The Helen Hayes Awards were last night, so I slipped into my good tux, straightened my black tie, and took the Metro down to the waterfront. I hoofed it to the Anthem; saw some buddies; shook some hands; slapped some backs. I squeezed up to the crowded bar and ordered a martini; the bartender accidently put his finger in the glass but what the hey. Somebody gave me a hug…
No, only joking. I watched the 2020 Helen Hayes the same way we’ve watched everything else the past six damned months (except in Florida, where the Governor invites everybody to breathe on each other) – on Zoom, in front of my computer. There, along with a crowd which peaked at 467, I watched theatreWashington put the finishing touches on what has essentially been a month-long awards celebration.
This year’s Helen Hayes Awards have been a break from the past in a couple of ways, aside from the obvious alterations that the plague has caused. For one thing, attendance at the ceremony was free this year. Secondly, the Helen Hayes Awards no longer observe the actor/actress distinction of years past; instead, it accepts ten nominations and awards two trophies in each category. Finally, rather than one single endless ceremony, theatreWashington elected to divide the awards into eight separate presentations, each of a manageable length. (We’ve reported on each of the previous presentations here.)
After seven such shows, we were left with the superlatives undecided: outstanding play, outstanding musical, outstanding ensembles, outstanding production for young audiences, outstanding visiting production and the John Aniello award for outstanding emerging theater company.
The relentlessly cheery hosts, Felecia Curry and Naomi Jacobson, orchestrated a recapitulation of the seven previous presentations, with recipients of awards for previous productions accepting and responding to the honor which the 40 hardworking Helen Hayes judges bestowed on them.
Moving on to new business, though, Curry and Jacobson enlisted the help of other theater artists: for the musicals, Regina Aquino; for the plays, Frank Britton.
The musical awards were pretty straightforward: GALA Hispanic Theatre’s production of FAME The Musical was named both outstanding musical and outstanding musical ensemble, Helen division; Signature’s A Chorus Line was outstanding musical and outstanding musical ensemble, Hayes division. (The Helen Hayes Awards distinguishes between the two divisions on the basis of the number of Equity actors involved in the production).
GALA’s FAME was groundbreaking in that it was the first production of the show in Spanish (with some English). DCTS’ Debbie Minter Jackson observed that “the spectacular performing and cultural flair make it sizzle. Plus, there’s an urgency to the characters’ quests that can be felt in these times of mass deportations. The stakes are high as you can sense they are dancing and singing for their lives.”
With its presentation of the oft-produced A Chorus Line, Signature conjured up a surprisingly intimate show. “Signature Theatre’s A Chorus Line digs deeper into the psyches of the struggling young performers than any production I’ve ever seen, stripping the characters bare before the audience (not literally) in a manner so disarming, you forget you’re watching a musical,” said DCTS reviewer Meaghan Hannan Davant. “Staged in Signature’s self-described ‘intimate’ MAX theater, director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Denis Jones blur the line between actors and audience.”
The drama awards were not quite as unanimous. Theater Alliance’s Blood at the Root won both outstanding play and outstanding ensemble on the Helen side, but on the Hayes side 1st Stage’s The Brothers Size was named outstanding play, and School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play, from Round House, was the outstanding ensemble.
“What the talented cast shows us throughout the play is each character’s yearning to fit in, somewhere, need for family, bravado to hide their fear, self-consciousness, with sometimes loud uncensored reactions to being thrust into events not of their own choosing,” said DCTS’ Jackson in reviewing the Theater Alliance production. “They are caught betwixt and between kiddie land and adulthood, dealing with themselves, culture, race, and life-altering decisions and their consequences.”
Of the 1st Stage production of The Brothers Size, DCTS’ Steven McKnight observed that, “Director José Carrasquillo helps give the play a weighty urgency that compensates for the slight plot and he maneuvers the characters with a skillful touch. The beautiful set design of Giorgos Tsappas, drawn from elements and icons of Yoruba cosmology, accentuates the archetypal nature of the story. The oft-shadowy lighting design of William K. D-Eugenio also provides the right thematic touches. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is one of the most talented and significant writers in the United States.”
School Girls is a show which had immediate impact on its audiences. “School Girls isn’t just a coming-of-age comedy or even social commentary. It’s a look at the forces that dominate global culture using familiar lenses, including pop culture, through which and to which we can all relate, forcing us to acknowledge that not only have we left most people out of the conversation, but that we have made them feel unworthy to even join because of appearance,” said DCTS’ Kelly McCorkendale, who lived for a time in Madagascar. “Playwright Jocelyn Bioh has wonderfully captured this truth—with humor and heart in a lively 90 minutes—and I hope that it sticks for whoever sees the play.”
The award for outstanding visiting production went to the Kennedy Center’s highly acclaimed The Band’s Visit, and its charming musical Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (which may have been part of the Metro audit released earlier this month) was celebrated as an outstanding production for young audiences.
Finally, 4615 Theatre Company, a tiny company which has produced such high-risk, high-reward plays as The Infinite Tales, Enron, A Measure of Cruelty and Museum 2040 won the John Aniello Award for emerging theaters over strong competition including Angel Rose Artist Collective, Best Medicine Rep, and Theatre Prometheus. In response to this award, 4615 Artistic Director Jordan Friend and the company sent this to DC Theatre Scene:
Video caption: 4615 Theatre Company accepting the 2020 John Aniello Award: (l-r) Jon Jon Johnson, Paige Washington, Jordan Friend, Ezra Tozian, Alani Kravitz, Jordanna Hernandez, Jacqueline Chenault, Jacob Yeh
Notwithstanding the gaiety, these are somber times, and the age’s melancholy was never wholly separate from us. As in years past, the Helen Hayes ceremony celebrated and mourned those who left the planet in 2019. This year, the ceremony seemed to particularly note audience members, including William Logan Hopkins, Steve Zeisel and Gary Maker Award winners Alan Friedman and Linda Elyce Bryce.
Of course, it also mourned the death of longtime Washington theater leader Victor Shargai.Shargai’s widower, Craig Pascal discussed in general terms the leadership award theatreWashington has inaugurated in Shargai’s name. theatreWashington has not yet announced the criteria or process for this award.
theatreWashington CEO Amy Austin used the ceremony as an opportunity to draw our attention to the organization’s Taking Care of Our Own Covid fund, which has helped over 500 theatre artists in response to the economic disruption and human misery which the pandemic has caused. The fund, Austin revealed, has raised over $330,000 from about 900 donations.