The television star Dulé Hill, known for his work on The West Wing, Psych, and Suits, is now a Philadelphia Barrymore winner, too.
At Monday night's 2018 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Hill was one of two honorees for outstanding leading performance in a musical for his title role in Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole at People's Light in Malvern.
Hill, who was not present for the awards ceremony at the Bok, a coworking space at Ninth and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia, was the biggest name among the winners as the "Philadelphia Tonys" handed out awards in revamped, gender-aware categories. The night's other award for leading performance in a musical went to Jamar Williams for Passing Strange at the Wilma Theater.
Stung by criticism that the 2017 awards lacked diversity, Theatre Philadelphia, keeper of the Barrymores, redesigned them, making them gender-inclusive. Instead of going to one winning man and one winning woman, each of the four main acting categories had awards given out to two winners apiece, without reference to gender. The hope was to open the awards up to different combinations of male, female, and gender-nonconforming winners. A rowdy crowd estimated at 700 had to be instructed "to wait until both winners' names are called before cheering." They seldom did.
Awards for outstanding leading performance in a play went to Melanye Finister for Skeleton Crew at People's Light and Scott Greer for Every Brilliant Thing at the Arden Theatre Company, a production so popular it is playing again – and once again has been extended well into December.
The hardware for outstanding supporting performances in a play went to Tina Brock for By the Bog of Cats by the Irish Heritage Theatre, and to Akeem Davis for the Arden's production of A Doll's House.
Supporting performance awards for a musical went to Kim Carson for her much-praised turn as Helen, the mother in Fun Home at the Arden, and to Daniel J. Watts, who played Sammy Davis Jr. in Lights Out. After the award, Watts said, "I'd never even heard of Malvern [where People's Light is located] until I heard about the chance to do this show." Asked about working with Hill, with whom he traded some blazing tap-dance routines, he said: "I'm going to get to do it again when the show plays next year at the Geffen [Playhouse] in Los Angeles."
Outstanding overall production of a play went to Morning's at Seven, the relaunch of Paul Osborn's 1939 play at People's Light. Writing for the Inquirer, reviewer Jim Rutter called it "delightfully charming" and full of "magnificent performances."
Outstanding musical went to Fun Home at the Arden, which Toby Zinman, also writing for the Inquirer, called "lovely" and "profound."
And the Independence Foundation Award for outstanding new play or musical went to playwright Emma Goidel's The Gap by Azuka Theatre.
>> See full list of winners at the bottom of this story.
People's Light garnered the most awards with eight, followed by the Arden with seven, and the Wilma with three. The most-honored productions were Arden's Fun Home with five, People's Light's Morning's at Seven with four, and Lights Out with three.
The choice of the Bok as the venue moved the awards out of Center City. As actor Robi Hager said during the show's opener, "This is the first time we get to bring the party to South Philly." It also ensured that the awards show and pre- and post-show parties all happened in the same place.
The word for the night was inclusive.
That watchword was loud and clear in the stage show Monday night, directed by Steve Pacek and associate director Elaina Di Monaco. Presenters were of all descriptions, across many aspects of theater, from house manager Javier Mojica to photographer/actor Kate Raines. Backed by the presenters as chorus, Hager and Alex Keiper sang an opening medley. Keiper brought down the house with her ad-lib plea, "Please vote," the first of several such calls during the show.
An especially warm roar greeted news that the June and Steve Wolfson Award for Evolving Theatre Company had gone to the popular physical theater company Tribe of Fools, creators of the much-praised satire Fishtown – A Hipster Noir. The Tribe gets $10,000 and five finalists get $1,000 each.
After the award, the Tribe's artistic director, Terry Brennan, wearing his traditional Barrymores black dress, said, "I was terrified we were going to win, and then … we did!" After a few more awards were presented, a medley broke out, featuring performers from each of the best-of nominees for musicals, a brimming melting pot of Philly-area theatrical talent.
The show aside, did the awards achieve the hoped-for diversity?
This year's nominees were indeed more diverse. And, at least in terms of male/female balance and race, winners did show diversity. Among the eight acting award winners, for example, were a black woman, a white man, two white women, and four black men. Six were first-time winners.
As for philanthropic awards, the coveted Otto F. Haas Award for an emerging Philadelphia artist went to Taysha Marie Canales. She gets $15,000, and the other four finalists – Jessica Bedford, Jaylene Clark Owens, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, and Lee Minora – each get $2,000. Canales is the fiancée of Davis, who in addition to this year's outstanding performance award won the Haas in 2015. (Accepting his award on Monday night, Davis told the audience, "I love my fiancée!")
The lifetime achievement award went to Paul Meshejian, cofounder of PlayPenn, the play-development workshop that has helped send more than 100 new plays into the world, including the Tony-winning Oslo by J.T. Rogers.
The Brown Martin Philadelphia Award, for work promoting community connection and understanding, gave $25,000 to two winning productions – Arden's Fun Home and the InterAct Theatre Company's Human Rites – and $2,500 to four other finalists. The Victory Foundation Award for outstanding theater education program gave $10,000 to the Wilma's Wilmagination and $2,500 to five finalists.
The Barrymore "award year" ran from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018. The ranks of the 70-plus Barrymore recommenders had been made more female and diverse, and the 14 judges included a couple more women. The nominators attended plays and musicals and sent recommendations to the judges. According to Theatre Philadelphia tallies, 112 productions at 40 companies were eligible, of which 10 companies won awards, for 11 productions.