The inaugural Antonyo Awards chose the evening of Juneteenth to honor the work of Black theater artists on and off Broadway with a virtual celebration.
With the 2020 Tony Awards postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in the midst of a global uprising calling out the value of Black lives, the streaming event was a welcome moment to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of Black theater artists in a season that was cut short and put to bed with little fanfare.
“The Antonyo Awards seek to fill the gap between Black talent and public acknowledgement,” said Drew Shade, founder of Broadway Black, which presented the awards. “We uplift Black theater artists, because our lives matter and our art matters.”
Shade, an actor himself who hosted the event, started Broadway Black in 2012 to draw attention to the work of his peers. He suggested that the awards, which were voted on by fans, were less about competition than the spirit of community and celebration.
“This revolution will be broadcast,” he told viewers. “Tonight is for us.”
In the spirit of all great awards shows, the Antonyos kicked off with an opening number that struck a playful but sincere tone. After Sasha Allen, who appeared on Broadway in Hair, sang the Black National Anthem, an ensemble of performers delivered an original song composed by Allen René Louis.
The sunny mood you’d expect from such an intro was interrupted by a Get Out-style record scratch and real talk: “We tired of shuckin’ and jivin’,” said Nick Rashad Burroughs, who was performing in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical before the shutdown.
“We are trapped, shrunken, exploited, then cast aside,” sang the group, which included Zonya Johnson and Kim Exum, as well as Jonathan Burke, who appeared in The Inheritance. “We’re magic, and yet they want to keep us in a box.”
“Where’s the layered roles, the nuance, the heart, a comedy, a lighthearted theme?”
“They’re here—they just won’t make it to Broadway. Have you seen these creative teams?”
Shade offered encouragement and a sort of mantra for the night: “Don’t wait for their approval or validation, always remember you’re enough,” he sang.
Shade and his friend Dustin Ross came up with the idea for the Antonyos (a play on the Tonys’ full designation, the Antoinette Perry Awards) as a source of joy during quarantine. Planning had already begun when the resurgence of Black Lives Matter further fueled their mission.
Shade had originally thought to name the awards after Bert Williams and George Walker, pioneering vaudeville performers who resisted the stereotypical Black caricatures popular throughout the early twentieth century.
The producer also acknowledged that these aren’t the first awards dedicated to honor Black theater artists. The Audience Development Committee’s Vivian Robinson Recognition Awards (also known as Viv awards) have also been celebrating Black excellence in theater for 47 years, a tradition Shade said Broadway Black is honored to continue.
The Antonyos honored achievements in design, choreography, orchestrations, and more behind-the-scenes crafts, recognizing the work of Black artists not seen on stage.
Accepting the award for her hair and wig design of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf at the Public Theater, Nikiya Mathis said, “As I walk through, I open the door wider for the next Black girl and the next Black artist to walk through.”
For Colored Girls, the acclaimed choreopoem about Black womanhood, also won best revival, while best play went to Aziza Barnes for BLKS, about three millennial women rooming together in Brooklyn. Tina took home the award for best musical, and its star Adrienne Warren the award for best actor in a Broadway musical.
“I’m grateful to be a Black woman telling stories that I believe in,” Warren said. “If you see yourself within me, don’t wait for them to make a space for you at their table—you build that damn table yourself.”
While the acting awards distinguished between Broadway or off, they were not split by gender. “We have a Black trans woman on our team, Ianne Fields Stewart, and she is all about categories being gender inclusive and non-binary,” Shade explained to the Observer. “I think it sets an example, especially for the Black community, that we are inclusive of all people.”
Women were honored across nearly every acting category, including Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks for best actor in an off Broadway play, for Much Ado About Nothing at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. “This one is for the chocolate thick girls, you can be a romantic lead, too,” she said.
Audra McDonald was honored for her performance in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, playwright Terrence McNally’s final Broadway production. “It was just a joy to have Terrence in the room,” she told The Daily Beast in March after his death.
Michael Benjamin Washington, who was awarded for his solo performance in Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror at the Signature Theatre, spoke on the virtual red carpet about the significance of Black artists coming together for an event like the Antonyos. “The more we hold each other up, the stronger not only we’re going to become, but the next generation is going to see us holding each other up in a new way, and that’s what’s important.”
A lifetime achievement award was presented to Chuck Cooper, venerable Tony winner (and father to SpongeBob SquarePants actor Lilli Cooper). “There's a movement afoot that is doing what we strive to do in the theater, and that is to promote empathy,” he said. “My humble opinion is that empathy, collaboration, and love are what we need most. It is the social justice movement—young people out in the streets around the world—who are the vanguard of this important, vital work. I would like to give them my heartfelt and deepest thanks.”
Slade closed out the night with a few words of hope. “Although times are difficult and the future is uncertain, when theater doors are open again, together we’ll move forward and usher in a new era,” he said. “Know that this is just the beginning.”