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Behind-the-Scenes: The Obies Were Our Favorite Part of Summer

As summer comes to a close we are looking back at one of our favorite days this season: the Obie Awards 2020. Finally, after two postponements, the Obie Awards streamed online on July 14th. The ceremony that recognizes Off- and Off-Off Broadway theatre was filmed and edited in advance. Judges considered shows that opened between May 1, 2019 and March 12, 2020 and winners were asked to record their acceptance speeches and to not share the news. This year the Obies were an exercise in adaptability and secrecy.

Artlab was very much looking forward to the night of the Obies. “I was actually excited when I was notified that the Obies were going virtual,” Meg Fofonoff, Artlab’s executive producer recalls. “They were one of the first big events to go virtual instead of cancelling. I was so glad we had something to look forward to. And I felt confident because it was the American Theatre Wing who was behind it all. They were bold to go virtual and I knew they would do it the right way.”

The Obies are more compact than other award shows and this is one of their strengths. Since there’s a smaller selection of productions to consider, the jury is able to see more shows. One may wonder, how come the Tony Awards’ postponement remains indefinite when they have the resources to launch an alternate production? Meg explained that the Tonys require more voters, and when all of this hit, voters were unable to see many of the shows that were opening later in the season. At the same time, the magnitude of the event has limitations on its transition to the virtual.

The Obies pay homage to alternative theater. “They highlight shows that take more risks in terms of content and messages,” says Meg when I asked about her impression of the event. “They are important because they are the new and the different. The young and the adventurous. They are the way of the future by telling stories that are often not addressed and by identifying provocative issues.” This ceremony is an opportunity to shed light on another layer of the work of theater.

Besides the creative content they showcase, the Obies are also unique in their format. For instance, they don’t use the term best to describe their awards. They don’t have strict categories, resulting in a freer format that can encompass more. “They truly celebrate the beginnings and the behind-the-scenes. I pay special attention to the playwright awards,” points out Meg during our conversation. “Often with awards, we look at shows solely as a final product. So I think it’s extremely relevant to recognize the writers and where it all begins.”

This year the ceremony was composed of numerous musical performances including a tribute to “Merrily We Roll Along,” musical excerpts from the winning shows, as well as opening and closing performances by the host, Cole Escola. In addition, the main ceremony was preceded by a two-part, live Pre-Show with special guests Saycon Sengbloh and N’Kenge in the first segment and LaChanze and Celia Rose Gooding in the second segment. As a member of the American Theatre Wing and a patron of the performing arts, Artlab had the opportunity to participate in the Obies Pre-Show. Both segments were hosted by Adam M. Tilford & Kenney M. Green in a Zoom-friendly version of the historic New York City piano bar, Marie’s Crisis Café.

Adam M. Tilford & Kenney M. Green in Marie’s Crisis Café.

The hosts had prepared songs requested in advance by the audience. And when Obie Award-Winner Saycon Sengbloh and pop-soul/opera sensation N’Kenge joined the show and settled in, the virtual floor was opened for questions and candid conversation with the artists. N’Kenge opened up about how she balanced her career and motherhood when she was in Mowton: The Musical. Saycon shared anecdotes of her friendship with N’Kenge, how meaningful the Obies have been in the development of her career, and also talked about her love for tea. To close the first segment of the Pre-Show, N’Kenge performed “Believe in Yourself” from the The Wiz and Saycon, who is in the upcoming film Respect, performed an Aretha Franklin song.

In the second part of the Pre-Show we had a few more song requests and sing-alongs before being joined by Tony and Obie Award-Winner LaChanze and her daughter Celia Rose Gooding, who stars on Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill. Prompted by queries from the audience, the mother-daughter duo talked about roles they would like to play. One of LaChanze’s dream roles is Mother of the Earth in Once on This Island, while Celia would love to play Donna Summer. “I have always dreamed of doing Gypsy with my daughter,” added LaChanze. “I think it’s time to do it with black actresses.” When asked about playing an “unlikely” role they both said Aaron Burr from Hamilton. “But also Fiddler on the Roof! Why not do a role reversal?” she exclaimed as she danced with her arms outstretched in the iconic manner of Tevye in “If I were a Rich Man.”

It goes unsaid that it was a pleasure for Artlab to participate in the Obies Pre-Show. Not only did it give us an excuse to dress up, but it was also refreshing and inspiring. Exactly what we needed this summer.

And of course, we can’t discuss the Obies without mentioning Cole Escola, who shone in his role as host. He threaded the ceremony together with his quick wit and humor. He embraced the moment we were in and honored the Obies. We were especially looking forward to the Obies since many other theatre events remain in suspense. Despite this year’s unique circumstances, it was important to keep the Obies, no matter what, because they provided the opportunity to honor productions that were prematurely closed, postponed, and cancelled altogether. They also reminded us that theatre will come back.

Like Cole said in his closing monologue, theatre has to come back (reasons among them being that many of us have no other skills).


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