Streep, Sondheim, the Women’s March, and a Call to Arms at the PEN America Gala

Last night at the Museum of Natural History, the fight for free speech hit close to home

Stephen Sondheim and Meryl Streep

It’s a new era for PEN America. The organization, which has long helped champion freedom of expression around the world, is now grappling with new threats on the home front, namely a President who is openly hostile towards members of the media, wants to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, and not only condones but creates fake news. PEN America’s President, Andrew Solomon, addressed the tense political climate in his opening remarks: “We are living in a time of unprecedented attacks on freedom of expression in the United States. The truth is routinely denied by the highest officials of government and untruths are proclaimed as if they were authentic.”

That tone of defiance and determination would carry through the evening. The night’s first award went to John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan. In his acceptance speech, Sargent spoke about the importance of upholding the First Amendment and defending writers with controversial opinions. But rather than speaking only of the threats coming from government bodies, he acknowledged that the literary community must also face their own biases and pressures. “There are fewer and fewer of us deciding what books to publish…or what books to pull,” he said, hinting at the recent controversies over hate speech and Simon and Schuster’s book deal with online troll and white supremacist Milos Yiannopoulos.

Audra McDonald

Next up: the bold-faced names. If there was one person who could generate the same excitement as last year’s celebrity presenter, J.K. Rowling, it was Meryl Streep. Streep awarded the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award to Stephen Sondheim for his contributions to musical theater and his defense of the arts. Streep was perfect (anyone surprised?), employing a deft mix of humor — “as an actress in a room full of great writers I feel like a pilot fish on a whale” — and her now trademark candor in criticizing the current administration. Sondheim humbly accepted the award, joking that he felt better about receiving a writing prize for musical theater, since “Bob Dylan can win the Nobel.” After the award was presented, Tony-winner Audra McDonald came on stage to perform Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life.”

Apart from Meryl Streep’s amazing black-and-white striped pants, the best sartorial moment of the night came from Bob Bland, the Women’s March organizer and winner of the James and Toni C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Award. Bland wore a knitted red pussy hat above her elegant red evening gown, nicely emphasizing her message; in addition to speaking about the importance of courage, inclusiveness and diversity, she argued that we must continue to fight (hats optional) post-March and push for women’s rights and parity in all levels of government. Bland accepted the award on behalf of her co-organizers, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez, as well as the estimated 5 million people who marched on all five continents on January 21st.

Toni Goodale, Bob Bland, James Goodale

In an apparently impromptu moment, the award-winning actor Alan Cumming then read a letter written to PEN by Oleg Sentsov, the honoree of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Cumming’s ridiculously powerful reading was a moving tribute to the Ukrainian activist, writer, and filmmaker, who was arrested by the Russian secret police on spurious terrorism charges and is currently serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony.

Rita Dove, the first African-American Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, closed out the evening with an impassioned call to save the National Endowment for the Arts. It was a fitting end to the ceremony, which began with a video called “It Can Happen Here: Free Expression in America.” The message was clear: PEN America is relevant at home, and will likely become even more so over the next four years. Importantly, the organization didn’t lose site of the global context, reminding us through the Sentsov tribute, videos of newly freed political prisoners, and even a shout-out to gala-attendee and fatwa survivor Salman Rushdie, how lucky we still are compared to so many around the world.

Photographs courtesy of PEN America, by Beowulf Sheehan

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