Inclusion reigned supreme at the 74th annual Tony Awards! Recognizing productions from the 2020 season, which was abruptly cut off by the pandemic, the awards show consisted of two ceremonies: the first, hosted by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and shown on Paramount+; and the second, titled “Broadway’s Back!” and broadcast on both Paramount+ and CBS, hosted by Leslie Odom Jr. The glorious evening was held at the Winter Garden Theatre and it was packed with Broadway celebrities.
This year the Tony Awards put Black folks front and center, not only with its hosts, but with special awards. The Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre went to Irene Gandy, a press agent and Broadway producer; Woodie King Jr. for Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre; and Beverly Jenkins, a professional stage manager for over 30 years on Broadway. A Special Tony Award went to Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC), a non-profit organization which advocates for equity and inclusion for Blacks on Broadway, working in all matters from criminal justice reform to education reform to immigration.
Tony Award winners for the night began with David Alan Grier winning best performance by an actor in a featured role in a play for “A Soldier’s Play,” in which he brilliantly played Sergeant Vernon Waters. Anyone who saw Grier’s stellar performance knew that this was a well-deserved Tony. Grier humbly thanked director Kenny Leon for making him his first call when casting “A Soldier’s Play.” He was also glad to acknowledge the late Negro Ensemble Company, director Douglas Turner Ward: “This is unbelievable. It means so much, Douglas Turner Ward cast me into the show. Doug came to see the play and was on stage answering questions, though he could barely speak because he was ravaged by cancer. I paused my dinner break to listen, he had the same passion, teaching and energy. He answered every question. It was amazing. It was awesome. I think of Adolph Caesar who was Serg with me in the movie version.”
“A Soldier’s Play” also won best revival of a play for director Kenny Leon and playwright Charles Fuller. Leon, who received a standing ovation, immediately began his speech calling out the names of those we have lost to police murders. He called out Breonna Taylor three times and George Floyd twice, exclaiming, “We will never ever forget you.” He poignantly continued, “We opened ‘A Soldier’s Play’ the same week we lost Kobi Bryant and his beautiful daughter Gigi. All lives are precious. I’m a graduate of CAU, a HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia and I want to say to all those students, present and yet to come, yes you can! To all the people in this room, we can do better. Charles Fuller wrote this play, no dis to Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, we need Ntozake sitting at the table, Melvin Van Peebles—we need to do better.” Now, with this win and the fact that seven shows will come to Broadway this season by Black playwrights, Leon was asked where are we at on Broadway? “As artists our job is to impact the world through storytelling. I don’t think we’ve come far enough, but this reset has given us the opportunity to start anew. The proof is in the pudding, what will it look like next year at this time? We have seven plays this season, but where will it go? We have to be part of the solution. It’s a wonderful beginning and it’s going to take all of us, the young and the old folks.” Leon, a founding member of Black Theatre United (BTU)—shared, “We did the New Deal for Broadway and we’re relentless, these organizations [BTU, BAC] have no intention of stopping from doing the work. They are committed and fierce. It’s our job to protect our future and to give our young people a chance. There are a lot of wonderful things that our young people are doing. It’s on us adults to get rid of this systemic racism. It’s on all of us adults to make our nest better.”
Adrienne Warren received the Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical for her portrayal of Tina Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and it was a stunning moment! Warren emotionally thanked her family. She thanked Tina Turner, “for trusting me to bring her story home.” She thanked the cast. Warren, also a founding member of BAC, said, “The world has been screaming for change…I want to prepare this space for those who look like me. There are countless people working tirelessly to see that you can be here. I’ve gotten so much encouragement through this journey. This has been a 6-year journey. I’m extremely moved by this. When I started this show I thought I had so much to prove, now I want to make things better for those who come after me.”
Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s president Britton Smith accepted the Special Tony Honors from Pulitzer Prize winning Black female playwright Lynn Nottage, who will have two productions on Broadway this season—the play “Clyde’s” and “MJ: The Musical.” Nottage was greeted by the capacity crowd with a standing ovation. Smith was candid as he said, “I’m only standing here because George Floyd and a pandemic brought us to a point to say enough is enough and for Black people to speak up! My biggest fear is that when Broadway comes back that opening will close.” Addressing the Broadway audience in the room, he said, “When this room decides to move behind us that’s when we’ll earn the phrase Black Lives Matters.” Talking about what this Tony honor means he shared, “I feel overwhelmed, proud, affirmed, seen. I feel like people saw the industry is excited to shift. Black Lives Matter is easy to say, but you can’t say it until there’s a standard. The BAC standard is everybody else has full range to participate.”
Throughout the evening Broadway’s message was about inclusion and the fact that Black voices will not be silenced. Daniel Watts from “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” performed in a powerful number in which the message was that it’s wrong to try to lessen the voices of others. “You can’t stop this beat, this beat will refuse. This beat will resist arrest.”
A special Tony performance dedicated to BAC, introduced by BAC founding members Amber Iman and Warren, boasted marvelous tap dancing and the gorgeous voices of Broadway Inspirational Voices.
This was an evening filled with Black excellence as the audience was taken back to the original cast of “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, and one of the original Dreamgirls, Sheryl Lee Ralph—who is now a producer on Broadway for “Thoughts of a Colored Man”—introduced her co-star and the lead in the original Broadway cast, Jennifer Holliday, who bought the house down with a stupendous, monumental performance of “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going!”
Broadway also paid tribute to famous duets, and one which gave everyone chills was Tony winners Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell performing “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime.” That had to be one of the most astonishing moments in Tony history. You could literally see people in the Broadway-star-filled audience, holding their chests and wiping their eyes.
Actress Daphne Rubin-Vega also presented a Special Tony Honor to “Freestyle Love Supreme,” which among its founders is Lin-Manual Miranda. And the Tony Awards ended with a fantastic performance by the ensemble and special guest members of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” which will be returning to Broadway this season.
Among the Tony presenters on the stage were LaChanze, Ron Cephas Jones, Wendell Pierce, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Jordan Fisher. And with fantastic performances from Broadway shows including “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times of the Temptations”—which featured John Legend, “Jagged Little Pill,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Freestyle Love Supreme,” and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” viewers received a tasty sample of what Broadway has to offer.
All-in-all it was a stupendous occasion!