NEW YORK CITY: The 63rd annual Obie Awards took place on Monday evening at Terminal 5, a three-story concert venue in Hell’s Kitchen. This year marked the fourth time that the Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing co-presented the awards ceremony, which celebrates Off and Off Off Broadway theatre. Close to the lights of Broadway, yet far enough off the beaten path, Terminal 5 was the perfect locale for stars of the uptown and downtown theatre scene to convene in the middle.
Presenters included stars of the screen and stage Matthew Broderick, Lucy Liu, and Oliver Platt. Some angels even flew over to Hell’s Kitchen. Before the awards ceremony, Andrew Garfield, who currently stars in Angels in America on Broadway, reflected back on some formative experiences he had working at a non-profit company.
“For me, when I was just starting out, I did a bunch of work in London at a small theatre called the Sound Theatre where I did a play called Beautiful Thing and The Laramie Project,” said Garfield on the red carpet. “Those were two of the best experiences of my life—and we weren’t making shit.” He laughs, before continuing, “We were doing it because we had to do it, our hearts and souls were telling us to. It was the purest time of my life creatively.”
Rajiv Joseph, who took home an Obie Award for Best New American play for Describe the Night, expressed his gratitude to the non-profit theatre community for developing and giving his works life onstage. “This is a real celebration of the best work that happens in New York City theatrically, and also the hard work of people working in non-profit theatres and Off Broadway, and not having all the bells and whistles of the Broadway machine,” he said on the red carpet.
The Obies didn’t need any bells and whistles, the fun comes from the collegial, relaxed structure of the event. There are no nominations or pre-set categories, invitees are just strongly encouraged to attend, and there will be multiple honorees for each category.
John Leguizamo, who won an Obie Award in 1991 for his one-man show Mambo Mouth, hosted the event for the first time. He poked fun at the bootstrap nature of producing theatre with minimal funds, joked about the current political climate, and even made an appearance as rapper Cardi B., bearing his midriff in a tasseled bra.
“Where does the name ‘Obie’ come from?” asked Leguizamo in his opening monologue. “Well, it derives from an Off Broadway phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard. ‘Oh, be a dear and do the play for free. Oh, be a dear and use the bathroom as your dressing room.’ One thing that unites all the shows being celebrated tonight is budget.”
The 2018 judges included Michael Feingold, Melissa Rose Bernardo, Wendall K. Harrington, Charles Isherwood, Toni-Leslie James, Arian Moayed, and Ching Valdes-Aran.
This year, the productions with the most awards were stories by, about, and directed by ladies. Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is, which bowed at Soho Rep earlier this year, follows twin sisters on a mythical journey from the Deep South to California as they seek bloody revenge. Obie Awards were given to Harris, director Taibi Magar, and the show’s stars Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes.
“When I was writing this play that I needed to get out of my body, I could never have imagined that people would respond the way that they have,” said Harris in her acceptance speech. “So thank you for your response.”
The other top winner of the evening was Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, which was produced at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017. The play, which had an all-female cast, is about a young, single mother caring for her terminally ill child. Herzog, director Anne Kauffman, and star Carrie Coon each received awards for their work.
“I wanted to write this play that was really just about women sustaining each other, listening to each other, and bearing witness to each other’s lives,” said Herzog in her acceptance speech. “I was able to do that because of the women who do that for me in my life, and some of them made this play with me.”
Carrie Coon added in her speech: “What’s amazing about Amy’s play is that she teaches us that our growth is more important than our fear, and that we have to risk being imperfect in those conversations in order to grow. That’s what the play taught me and reminded me. And I think that is what artists ultimately do, because we know that fear is an obstacle for us and we don’t get better when we’re afraid.”
Laura Benanti roused the crowd with an 11th-hour musical game in which she sang a few bars of songs from tuners that got their start downtown. Then, actors Beth Malone and Gideon Glick, along with costume designer William Ivey Long were challenged to name the musical titles. Sans buzzer, they competed against each other by jumping up and down, waving their arms, and flapping chicken wings to make their guesses as Benanti sang bits from Fun Home, Spring Awakening, A Chorus Line, and The Pirates of Penzance.
The Obies House Band, featuring “The Ladies” Brie Cassil, Lisa Ramey, and Yvette Rovira, played throughout the ceremony and sang as winners made their way to the stage. Other performances included a tribute to the 20th anniversary of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, featuring Stephen Trask, Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, and Peter Yanowitz performing “Wig in a Box.” In a heartfelt tribute, Laura Osnes took the stage to sing “What Matters Most” to remember the theatre artists who passed away this past season.
Later in the evening, Kathleen Chalfant was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award, for her five-decade-long career,
“To be a part of this world, as all of you know who are part of it, is an astounding privilege,” said Chalfant in her speech. “I’ve gotten to play everybody from June Jordan to Peter Pan, and a whole bunch of people in between. I do think that in this time in which the world seems to have fallen into a terrible darkness, that we are the people that can pull us back from the abyss. And we must do that, and everybody in this room is trying to do that—so keep pulling on that rope from the abyss.”
The complete list of winners is below:
Best New American Play (with a $1,000 prize)
Rajiv Joseph, Describe the Night (Atlantic Theater Company)
Aleshea Harris, Is God Is (Soho Rep)
Amy Herzog, Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop)
Abe Koogler, Fulfillment Center (Manhattan Theatre Club)
Dominique Morisseau, Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theater)
Jesse Berger, The Government Inspector (Red Bull Theater)
Anne Kauffman, Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop)
Taibi Magar, Is God Is (Soho Rep)
Sean Carvajal & Edi Gathegi, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Signature Theatre Company)
Carrie Coon, Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop)
Alfie Fuller & Dame-Jasmine Hughes, Is God Is (Soho Rep)
Denise Gough, People, Places & Things (National Theatre/Headlong/St. Ann’s Warehouse)
Will Swenson, Jerry Springer – The Opera (The New Group)
Chukwudi Iwuji, The Low Road (The Public Theater)
Robert Sean Leonard, At Home at the Zoo (Signature Theatre Company)
Jessica Hecht, Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater)
Ben Edelman, Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater)
Billy Crudup, Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theatre/Audible)
Lap Chi Chu, Sustained Excellence of Lighting Design
Sarah Laux, Costume Design, Jerry Springer – The Opera (The New Group)
The Design Team, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (Theatre for a New Audience): Christopher Barreca (Set Design), Justin Ellington (Sound Design), Donald Holder (Lighting Design), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Design), Austin Switser (Video Design)
Ariane Mnouchkine & Theatre du Soleil, A Room in India (Park Avenue Armory)
The Cast and Creative Team, Yerma (Park Avenue Armory): Simon Stone (Director), Lizzie Clachan (Set Design), Alice Babidge (Costume Design), James Farncombe (Lighting Design), Stefan Gregory (Sound Design); Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira (Cast)David Greenspan, Jack Cummings III, & Transport Group, Strange Interlude (Transport Group)
The Ross Wetzsteon Award (with a $3,000 prize)
Ma-Yi Theater Company
Obie Grants (with $6,000 each)
Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre
York Theatre Company, for its Musicals in Mufti Series
Lifetime Achievement Award