If the 2023 Helen Hayes Awards had a message, it is that one language is no longer enough to convey the myriad of lived experiences in our community. American theaters have been slowly inching toward more diverse and inclusive programming for a few years now, but rarely does that stretch so far as to include stories told in a language other than English.
The outsized number of awards going to GALA Hispanic Theatre’s Spanish-language productions and Olney Theatre Center’s bilingual English/American Sign Language production of The Music Man demonstrate that if a story is told well, DC audiences will happily step out of their comfort zones for it. A Spanish-language production? ¡No hay problema! A leading man performing in sign language? DC audiences are here for it.
Monday night’s event — written and directed by Will Gartshore and co-directed by Holly Twyford — was held at The Anthem and was the first in-person ceremony since 2019 and a chance for local artists to gather for what some refer to as “DC’s Tony Awards” and others cheekily call “theater prom.” The evening went on in spite of the devastating loss of GALA’s founding artistic director Hugo Medrano just hours before that theater became the night’s big winner, taking home 11 trophies, 9 for On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan ¡En español! Medrano’s presence was felt throughout the evening, starting with host Naomi Jacobson’s introductory speech that honored his legacy as the region’s longest-serving artistic director and ending with the creative team of On Your Feet! accepting the award for Outstanding Production (musical, Helen) with a resounding cry of ¡Que Viva Hugo!
The success of On Your Feet! and The Music Man is encouraging because it demonstrates that local audiences — and Helen Hayes voters — have an appetite for stories about people whose lived experiences — and methods of expressing those experiences — are different from their own. But also… these shows just slapped. On Your Feet! director/choreographer Luis Salgado’s production burns with intensity, and the national attention given to Olney’s The Music Man proves they know how to put on a show. As do the other big winners of the night: Signature Theatre’s The Color Purple, a revival bursting with homegrown talent, and Studio Theatre’s John Proctor Is the Villain, playwright Kimberly Bellflower’s kick-ass modern coming-of-age story. This is theater that sets your soul ablaze.
Here are my top ten memorable moments from this year’s Helen Hayes Awards:
1 Patrick Lord and Jared Mezzocchi taking home the inaugural Helen Hayes Award honoring Outstanding Media/Projections Design for their work on GALA’s On Your Feet! (Lord) and Round House’s we declare you a terrorist… (Mezzocchi). The fact that Lord and Mezzocchi, local innovators with national reputations as projection-design advocates, were honored with this recognition along with the other talented nominees in the category deserves a round of applause.
2 Director Timothy Douglas accepting the Outstanding Production Award (musical, Hayes) for The Color Purple and reminding us that the theater made in 2022 was created in the wake of the biggest seismic shift to ever hit the theater world. Douglas’ speech rang like a salute to all the artists who were determined to resume their craft while processing COVID, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the numerous leadership changes (some of them hostile and toxic) that rocked (and continue to rock) the DC theater community.
3 Actor James Caverly (of Only Murders in the Building fame) and the ensemble of Olney Theatre’s The Music Man accepting their awards for Outstanding Performer and Outstanding Ensemble (musical, Hayes). Through sign language and English interpretation, Caverly noted that he performed the notoriously upbeat role of Harold Hill at one of the roughest moments in his life, just weeks after his father passed away. Performer Amelia Hensley then encouraged theater makers to consider more productions featuring Deaf and hard-of-hearing talent and increase accessibility to all shows going forward.
4 Host Michael Urie’s running gag with fellow host Holly Twyford about Urie not having a Helen Hayes Award. While Urie has an Obie Award and Teen Choice and Screen Actor’s Guild nominations (he has also hosted the Drama Desk Awards more than once), the Ugly Betty alum has received nary a single Helen Hayes nomination for his headline-catching lead roles in Hamlet, Jane Anger, and Spamalot. And let’s be clear: DC has basically claimed Urie as one of our own. Or, as he quipped onstage, “I’m now as DC as cherry blossoms in spring!” Someone give this man a Helen Hayes Award, stat!
5 Raymond O. Caldwell and Adrienne Torf’s beautiful speech upon accepting the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical Adaptation (play, Helen) for Theater Alliance and IN Series’ production of Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience. In their poignant speech, the co-creators asked us to consider who will carry an artist’s message forward when they pass? Luckily for us, Caldwell and Torf did just that with June Jordan’s work.
Similarly, (I’m cheating so this still counts as number five): The witty banter between co-writers Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller as they accepted the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical: “At a time when antisemitism and racism are growing at an alarming rate, to be able to win this award for telling this story that love overcomes all obstacles is the best thing that could ever happen… I love you so much! No, I love you so much!” (Insert Secka and Stoller’s voices interchangeably throughout this exchange as they giddily express their appreciation for each other.) No wonder they tell award-winning stories together!
6 Michael Windsor and Yaritza Pacheco discussing what happened to the dozens of second-hand sofas from thrift stores across the DMV that netted them the Outstanding Set Design Award (musical, Helen) for their intimate interpretation of tick, tick… BOOM! Audiences for that show enjoyed the immersive production on those cozy couches as the three-member cast performed all around them… and sometimes in their laps. It’s good to know the sofas have moved on to good homes.
7 Michael Innocenti accepting the Outstanding Ensemble Award for Keegan Theatre’s The Outsider (play, Helen) and thanking the Washington Post “for not coming to review our show so that they could write their 100th article on the revival of Into the Woods.” Innocenti’s observation hones in on the stark financial conditions of the publishing industry that are leading to a decline in local arts coverage by many (most) publications across the city. Sigh…
8 Jaucqir LaFond receiving the Outstanding Lead Performer Award (play, Helen) for his performance in Perisphere Theater’s Blue Door. We Stan an outstanding performer from a very small theater company getting recognized with a big old award. In his speech, LaFond noted that the last time he was at The Anthem he was working as an usher. How’s that for a glow-up?
9 Synetic Theatre’s artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili accepting the Outstanding Production Award (play, Helen) for Host and Guest reminding us that when he moved to Washington, DC, from the Republic of Georgia, conditions there were similar to those now in Ukraine. “Synetic Theatre has allowed me to live the American dream,” Tsikurishvili announced before closing his speech with a rousing Slava Ukraini!
10 But the most bittersweet story from this year’s Helen Hayes Awards is the passing of Hugo Medrano just hours before his work at GALA was recognized as some of the best in the industry. Hugo Medrano and GALA have done amazing, groundbreaking work over the past 40 years, opening doors for hundreds of Latinx artists. My hope is that the American theater community rallies around GALA at this time because, I promise you, their next chapter is going to be stupendous. Let Medrano’s legacy be that his work was only the beginning. As On Your Feet’s creative team shouted upon accepting the award for Oustanding Production: ¡Que viva Hugo!… long live Hugo.
What moment sticks out to you from this year’s awards? Share in comments!
The 2023 Helen Hayes Awards took place on Monday, May 22, 2023, at The Anthem, 901 Wharf Street SW, Washington, DC.
Theatre Washington celebrates 2023 Helen Hayes Awards (news story, May 23, 2023)
What to expect at this year’s Helen Hayes Awards (feature by Nicole Hertvik, May 3, 2023)