Jaquel Spivey, 2022 Theatre Award winner Credit: Contributed

At the 76th annual Theatre World Awards half of the winners were Black, and it was glorious! If you’re not familiar with the Theatre World Awards, let me tell you about them. A special moment for every actor is when they make their stage debut, whether on Broadway or Off-Broadway and that’s what Theatre World celebrates. The Theatre World Awards committee attends productions throughout the season, notes those actors with outstanding stage debuts and decides on the top 12 debuts. This year the awards occurred at Circle in the Square Theatre on W. 50th Street, home of “American Buffalo.” There was a marvelous theatrical vibe and intimacy, as the stage was intact for the show and it made for a very interesting set-up. The awards were hosted by Peter Filichia, Awards committee member and Newark Star-Ledger’s emeritus critic, and he was absolutely delightful. Filichia, a walking theatrical treasure, has been covering theater for decades and he can tell the detailed stories to prove it. He’s charming, funny, charismatic, a treasure of the Theatre World Awards and a seasoned journalist.

The vibe at the Theatre World Awards was one of love, support and celebration. It was a wonderful, private affair whose audience consisted of this year’s winners, past winners who presented this year’s winners and the families of the winners. There was a great sense of passing on the baton, so to speak. Past winners who were now presenters ran the gamut and included Matthew Broderick; Phillip Boykin; Geneva Carr; Rosemary Harris; Brenda Vaccaro; Karen Pittman, Bonnie Milligan; Tracie Bennett; Brandon J. Dirden and Andre De Shields. Each presenter recalled what winning this award meant to them, mentioning the play they debuted in. Those debuts ranged from 1962 to 2021. I felt so honored to be a person in the room where it happened. I was also honored because this year I became one of the only nine-member committee that decides the Theatre World winners. The other nominating committee members include David Cote, The Observer; Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News, emeritus; David Finkle, New York Stage Review; Elysa Gardner, USA Today, emeritus; Harry Haun, The Observer; Cary Wong, freelancer; and Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter.

The Black winners distinguished themselves beautifully. Kearstin Piper Brown proved that Black opera singers definitely rule, as she won for her stage debut in Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” at Lincoln Center. Incredible talent, Phillip Boykin presented Brown with her award. Brown shared, “I’m at a loss for words. I’m a woman of deep faith.” Speaking about the importance of Nottage’s story in her career as an opera singer Brown said, “As a Black woman and opera singer, I don’t get to tell the stories of our ancestors, but I did with this story and I want to thank Lynn Nottage for that. She made me sweat. She gave such a beautiful libretto for opera…Thank you for writing something that felt so natural.” Brown thanked the rest of the creative team and her husband and two sons.

The one and only Andre De Shields presented the Theatre World Award to Sharon D. Clarke, who made an amazing Broadway debut in “Caroline Or Change.” “I’m humbled, honored and overjoyed. What started out for six weeks in Southern England has taken me across the pond. I want to thank the writers for the role of a lifetime.” Clarke thanked her “Caroline” family, her parents and her wife Susie.

Tremendously gifted actress Kara Young received her award for her stunning debut performance on Broadway in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.” This incredible actress oozed warmth and was so much fun to watch in this new play. Young cried as she thanked the audiences that came out through the pandemic. She thanked the actors she worked with and the playwrights that let him share their stories. She also thanked her parents.

Justin Cooley won for his debut performance Off-Broadway in “Kimberly Akimbo.” Cooley, a recent high school graduate from suburbs in Kansas shared, “There was an incredible sense of unity and support in this community…Thank you to my castmates for pulling every bit of creativity out of me.”

Star of “A Strange Loop,” Jaquel Spivey, won for his Broadway performance as Usher. Spivey thanked God, and Michael R. Jackson for creating the show.
Myles Frost won for his Broadway debut as Michael Jackson in the Lynn Nottage musical “MJ.” Anyone who has seen “MJ” knows he does the role to perfection, maintaining the utmost respect, great dance moves and mesmerizing delivery.

Andre De Shields, winner of the John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2021 performed “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles to the 2022 recipient, Harvey Fienstein. The remaining six Theatre World Award winners were Patrick J. Adams for the Broadway play “Take Me Away”—he was amazing, Yair Ben-Dor for “Prayer For The French Republic,” Enrico Colantoni and Crystal Finn for “Birthday Candles,” Gaby French for “Hangmen,” and Shannon Tyo for “The Chinese Lady.”

It was an absolutely stellar evening. I can’t wait until next year!

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