Have you ever had an evening when all the stars seemed to align in the sky and everything was right with the world? An evening when everyone who deserved to be recognized for their brilliant works received their just reward? Well, that is what happened on a recent Monday night at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th Street as the 41st annual Vivian Robinson/AUDELCO Recognition (“VIV”) Awards for Excellence in Black Theater took place.
Signature Theater left its mark on the ceremony, as it received eight well-earned VIV Awards in the distinguished categories of Best Revival; Best Director/Dramatic Production, Ruben Santiago-Hudson; Best Lead Actress, Roslyn Ruff; Best Lead Actor, Brandon J. Dirden; Best Supporting Actor, Chuck Cooper; Best Costume Design, Karen Perry; Best Set Design, Michael Camahan; and Best Lighting Design, Rui Rita. The stage was set as the production won the first three awards for lighting, set and costume design right off the bat.
Having an August Wilson play overrun the AUDELCO Awards is a marvelous event, especially when the direction by Santiago-Hudson gave a clear message to the audience that we were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime cast, delivering a mesmerizing, phenomenal performance. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been blessed enough to get the opportunity to see this piece, and especially the cast that delivered it.
It is no mystery to me that it received each of the VIV Awards that it garnered. This production did something to me that no play has ever done in 30 years of my being a theater critic—it left me unable to speak. As everyone around me gathered to their feet and shouted, “Bravo!” I was so overcome with the depth and beauty of what I had just experienced, I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. All I could do was stand and clap as loudly as possible and for a long time, along with everyone else in the audience. Each actor who took to the stage captivated the audience, and by intermission you were anxious to see what would happen next.
Signature Theater’s production of “The Piano Lesson” definitely did what theater is supposed to do—it completely took you out of your world and brought you into the amazing mind of Wilson and a place full of Black culture, traditions and beliefs. With every award that “The Piano Lesson” received, the stars were aligning in the sky. It was the right thing to happen. Though I couldn’t speak at the production, let me say it now: “Bravo!” to everyone connected with “The Piano Lesson,” and congratulations.
There were only a few productions that were winners at the VIV Awards, and again, they deserved their rewards. “Dreamgirls,” done by the Harlem Repertory Theater, won Musical Production of the Year; Best Director/Musical Production, Keith Lee Grant; Best Choreography, Grant; Outstanding Musical Director, Ryan Touhey; and lastly Outstanding Performance in a Musical/Female, Dion Millington.
Colman Domingo was truly “Wild and Happy” as his play “Wild With Happy,” which was done by the Public Theater, won Dramatic Production of the Year; Best Playwright, Domingo; and Best Supporting Actress, Sharon Washington. Domingo definitely should have received the honors that were bestowed upon him. This production was deeply touching to watch. It clearly pointed out the creative gifts that Domingo has as both a playwright and actor. That’s why it’s so extraordinary that the AUDELCO Awards are there acknowledging the best in Black theater. I love the fact that we acknowledge what others chose to ignore.
In the category of Outstanding Ensemble, “Choir Boy” from the Manhattan Theater Club took home the VIV. It really was a stupendous ensemble piece. Jeannette Bayardelle gripped the audience with her solo performance in “Shida,” presented by Shida Productions LLC, and she walked away with the VIV for Solo Performance. This play was moving to watch, and Bayardelle superbly demonstrated her theatrical gifts as she effortlessly told a story, moving from one character to another. Again, it is so reassuring when people who share their talents are spotlighted for their exceptional work.
The VIV for Outstanding Performance in a Musical-Male was won by Michael Leonard James for “Storyville,” a York Theater Company production. David D. Wright came away with a VIV for Sound Design for his work on “The Importance of Being Earnest,” from Take Wing and Soar/New Heritage. In the category of Dance Company of the Year, there was a tie—both Alvin Ailey American Center and Forces of Nature won.
Again, I can’t say it enough, there is something so fulfilling when people who most deserve that symbolic pat on the back actually receive it. The productions that won this year were without a doubt the crème de la crème. The 41st annual Vivian Robinson/AUDELCO Recognition Awards for Excellence in Black Theater left me feeling proud, wild with happiness and grateful to Signature Theater for having the vision to perform a Wilson work and utilize the genius of Santiago-Hudson as the director, especially because Santiago-Hudson is a veteran Wilson play actor. He knows so well how to stay true to Wilson’s vision and makes sure that his work comes across with a lot of love, heart and excitement.
Symphony Space was packed this year, and that was a fantastic thing. It’s heartwarming to know that our people are willing to come out and support each other. I hope the AUDELCO Awards will also serve as a reminder to the public that Black theater is phenomenal theater and needs to be supported in every way possible. Black theater is telling our stories, and AUDELCO is acknowledging when our stories are told with sheer brilliance.
If you want to learn more about AUDELCO and get involved with the organization, visit www.audelco.net.