NEW YORK CITY: There was so much love in the room, it felt like an early Valentine’s Day at the Edison Hotel Ballroom on Monday, Jan. 9, where “Our Stories,” the 2023 gala of Theatre Communications Group, which publishes American Theatre, was held. The event not only raised a record $300,000 for the theatre support organization but also served as a sort of homecoming for theatre folks who have spent so much time apart these last few years. The group’s last in-person gala was held in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic altered the world as we knew it, when it honored playwright David Henry Hwang and the National Black Theatre Festival. TCG then hosted a virtual, pre-recorded gala ceremony honoring Ricardo Khan and the Performing Arts Alliance back in 2021, which also marked the organization’s 60th anniversary.
The 2023 Our Stories Gala was presented in honor of Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, in recognition of their contributions to the theatre field and their dedication to preserving the legacy of August Wilson. Just across the street from the Edison at the Barrymore Theatre is the hit revival of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, which Richardson Jackson directed and in which her husband Jackson is currently performing.
The event’s lineup of jazz-infused love songs, directed by Jerry Dixon, kicked off with a performance by Sidney DuPont, a Tony nominee for Paradise Square, who served up a steaming hot rendition of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away,” with a side of Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By,” accompanied by Dionne Hendricks on the ivories. As is the case with the best kind of comfort food, the crowd was hungry for more, and the sentimental set list seemed like a fitting tribute to such a dynamic power couple as Sam and LaTanya.
The gala’s co-chairs—lead Piano Lesson producer Brian Anthony Moreland and Rick Miramontez, president of the Broadway publicity firm DKC/O&M—offered opening remarks. Noting that it’s “easy to get a crowd to turn out for LaTanya and Samuel L. Jackson,” they celebrated The Piano Lesson’s success as both this season’s highest-grossing play revival and August Wilson’s highest-grossing Broadway title to date.
TCG executive director and CEO Teresa Eyring then spoke, marking the Monday as momentous not only because it featured the company’s first in-person gala in three years, but also its first in-office board meeting earlier that day since early 2020. From its humble beginnings supporting a handful of theatres in 1961, TCG has grown, as Eyring described it, into a national organization that now serves more than 700 Member Theatres and affiliate organizations and over 7,000 Individual Members. Even amid and after the field’s recent years of challenges, “We never gave up on theatre,” she said.
TCG isn’t the only organization that has tended the flame of arts support, Eyring noted. With the help of Congress’s year-end funding deal, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities will both receive $27 million increases for an FY23 budget of $207 million each. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s Title-IV funding, which has been used to support arts education, will receive $1.38 billion, an increase of $100 million over its current allocation, while the Arts in Education program fund will receive a continued funding level of $36.5 million.
The gala also provided an opportunity to support TCG’s One Million Books Campaign, which aims to make even more of the plays TCG publishes available to readers in schools, universities, public libraries, independent bookstores, and beyond. As North America’s largest independent trade publisher of dramatic literature, TCG Books is responsible for canonizing the printed works of such playwrights as Tony Kushner, Dominique Morriseau, Lynn Nottage, and Paula Vogel, including the publication of August Wilson’s entire American Century Cycle collection.
With an introduction by Vanessa Williams, honoree LaTanya Richardson Jackson accepted the gala award on her own behalf as well as her husband’s. She emphasized that making theatre requires teamwork, saying, “It’s a collaboration from the front door to the back door to the basement downstairs,” and, with an appreciative nod to TCG’s One Million Books Campaign, encouraged gala attendees to “bring your masks across the street to the Barrymore to see The Piano Lesson before all the books are banned.” Samuel L. Jackson was present for a photo opportunity but not for the ceremony itself, due to COVID precautions necessitated by his role in the Piano Lesson‘s ongoing run. The Jacksons showed up in another way: They made a $25,000 donation to TCG.
Though the presentation of a big check is inevitably a tough act to follow, Hadestown’s Lillias White positively filled the house with her renditions a la Betty Carter of “The Man I Love” and “Love Dance,” accompanied by the impassioned jazz stylings of Mathis Picard on piano. White’s sequin floral jacket was a theatrical moment in itself.
This performance then gave way to a heartfelt acknowledgment of the One Million Books Campaign, presented by Nikkole Salter, TCG board chair and department chair of theatre arts for Howard University’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, and Keith Arthur Bolden, actor and associate professor of theatre and performance at Spelman College. Each spoke about the tremendous learning opportunity provided by a library equipped with works by diverse playwrights. From the task of finding a monologue that puts authenticity directly on the page to the joy of connecting with a scene on a personal level, a widely stocked library allows students to study the full extent of the vast and varied field of theatre.
Bolden further expressed gratitude for the honorees’ continued support for the country’s HBCUs, which stretches back to the 1970s, when Richardson Jackson and Jackson both performed with the Morehouse Spelman Players on Spelman’s stage. The couple has also made a $5 million donation to fund the renovation of Spelman’s John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts Building, which will house the LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson Performing Arts Center.
The festivities continued with the fundraising and silent auction portions of the evening, hosted by TCG board member Harold Steward, executive director and cultural strategist for Boston’s The Theatre Offensive and self-proclaimed sex siren (he had heels to show for it). Gala attendees had the opportunity to bid for a complete collection of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, with five undisclosed copies signed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson. The book-bidding, along with Text-to-Give donations, garnered a total of in-room fundraising that exceeded $50,000.
Alex Newell, cast member of the new musical Shucked, gave the final performance of the night, and, accompanied by Dionne Hendricks, brought us “Home.” An apt choice, given The Wiz revival slated for 2024. Can’t you feel a brand new day?
Alli Pierson (she/her) is associate editor of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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