NEW YORK CITY: History and legacies were in the spotlight as the theatre community gathered on Monday night, Feb. 3, for Theatre Communications Group’s 2020 Gala. Celebrated were the work and legacies of playwright David Henry Hwang and the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. As the gala celebrated the honorees’ decades of service to the industry, the awardees themselves also looked forward toward a brighter future.
The ceremony opened with TCG CEO Teresa Eyring and TCG deputy director and COO Adrian Budhu introducing the gala’s theme, Our Stories, and giving a subtle reminder that next year is TCG’s 60th anniversary (ahem, the diamond anniversary). But the largest applause came when Budhu announced a grant TCG received from the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, which will be used to publish a book on the National Black Theatre Festival.
Following this announcement, James Jackson Jr. took the stage to perform “Memory Song” from A Strange Loop. Jackson, who played Thought 2 in musical’s world premiere at Playwrights Horizons last year, showcased his soaring vocals in what creator Michael R. Jackson (book, music, and lyrics) told Playbill was the first song he wrote for the musical.
Jon Moscone, the chief producer for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, took the stage next to talk about TCG’s continuing role in advocacy. “Everything we do, conscious or not,” Moscone said in his speech, “serves to advocate for one position or another.” There used to be an option to be apolitical, he continued, to be able to sit on the bench. “But now it’s clear, there is no bench. The playing field is everywhere. We advocate through silence and inaction just as powerfully as when we speak up and we do something,” Moscone said before complimenting Eyring’s leadership role in TCG’s stated mission, advocating for “a better world for theatre and because of theatre.”
After concluding his passionate call to action, Moscone gave way to the executive director of Writers Theatre, Kate Lipuma. Lipuma, in turn, introduced the night’s auctioneers: co-executive director of Boston’s Theater Offensive Harold Steward and 2019 gala honoree Rick Miramontez. Included in the auction were tickets to an exclusive Tony Awards after-party, as well as a Broadway Across America all-inclusive trip to Spain.
As the night moved on to the honorees, guests were treated to a trailer for “Holy Ground,” a documentary celebrating the history and legacy of the National Black Theatre Festival and its founder Larry Leon Hamlin, as produced by the festival’s host theatre, North Carolina Black Repertory Company. Following the trailer, Nambi E. Kelley read Dr. Maya Angelou’s manifesto to the National Black Theatre Festival, a strong statement on the necessity for the festival.
“The National Black Theatre Festival hopes this week to provide a stage upon which all the Black theatrical personages can reveal the worlds they know and even those they dare to hope for,” Angelou’s words from 1989 read. Angelou served as the festival’s first chairperson and is the focus of Maya, a play about Angelou’s life written by Kelley, which received its world premiere reading at NC Black Rep in 2019. Kelley concluded her time on stage by reading from Angelou’s poem “Alone.”
Broadway producers Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey then came on to honor NBTF. Byrd said he was overwhelmed by NBTF when he attended the bi-annual festival for the first time four years ago, and urged anyone who hadn’t been before to not miss the next festival (in 2021). The stage was then given over to NC Black Rep’s artistic director, Jackie Alexander, and Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, NC Black Rep’s board president and the widow of the festival’s founder Larry Leon Hamlin. Sprinkle-Hamlin delivered a short, sweet speech, also encouraging everyone to attend 2021’s festival. Alexander spoke about ways the arts can remove fear of the unfamiliar, and their ability to pull people together.
“In a world that seems to be growing more intolerant each day,” Alexander said, “I truly believe that engaging in the arts is crucial to the survival of humanity.”
Leigh Silverman, the director of Soft Power, David Henry Hwang’s newest work, created in collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori, took the stage next. Silverman, among her compliments for Hwang, called him a “structural anarchist, a demon of language, and he loves to redefine what he can do, what he is known for.” Alyse Alan Louis and Billy Bustamante, cast members who were with Soft Power both at its premiere in Los Angeles and its New York run at the Public, then performed “Happy Enough” from Soft Power.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public Theater, introduced Hwang. This was fitting, as Hwang’s first play, FOB, was produced by the Public in 1980 and subsequently published by TCG. Both Eustis and, earlier in the evening, Eyring, fondly recalled a nearly 40-year relationship with the playwright.
Hwang returned the fond feelings in his acceptance speech. “I want to recognize my fellow artists along the way who told their stories without expectation about where their hard work and passion would lead, but simply because these stories had to be told,” he said. Hwang continued, emphasizing the importance of the convergence of young artists who tell their stories without knowing what may come of them with allies and supporters who decide to lift those voices up. “This is how artistic movements grow.”
After Hwang’s speech, Jackson again took the stage as gala guests were treated to a special performance of “Solo,” a beautiful song Hwang wrote with Prince (yes, you read that right). Eyring then again took the stage for her closing remarks, but not before surprising guests with one final performance. The trio of Jackson, Louis, and Bustamante took the stage one last time to remind everyone on a night celebrating art and artists who inspire those around them, ours can still be “a wonderful world.”