Two productions that delve into the black American experience are top winners this year of the Barrymore Awards honoring excellence in the Philadelphia region’s professional theaters.
Arden Theatre Company’s bold staging this past winter of August Wilson’s intense and spiritual “Gem of the Ocean” won the Barrymore for the best production of a play. Theatre Horizon in Norristown won for best production of a musical for its luminous staging of “The Color Purple,” adapted from Alice Walker’s now-classic novel about a young black woman whose struggles to survive in the deep South pay off.
At a ceremony Monday night with musical numbers, plus a band, about 650 theater artists and supporters celebrated work that helps to sell more than a million tickets a year in the region. For the second year, the event and an after-party were held at the renovated Bok in South Philadelphia, formerly a public vocational school and now a home to artisans, businesses, restaurants and entrepreneurs.
“Gem of the Ocean,” one of Wilson’s celebrated cycle of 10 plays set in Pittsburgh, takes place when people freed from enslavement were moving into the center of the city’s black community in 1904.
The Arden production had received Barrymore nominations in 11 of the awards’ 20 artistic categories — the most for any show this year. It won eight of them, the most for any show cited Monday night.
In addition to best play production, James Ijames, a busy theater artist who acts, writes and directs in the city and elsewhere, won for his direction of “Gem of the Ocean” and the entire cast was cited as best ensemble in a play. The play swept the Barrymore’s design awards: Thom Weaver won in both the scenery and lighting categories, Levonne D. Lindsay for the costumes and Daniel Ison for the play’s sound.
Two “Gem of the Ocean’ cast members — Danielle Leneé and Brian Anthony Wilson — won as best supporting actors in a play. For Wilson, a locally-based African American actor whose commanding presence has been a fixture in all sorts of plays over the years, it was an especially thrilling evening. The last time he was nominated was 25 years ago, at the first Barrymore Award celebration. A quarter-century later, the award for “Gem of the Ocean” was his.
Theatre Horizon’s “The Color Purple” won in six of the nine categories for which it was nominated. In addition to the show’s award for best musical production, the actress, director and writer Amina Robinson took home the best musical director Barrymore. She becomes the first black woman to win a Barrymore for her directing, at a time when more people of color and more women are taking the helm of shows as directors here and elsewhere. At the same time, more stage works are being written about the experiences of black Americans, women, and people in the LBGTQ community. Monday night, the acceptance speeches for awards in many categories came from artists of color.
In other awards for “The Color Purple,” the show’s cast won as best ensemble in a musical. Amanda Morton won for her musical direction, Jessica Johnson won as best lead musical performer and Ebony Pullum for her supporting portrayal; they played Celie and Shug Avery, respectively. The show also won a seventh prize, not part of the performance or stagecraft nominations: the $25,000 Brown Martin Philadelphia Award, for a production that demonstrates the ability of theater to shed light on community issues and promote understanding. The prize is one of four Barrymore cash awards supported by philanthropies and totaling more than $92,000.
Theatre Philadelphia, the umbrella group for stage companies that administers the Barrymores, has ditched gender-based “best actor” and “best actress” awards for leading and supporting performers. Instead, two Barrymore awards are given for performers in each of those categories for plays and musicals, with no gender distinction in the voting by a volunteer team of 76 nominators and 12 judges.
As a result, the best-musical-performer Barrymore was also won by Sarah Gliko for her role in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “The Bridges of Madison County.” Brett Ashley Robinson won an outstanding supporting performer award for her portrayal in Lightning Rod Special’s “The Appointment.”
In addition to the performers already mentioned, the awards for best performers in a play went to Brandi Burgess in Simpatico Theatre’s “Cry It Out” and Justin Jain in InterAct Theatre’s “The Great Leap.”
In a new category this year – outstanding outdoor theater production – the Bearded Ladies Cabaret won for “Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes,” about Walt Whitman. It first played outdoors at the Cherry Street Pier on the Delaware River, then moved indoors at New York’s La Mama.
That pier is also home to Sharif Pendleton’s Philadelphia Laser and Industrial Design, where Pendleton had created and hand-made the Barrymore Awards that were presented Monday night. Previously, awards were medallions. This year, Theatre Philadelphia executive director Leigh Goldenberg commissioned Pendleton for something different.
His design is a 9-inch-high rectangular award made of several pieces of wood to resemble a cityscape of buildings and topped with an aqua-colored block made from resin. Because Pendleton makes each of the awards, no two are precisely the same.
Philadelphia-based playwright Emily Acker won the Barrymore for best new play for “Boycott Esther,” produced by Azuka Theatre. The Weinstein Co. had hired Acker in 2016 to write a TV pilot. When the project was in its final stages, the news broke: Harvey Weinstein, head of the film and entertainment company, was a serial abuser and women were coming forward to call him out. Acker’s good fortune — to be hired for the project — was dashed. She was caught in the fallout, with many talents whose Weinstein Co. projects were killed or put on hold. Her experience is the basis for the play.
Two media designers, Sadah Espii Proctor and Carlos Del Castillo Aceves, won for their projections and video content that were integral to “Morir Sonyando,” a play about a Dominican family and domestic violence staged by Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company.
The Barrymore for original music went to Zak Berkman and Jesse Fisher for the People’s Light production “Such Things as Vampires.” Nicole Burgio and Ben Grinberg won for their choreography of “xoxo moongirl” from Almanac Dance Circus Theatre.
The $15,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging theater artist went to Jaylene Clark Owens, an actor and poet who is a member of Wilma Theatre’s resident HotHouse acting company and has appeared on several local stages. Clark is a Harlem native who now lives in Philadelphia. Theatre Horizon won the Victory Foundation’s $10,000 theater education award for its long-running drama program for students on the autism spectrum.
The $10,000 June and Steve Wolfson Award for an evolving theater company went to the provocative Lightning Rod Special, a Philadelphia-based creator and producer of works that, in a relatively short time, has garnered national recognition. (For the record, I am a judge on the committee for the Wolfson award.)
Three of the four cash Barrymore awards also award money to runners-up. One award recipient had already been announced: The playwright and teacher Ed Shockley, a founding member and former artistic director of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center, is this year’s recipient of the Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award.
Shockley has written more than 70 stage plays, radio plays and films, including the musical “Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues” and “Bobos,” which he co-wrote with James McBride.
Shockley, 60, whose work often plumbs African American themes, now adds the lifetime achievement award to others, including Stephen Sondheim Award for outstanding contributions to American musical theater and a $25,000 Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s worked closely with Philadelphia Young Playwrights and has taught at Temple University and the University of the Arts. He grew up in Philadelphia, played basketball for Columbia University, and after his graduation there went on to Temple for his master of fine arts degree.
Once again this year, the awards were skewed because the Walnut Street Theatre — the largest in audience and budgets and the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater — and Media Theatre, a producer of musicals in Delaware County, chose not to participate.
Theatre Philadelphia is calling this the 25th annual Barrymores although some people would call it the 24th because in 2013, only three cash awards and a lifetime achievement award were given. That year, the award’s management was in transition after its organizer, the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, folded. The Barrymores were fully up and running the next year.
This year’s Barrymores are for shows staged over the last theater season, which ended June 30 this year.
The 2019 Barrymore Award winners
- Outstanding Overall Production of a Play: “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical: “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon
- Outstanding New Play/Musical: “Boycott Esther” by Emily Acker, Azuka Theatre
- Outstanding Direction of a Play: James Ijames, “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Direction of a Musical: Amina Robinson, “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon
- Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play: Brandi Burgess, “Cry It Out,” Simpatico Theatre and Justin Jain, “The Great Leap,” InterAct Theatre Company
- Outstanding Leading Performance in a Musical: Sarah Gliko, “The Bridges of Madison County,” Philadelphia Theatre Company and Jessica Johnson, “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon
- Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Play: Danielle Leneé, “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company and Brian Anthony Wilson, “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Musical: Ebony Pullum, “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon and Brett Ashley Robinson, “The Appointment,” Lightning Rod Special
- Outstanding Scenic Design: Thom Weaver, “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Costume Design: LeVonne D. Lindsay, “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Lighting Design: Thom Weaver, “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Sound Design: Daniel Ison, Gem of the Ocean, Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Media Design: Sadah Espii Proctor, Carlos Del Castillo Aceves, “Morir Sonyando,” Passage Theatre Company
- Outstanding Original Music: Zak Berkman and Jessie Fisher, “Such Things As Vampires,” People’s Light
- Outstanding Choreography/Movement: Nicole Burgio and Ben Grinberg, “xoxo moongirl,” Almanac Dance Circus Theatre
- Outstanding Music Direction: Amanda Morton, “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon
- Outstanding Ensemble a Play: “Gem of the Ocean,” Arden Theatre Company
- Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical: “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon
- Outstanding Outdoor Theatre Production: “Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes,” Bearded Ladies Cabaret
- Lifetime Achievement Award: Playwright and educator Edgar J. Shockley 3d
- The Brown Martin Philadelphia Award ($25,000 to the winner, $2,500 to four finalists): “The Color Purple,” Theatre Horizon
- Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist ($15,000 to the winner, $2,000 to four finalists): Jaylene Clark Owens
- Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program ($10,000 to the winner, $2,500 to four finalists): Theatre Horizon’s Autism Drama Program
- June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company ($10,000 to the winner, $1,000 to four finalists): Lightning Rod Special