NEW YORK CITY: The 65th annual Obie Awards were streamed on Tuesday, June 14th with recorded speeches and special performances. This annual celebration of the Off- and Off Off-Broadway community, co-presented by the American Theatre Wing and the Village Voice, is always a loud, raucous affair. It’s more party than presentation—and there’s always glitter and a bit of magic.
Last year the Obie Awards were held at Terminal 5, a multi-story concert venue that was filled with clanging glasses and whooping cheers. As the crowd spilled onto 56th Street after the show, a carriage horse driver offered me a ride to the subway 20 blocks south—the perfect ending to a night celebrating the magic of theatre and artists and New York City. Like, of course a horse would take me home from the Obies! This year, the Obie Awards organizers decided to give the money that would have been spent on the in-person event to artists who lost work because of the pandemic. That too is pretty magical.
“Tonight it is my hope that the Obies will bring you joy and will remind you of all the magic that was made at hundreds of Off- and Off Off -Broadway venues all across New York City,” effused Heather Hitchens, president of the American Theatre Wing.
The awards committee also decided to delay the broadcast, which was set in early June, to acknowledge the nationwide protests taking place after the death of George Floyd. The 2020 judges behind this year’s event included Rachel Hauck (co-chair), Sam Pinkleton (co-chair), Michael Feingold (chair emeritus), David Barbour, Mark Barton, Camille A. Brown, David Greenspan, Jennifer Ikeda, David Mendizábal, Diep Tran, and Anne Washburn.
The ebullient comedian Cole Escola led viewers through the night with humor to celebrate “the tooth-achingly horniest talents of Off- and Off Off- Broadway.” The virtual platform allotted for multiple costume changes for the host, including a blue-sequins dress, denim overalls, a wimple, and even a velour number sans pants.
There are no nominations for the Obie Awards, so winners usually make their way to the stage for impromptu speeches. This year winners, though, were notified and recorded speeches for the broadcast—which cut the program’s time. The online show also allowed for real-time communication through the YouTube chat box, which served as an Obies cheering section. The recorded videos gave viewers an inside peek into the creative homes of artists. ”Bravo Tina Satter!! and the seal is iconic,” one viewer posted in response to Satter’s award for Is This a Room—and the stuffed seal featured in her acceptance speech.
YouTube also worked well for intimate performances. Michael R. Jackson’s “Memory Song” from A Strange Loop was interspersed with photographs of Jackson as a child. Shaina Taub took to her own piano to sing “Room,” an original song, as a tribute to remember theatre artists who died this past season.
It wasn’t the same, though, as bumping elbows and sharing hugs between speeches. “I’m going to admit to being a little bit sad to be receive this award like this this year,” conceded Tim Sanford, who received a Lifetime of Achievement Award. “You’re my community, you’re my friends and my trusted colleagues—so receiving this award is absolutely the dreamiest dream come true and the highest honor I can imagine. But receiving it like this, in a vacuum of streaming media, just robs me of the opportunity to share it with all of you—so many of you have had a direct and indirect hand in my life in the theatre.”
One of my favorite performances was the closing number, a sing-a-long of “Seasons of Love” led by Kenney M. Green and Adam Michael Tilford of Marie’s Crisis Café, the storied downtown piano bar. LaChanze and her daughter Celia Gooding joined in to bring the number home.
“The future of theatre is kinda up in the air, and for the people who make their living doing it, that is incredibly—as a wise person once put it—sucky,” said Escola to close out the evening. “While there is no set date for when theatre will come back, it will come back—we know it will come back. And when the time is right, we’ll put on show after show after show after show. And a lot of them will be fucking bad, very bad—but who cares, it will feel so fucking good to be doing it again. But we’ll get through it.”
This year’s Obie Awards, however, reflected a fucking good season cut short. Here is the complete list of winners:
Will Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Playwrights Horizons)
Michael R. Jackson, A Strange Loop (Playwrights Horizon, Page 73)
Haruna Lee, for the Conception and Writing of Suicide Forest (Ma-Yi Theater Company, Bushwick Starr)
JoAnne Akalaitis, MUD/Drowning (Mabou Mines, Weathervane Productions, The Days and Nights Festival)
Kenny Leon, Much Ado About Nothing (the Public Theater)
Whitney White, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord (WP Theater, Second Stage, by special arrangement with Benjamin Simpson and Joseph Longthorne)
Les Waters, Sustained Excellence in Direction
Camille A. Brown, Sustained Excellence in Choreography
Liza Colón-Zayas and Elizabeth Rodriguez, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater, LAByrinth Theater Company)
Emily Davis, Is This A Room (Vineyard Theatre)
Edmund Donovan, Greater Clements (Lincoln Center Theater)
April Matthis, Toni Stone (Roundabout Theatre)
Joe Ngo, Cambodian Rock Band (Signature Theatre)
Deirdre O’Connell, Dana H. (Vineyard Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group)
Yu-Hsuan Chen, Set Design, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord (WP Theater, Second Stage, by special arrangement with Benjamin Simpson and Joseph Longthorne)
Mikhail Fiksel, Sound Design, Dana H. (Vineyard Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group) and Cambodian Rock Band (Signature Theatre)
Andrea Hood, Costume Design with Public Works (the Public Theater)
Arnulfo Maldonado, Sustained Excellence in Set Design
Jen Schriever, Sustained Excellence in Lighting Design
Creative Team and Ensemble of Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Playwrights Horizons) Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott, Michele Pawk, Zoë Winters, John Zdrojeski (Ensemble), Laura Jellinek (Set Design), Sarafina Bush (Costume Design), Isabella Byrd (Lighting Design), Justin Ellington (Sound Design), Danya Taymor (Director)
Creative Team and Ensemble of A Strange Loop (Playwrights Horizons, Page 73)Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens, Jason Veasey, Elijah Caldwell (Ensemble), Stephen Brackett (Director), Raja Feather Kelly (Choreographer), Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Design), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Design), Jen Schriever (Lighting Design), Alex Hawthorn (Sound Design), Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design), Charlie Rosen (Orchestrations), Rona Siddiqui (Music Director), Michael R. Jackson (Vocal Arrangements)
David Cale, for the Writing and Performance of We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time (the Public Theater)
Dave Malloy, Or Matias, and Hidenori Nakajo for their collaboration on the Music and Sound of Octet (Signature Theatre)
David Neumann and Marcella Murray, for the Creation and Performance of Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed (Advanced Beginner Group, Abrons Arts Center, Chocolate Factory Theater, Mabou Mines)
Tina Satter, for the Conception and Direction of Is This A Room (Vineyard Theatre)
Alexandria Wailes, for Sustained Excellence as an Artist and Advocate
AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) for advocacy in the field of equity, diversity, and inclusion
Michael Feingold, for his Extraordinary Service to the Theater
National Black Theatre, for Sustained Excellence in Production and continued Advocacy on behalf of Black Artists
Page 73, for Providing Extraordinary Support for Early Career Playwrights
The Tank, for Providing Extraordinary Support for Emerging Artists