “continues to move audiences with its bold portrayals of contemporary social issues.”
The President concluded the ceremony by thanking the honorees for their past work, while happily anticipating their future contributions. He had early remarked on the “rowdy” nature of the crowd. Now he returned to Mel Brooks, saying his own quoting of the honoree threw things off,” and crediting Brooks for making these presentations a much less “staid affair.” Everyone exited, laughing.