BWW Feature: Inside the 2019 Helen Hayes Awards
Every year, hundreds of theatre artists and patrons gather to honor the work done on stage from the previous year. But just as important as getting the chance to acknowledge the craft of their peers are the many reunions that take place. Though the 35th Annual Helen Hayes Awards began at 7:30pm on May 13, the celebrating started much earlier as collaborators from productions both big and small started reuniting on the Waterfront, then quickly bled into The Anthem. This is the Helen Hayes' second year at The Anthem, and the general consensus seemed to be just what a good fit it was: spacious and beautiful, with a fast-moving security line and a highly professional staff. Things got underway quickly; after hosts Felicia Curry and Rick Hammerly provided a snappy intro, the winners of the 47 categories were unveiled in a timely fashion, though never at the expense of the acceptance speeches. The Helen Hayes are never a short show, but last night, they ended just a hair after 10:30pm, a relatively early end before the afterparty. These are theatre artists we're talking about - pacing is everything.
All the winners gave thoughtful, heartfelt speeches, but a few moments stood out above all others. The ensemble award winners, accepted by the ensembles as a whole, left lasting impressions, particularly the title characters of The Wolves at Studio Theatre and The Scottsboro Boys of Signaure Theatre. Though The Wolves closed their show over a year ago, it was though we were witnessing yet another of their soccer practices - they all gave one another the opportunity to speak as they thanked the entire creative team and urged theatremakers to tell stories about teenage girls with as much thoughtfulness as Sarah DeLappe's play. In one of the most touching moments of recent Helen Hayes, their speech ended with the chant that ends the play: a huddle, and a slow build of "We are The Wolves." Not all Scottsboro Boys were present, but in a particularly tight category, the emotion of the winners was practically tangible as Andre Hinds ended their speech with power and truth: "Black is beautiful."
The Helen Hayes often have winners who tie, and it happened several times last night, always to an excited "Ooh!" Though not every category with ties had both winners present, watching artists pridefully share that space with one another felt indicative of this community's givingness and grace. The speeches by Mary Myers and Tuyet Thi Pham, sharing the Helen for Best Supporting Actress in a Play, were equally powerful. Myers, winning for an all-female production of 45 Plays for 45 Presidents at NextStop Theatre Company, commended her cast mates and demanded theaters to hire them. Pham won for The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs at Spooky Action Theatre, and in one of the most applause-worthy moments at the awards, heard about her win as she arrived, humbly saying "I just came from work." Her speech was a reminder that, for most people in the room, the work is never over, and the support that came from the audience was palpable.
The centerpiece of the night was the speech by Jennifer L. Nelson, this year's Helen Hayes Tribute. Nelson's contributions as an actor, director, playwright, educator and activist are immeasurable in this community, and her sharp, thoughtful speech highlighted the importance of hiring women and artists of color in our theaters. It was indicative of a sentiment - and fact - oft repeated during the night: DC has the fastest-growing theatre community in the nation. We are made up of every kind of person there is and then some. Our story is not one thing or another: it's made up of all of us. So, if you're reading this and you're an artist, or a theatre journalist, or - most likely - an audience member, I urge you to seek out storytellers who are not yourself. This world only grows when we learn what lies beyond our own experience. Hire women and artists of color and queer artists and trans artists and nonbinary artists and artists of all abilities. Go see their stories. Allow yourself to be changed. Tell others.
You can read the complete list of winners right here on Broadway World. This feature will be updated with pictures from the event as they become available. Special thanks to Liz O'Meara Goldberg.