Obies 2009: A Report from This Year's Ceremony, Or Am I at the Negrobie Awards?

Shakespeare in his underwear

Maybe Obamamania overtook the Obie committee this year. Perhaps it grabbed hold of downtown theater's artistic directors as they programmed during the election run-up. But no way in the award's 54-year history have there been as many black Obie winners as took the stage on Monday night at Webster Hall. Am I at the Negrobie awards? I wondered. Did they ask me to write this year's rundown because I'm black? Am I going to get an Obie? For real, the Obie judges went cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs in '09—they even gave $3,333 to two white folks just for naming their theater the Chocolate Factory. Black was definitely the new black. Lynn Nottage's recently Pulitzered rape-in-the-war-torn-Congo play Ruined set the pace, garnering three acting awards and a fourth laurel for the playwright, who thanked the African women she interviewed for giving her harrowing story its backbone: "These women wanted the world to know that they exist," Nottage said. So now they've got Off-Broadway covered.

Eighty-two-year-old Lifetime Achievement Award winner—and, yes, a brutha—Earle Hyman (a/k/a Papa Huxtable) was practically lifted out of his wheelchair up the stairs to accept his award from Anne Hathaway. In a brilliantly rambling theatrical gush, he gave shout-outs to everyone from Rose McClendon to Barack to Stepin Fetchit; walked us through his entire literacy narrative, including his boyhood habit of reading Shakespeare in his underwear; then praised Hathaway for playing a Michelle Williams role (unintentional payback to Caucasians for mixing up black actors?). "To be an actor," he growled, "is the most glorious thing in the world!"

But the Afrothon had only begun. Actor Kevin T. Carroll's sustained excellence earned a plaque; Francois Battiste took one home for playing a bad negro in The Good Negro and thanked his parents for abusing him; and Sahr Ngaujah, who played badass African musician Fela Kuti in Fela!, told a tale about Zeus encouraging people to throw themselves off cliffs. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James echoed Hyman's astonishment over Obama when she nabbed her Obie—"I knew it would happen," she said, "I just didn't know I'd be alive to see it." The Classical Theatre of Harlem got an award (despite non-black artistic directors—whoopsie!), and John Douglas Thompson's portrayal of Othello continued the advancement of colored people.

The panel did smile upon those of a paler shade as well; apparently unable to remember the names of any other white people, they crowned Stephen Sondheim for Road Show. Another Obie went to David Cromer for directing Our Town, the Raisin in the Sun of white America—was this stereotyping? Along with adorably geeky man of color Daniel Breaker (of Passing Strange fame), brassy white co-host Martha Plimpton thanked Webster Hall for "the loss of my virginity and finding out what cocaine was." In the evening's oddest reversal, she had to scold a rowdy gang of drunken Caucasians in the back of the room who kept chatting through all the (rather long and emotional) acceptance speeches about community, collaboration, teamwork, and, occasionally, God. We knew it would happen someday, we just didn't know we'd be alive to see it. Good luck next year to the Asians.

 
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