By Ericka Alston Buck,
Special to the AFRO

As the summer sun gradually yields to the crisp embrace of fall, Baltimore’s arts and culture scene bids adieu to the old and hello to a new season in an extravagant fashion. This year’s swan song included a trifecta of remarkable events: the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball, the premiere of the stage play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at Baltimore Center Stage, and The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 Gala Celebration. Among the highlights was the presence of Tony Award-winning actor André De Shields, who had recently received the heartfelt honor of a street named in his hono.

UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball: A night of elegance and philanthropy

The UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball, a dazzling soirée held annually in cities across the nation, marked the beginning of Baltimore’s summer season finale. The inaugural UNCF Baltimore Mayor’s Masked Ball was an amazing display of Black excellence in fundraising, focusing on bringing a greater awareness of the need and benefits of a college education. The evening was a remarkable display of opulence and benevolence, as guests donned their most extravagant masks and attire to raise funds for education and scholarships.

The ball, hosted by Mayor Brandon Scott, was a testament to the city’s commitment to empowering its youth through education. Distinguished guests and honorees, who included Freeman Hrabowski, president emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Sashi

Brown, president of the Baltimore Ravens organization; community leaders and philanthropists, came together in a spirit of unity and generosity, celebrating excellence in education while contributing to a brighter future for Baltimore’s students. The sounds of violinist and band, Chelsea Green and The Green Project provided an electrifying performance that made for the perfect soundtrack for the night.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” premieres at Baltimore Center Stage

The Baltimore Center Stage, which on Oct. 1 will be under the direction of its new artistic director, Tony Award-nominated and Obie Award winner Stevie Walker-Webb, brought the essence of jazz and the spirit of Billie Holiday to life with the premiere of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” 

The AFRO had the honor of sitting down with Walker-Webb to discuss what he plans to bring to the theater. 

The play, set in a smoky Philadelphia nightclub in 1959, showcased the incomparable talent of its Baltimore-born star Tanae Renee, who delivered a hauntingly beautiful performance as the iconic Lady Day. The play allowed the audience to step back in time, immersing themselves in the evocative music and stories that defined an era. 

The emotional depth and artistry of Renee’s portrayal of Billie Holiday left the audience in awe. Her renditions of classics like “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child” stirred powerful emotions, serving as a poignant reminder of the enduring legacy of one of jazz’s greatest voices. The production’s meticulous attention to detail, from the period costumes to the intimate ambiance of the fictional Emerson’s Bar and Grill, made for an unforgettable theatrical experience. The audience members were all catapulted into a full-out cabaret. 

Due to popular demand and a spectacular performance “Lady Day” has been extended through Oct. 15. 

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gala Celebration helmed by Honorary Chairs Gov. Wes Moore and first lady Dawn Moore

The grand finale of Baltimore’s summer arts and culture season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gala Celebration, was actually the kickoff to the orchestra’s season.

Held under a starlit sky at the stunning Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, this event was a harmonious blend of classical and contemporary music. The BSO’s performance, under the new baton of renowned conductor Jonathon Heyward, also launched Heyward’s historic tenure as the orchestra’s first Black musical director.

Heyward led the delivery of a mesmerizing performance that spanned the ages of classical music. However, the true highlight of the evening was the after party, where we bumped into a very special guest, Tony Award-winning actor André De Shields, whose captivating and charismatic presence spoke of Baltimore royalty.

Just days before the Gala Celebration, the city of Baltimore honored De Shields with a street dedication, renaming the 1800 block of Division Street in Upton after him. This recognition served as a testament to De Shields’ remarkable contributions to the world of theater and his deep ties to Baltimore.

Baltimore’s summer season of arts and culture came to a resplendent end with these three unforgettable events. From the philanthropic elegance of the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball to the soul-stirring performance of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” and the musical grandeur of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gala Celebration, the city continues to embrace the arts with open arms. And in the midst of it all, André De Shields, a true Baltimore treasure, shone brightly, reminding us of the enduring power of the arts to unite, inspire, and elevate the human spirit. As autumn sets in, Baltimore’s cultural scene stands poised to continue its legacy of excellence in the arts. 

The AFRO is excited about all things arts, culture and events ahead of us in the coming weeks. See you, outside!