The cast of SIX gets Ensemble Award Credit: Linda Armstrong photo

The Drama Desk Awards, which recognizes both Broadway and Off-Broadway excellence, held its 66th annual Drama Desk Awards, in-person, at Sardi’s, and it was fabulous. Black winners abounded and it was rewarding to witness. Drama Desk has always been an inclusive organization and that tradition continues. The event, hosted by Renee Elise Goldsberry, held a sense of theatrical community and love in the intimate setting at Sardi’s.

Anyone who had the privilege to see Ruben Santiago-Hudson in his autobiographical play “Lackawanna Blues” was as thrilled as I was to see him win outstanding actor in a play. His play has so much humanity, and he shared, “I just wanted to say thank you to Nanny and all the women of color who are the foundation of our communities and never get acknowledged. I don’t want everybody to forget her and I wanted to remind people of that person in their lives, because everybody’s got somebody that just gives everything they have and asks for nothing in return. We seemed to have forgotten, in the darkest times that I saw with this crazy president that we had and people just hating, I said let me show some love and the people needed it. I offered this play to say, people, let’s come together, let’s help each other.”

Phylicia Rashad received the award for outstanding actress in a play for “Skeleton Crew” and it was very much deserved. Her lovely daughter Condola was on hand to accept this honor for her mother.
Jaquel Spivey won outstanding actor in a musical for “A Strange Loop.” Appreciative of this honor, he said, “I have to thank my creator and God. I have to thank Michael R. Jackson for changing my life.”
Joaquina Kalukango won outstanding actress in a Musical for “Paradise Square.” An emotional Kalukango said, “For as long as I can remember I loved to tell stories. This was my first time leading a musical and I was terrified.” She thanked her amazing cast, her 5-year-old son and the audiences.

Veteran actor Ron Cephas Jones won outstanding featured actor in a play for “Clyde’s.”

Outstanding adaptation was won by Jocelyn Bioh, for the Public Theater Delacorte production of “Merry Wives.” Reflecting on how she was able to create the hilarious new approach to Shakespeare’s play, Bioh said, “It was with the collaboration of Saheem [the director]. He’s one of the most brilliant directors of Shakespeare and he was able to guide me through the process of what this play is and we were able to pull everything out. I wanted to make it fresh and fun. I wanted them to feel they had experienced the joy.” Talking about the process, Bioh shared that you usually have 18 months, “I had eight weeks to write ‘Merry Wives’ so that was incredibly terrifying. I had to just dive in. I’m glad it came to me at a time in my career that I wasn’t afraid to do it. After working on ‘School Girls’ and in TV where you have to turn things around quickly, it got me ready. My goal is to center our people in my work, especially Black women,” Bioh added.

The award for outstanding choreography went to the team of “Paradise Square”—Bill T. Jones, Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus, Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis. On hand to accept were Coleman, Lambert and Davis. “We’re adamant about honoring our ancestors, echoing the movements and sounds of our people. Sharing the truths and vulnerability, sharing the truths of living. We dance because we celebrate our greatness and inspire others to celebrate their greatness as well,” said Davis.

Jason Michael Webb was on hand to accept the award for outstanding orchestration for “MJ,” which he won with David Holcenberg. Webb was happy to comment, “Getting this award is such an encouragement and so necessary after being in a lockdown for a few years, just to celebrate each other is awesome.” Doing the orchestration, Webb said, “It was very high stakes, especially for me being such a Michael Jackson fan. It was making sure that we were taking awesome care of that legacy. I know the joy and healing I received from Michael’s music growing up. I would love for future generations to be able to experience that joy and healing, so it wasn’t difficult to do this work, it just meant so much.

“People who come to that show have a reconnection to their joy and it’s beautiful,” he said.
Outstanding music in a play was given posthumously to Bill Sims Jr. for “Lackawanna Blues,” and Santiago-Hudson was touching and giving as he shared how supportive Sims was of the show going to Broadway.

The late Alice Childress was presented with the Harold S. Prince Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in the theater. I personally had the honor of presenting this award. This season she had “Trouble in Mind” on Broadway and “Wedding Band: A Love Story in Black and White” in Brooklyn.

The production of “SIX” received a special Ensemble Award and that original cast of six divas includes three African Americans—Adrianna Hicks, Brittney Mack and Anna Uzele, along with Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller and Samantha Pauly. Mack, who plays the role of Queen Anne of Cleaves, was the first to sit down and talk about this honor. The cast shares this strong bond on stage; talking about that Mack said, “We started this process in 2019 at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. I said I would love it if we could agree to see each other as human beings first and then women and then women of different backgrounds, colors, age, but then artists and then these characters that we’re about to play. From then on the Band-Aid ripped off and we said let’s just start here…Whatever mood you’re in, we will respect it…That’s where the bonding first started.” Talking about being one of the first musicals back on Broadway she said, “It was an honor and a privilege because so many shows didn’t come back. It was a blessing to have the type of story we’re telling, because it is the one that puts it all in your face. Our show is about comparison—who has had the most trauma.” Talking about there being three Black Queens, Mack said, “Yes, it’s important.” Hicks, Catherine of Aragon remarked about how she rejuvenates after every show. “It’s important to rejuvenate by connecting with the things you are excited about outside of theater. Going home, cooking a good meal and just watching Netflix or the simple mundane things of life. That helps you to have the stamina.” Uzele talking about being in “SIX” and her experience said, “The show taught me how to trust my own body and have confidence in my own body. I was raised in an evangelical world where I was taught your body was sinful…There’s a point when I’m on the stage alone and I didn’t think I could handle it. I used to cry my eyes out. This show allowed me to embrace myself, you have to love your whole body. This show helped me step into a new chapter of womanhood.”

Director Saheem Ali presented the Special Award to Costume Designer Dede Ayite, whose work was recently seen at the Delacorte Theatre production of “Merry Wives,” on Broadway in “Chicken and Biscuits,” “Slave Play,” “American Buffalo,” and “How I Learned To Drive.” Speaking of Ayite he shared, “My friend is one of the most sought-after costume designers in our field. She works on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off Off-Broadway, she works regionally in Opera houses large and small. Dede will go where the work calls her. She cares about the work and the collaborators. She engages in the finer detail of any play, she leans on the dramaturgy, the backstory, she’ll ask questions about the script for me to ask the playwright…In ‘American Buffalo’ every cut and every color tells you something about the character before they have uttered a word. Her work is always meticulous.” Ayite humbly shared that she’s been a costume designer for 14 years. To build her confidence she said, “As an artist it’s a daily question of why and what moves me and of access and when I first started the window of access to work felt very small. I just wanted the opportunity to create art and I didn’t know if I would have that opportunity. Sitting here today and looking back it was one small opportunity that led to another and allowed me to build up and it’s quite overwhelming to look through the years and see how I was able to build. To be able to do this for a living is extraordinary.” Ayite shared that in her acceptance speech she broke down and cried because, “It’s a lot. There are so many emotions that I feel. I feel extremely grateful. I’m able to have conversations with such high esteem people who are the best in their craft. To be a costume designer and have the support to do what I want to do is a gift, a true blessing from above.”

It is wonderful to see how inclusive theater was this season, with the productions by and featuring African Americans. Go out and see a play today. Theater is back, make sure to give it your support!

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