The 2016 Barrymore Awards for theatrical excellence always begin with cheering, but this time erupted with the roar of hip-hop Monday at the Merriam Theatre - in what was clearly a year for the outsiders.
The theater company names were familiar from past years, but the 103 productions eligible for the awards displayed a range of faces, music, and high heels, indicating just how far the theatrical net had been cast. The first winner, Jaylene Clark Owens, the supporting actress from the Wilma Theatre's An Octoroon, gave her speech as a rhymed rap.
The prestigious F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging Philadelphia Theatre artist went to Bi Jean Ngo, founding member of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists and the daughter of parents who fled Saigon in 1975 on boats. Spouses always receive thanks during acceptance speeches, but none were more effusive than that of author R. Eric Thomas for his husband when receiving the outstanding new play award for Time Is on Our Side, about Philadelphia's gay history. The show also won the Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award.
No heels were higher than the four-inch-plus platform shoes worn by John Jarboe, artistic director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, who was at the Barrymores for the first time representing Andy: A Popera, produced in conjunction with an also-unlikely outsider, Opera Philadelphia. Scott McPheeters won the leading actor in a musical award as the transgender Warholite Candy Darling, while Malgorzata Kasprzycka won for supporting actress in a musical playing Andy Warhol's mother.
"Awards make me feel funny inside," said choreographer Jenn Rose, who won for Black Nativity and whose acceptance speech was partly in the form of a street-style dance.
Among theater companies, the top winner was Theatre Exile, which garnered five awards for The Invisible Hand, an Ayad Akhtar play that, in keeping with the company's history of no-comfort-zone subject matter, concerned an American banker held for ransom by radical Muslims in Pakistan, with reversed sympathies in a collision of religious and economic ideals. The play won for overall production of a play, director Matt Pfeiffer, leading actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, supporting actor J. Paul Nicholas, and sound designer Michael Kiley.
Luck is always part of winning awards, though Exile's producing artistic director, Deborah Block, admitted that a company whose mandate is to push boundaries is just as likely to come up short. As for the volatile subject matter of The Invisible Hand, she said its primary strength was not telling audiences what to think.
"You don't do this for awards," said Kevin Glaccum, producing artistic director of Azuka Theatre, which won the June and Steve Wolfson Award for an evolving theater company. "Nobody makes enough money at this."
But the awards are a particular boon for attracting audiences to Norristown's Theatre Horizon, which had three wins for Black Nativity, a loosely scripted Langston Hughes creation that sets the Christmas story in Africa, though this one was set partly in post-Katrina New Orleans. Awards went to Rose, the ensemble, and music director Will Brock.
"We live in a complex society, and theater is an important place to work out its changing values," said Erin Reilly, Theatre Horizon artistic director. Producing Black Nativity was a must for her, she said, in a Montgomery County community that is 40 percent African American.
A more unconventional win went to Ashley Izard, named outstanding leading actress in a play for the Quintessence Theatre Group production of Samuel Beckett's absurdist Happy Days, in which her character was buried up to her waist. "Surreal" was her reaction, without a hint of irony.
Not that tradition was shunted aside. The Secret Garden, a long-popular story of an orphaned girl resettling in Yorkshire, was acclaimed for eloquent use of video, and was named for outstanding overall production of a musical at the Arden Theatre. Also, Arden's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales won an award for Matthew Decker for outstanding direction of a musical.
Jennifer Childs won best actress in a musical for a role she wrote for herself, in 1812 Productions' I Will Not Go Gently, about an aging rock star named Sierra Mist who is on an often-embarrassing comeback tour. The 11th Hour Theatre's production of the ambitious See What I Wanna See won Jake Blouch the trophy for outstanding supporting actor in a musical.
People's Light won two design awards, for Auctioning the Ainsleys for scenic design and Sense and Sensibility for costume design, while the Philadelphia Artists' Collective won for outstanding original music in He Who Gets Slapped.
After 35 years of running the Philadelphia Theatre Company and presenting major new works by Terrence McNally and Anna Deavere Smith, Sara Garonzik was given the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award. She estimated that she had spent about 15,000 hours in darkened auditoriums, and had to admit that the community seems to be best when struggling. "What is right about us?" she asked. "We don't stop and we don't fail."
Production of a Musical: The Secret Garden (Arden Theatre Company).
Supporting Actor in a Play: J. Paul Nicholas, The Invisible Hand (Theatre Exile).
Music Direction: Will Brock, Black Nativity (Theatre Horizon).