In a Year of Turmoil, the Obies Reflect on Gender and Ethnicity


I’m a white male, old enough to collect Social Security if our Republican Congress doesn’t abolish it before next month. And this year, when the judges for the Obie awards had finished their last exhausting meeting, I cast my eye down the splendid list of winners we’d assembled, as the chairman of the committee is supposed to do, and I suddenly felt myself alone. Not deeply, frighteningly alone, mind you. Not wholly alone. And certainly not isolated: Many of the winners were artists I had long admired. Some were personal acquaintances, friends, even colleagues.
But of white males, of my generation, there were few to none.

I felt a slight tremor of perturbation at this. Had we been unjustly neglecting some important school of works? In our eagerness to support the principle of diversity, had we leaned too far over, so that our principle became a bias? I ran through the season in my mind: shows I loved, shows I loathed, shows that brought me mixed feelings. A few in that last category sent up flags: a performance we might have honored (by an actor who has already won multiple Obies), a script that maybe should have weighed more heavily with us (by a writer who has amassed plenty of awards). It didn’t feel as though we’d made major omissions or glaring oversights. I looked over the list again. It felt right. It just felt…different.

That, I think, is the real story. We are living in a new time, and even an old historicist like me knows that you get no choice about the time in which you live. And those who love history as I do also know that we have built this time: There has never been a year when the Obies declined to honor artists because of their ethnicity or gender. This is our 60th anniversary, and the late Jerry Tallmer, who started the whole thing and whom we mourn this year, made sure it was diverse from the beginning: The very first guest judge, back in 1955–’56, was actor Earle Hyman (who garnered a Lifetime Achievement Obie a mere 53 years later). The first Off-Off entrepreneur to win an Obie was actress Julie Bovasso, for her performance in her self-produced, self-directed staging of Genet’s The Maids in an upstairs loft.

Since then much has altered; sensitivities have heightened; Off-Broadway has widened its realm as well as its spiritual breadth. “White male,” in the outside world, is still shorthand for “ruling class,” but in an urban aesthetic context, the playing field has been leveled, and people who, a few generations back, would have spent their whole lives in a struggle for recognition, now take their natural place in the forefront.

And if their natural place is in the forefront, what would be the point of denying it to them? I’m not entertaining any illusions. I know there are still large parts of America — including some areas of this very city — where the phrase “unarmed black teenager” means someone who is far more likely to be shot in the back by police than to have an important cultural career. In those areas, apparently, many white males, and some of their associated females, don’t want to believe that times have changed. The movement to turn the clock back has gathered force, with frightening persistence.

But we know better. That clock can’t be turned back, however bad a wrench the persistently delusional may give it. When we look at who we are and where we live, this year’s Obies supply a panorama of our collective identity. Hamilton conveys the turmoil of class and race in which this crazy country was born, and does so through its own freewheeling mix of ethnicities and dictions. The Invisible Hand locks us into the larger world system, where even those to whom we disclaim
all connection become part of ourselves. Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) carries the historical turmoil through the pivotal events that sawed our nation mentally in half. By the time it’s through demarcating the moral conflicts of the Civil War, talking dogs make much more sense than racism ever did.

I could go on. I could run through the list of winners item by item and show you the link I find in myself to each of them. But I haven’t got the space, and the list is published adjacent to this essay. You can find your own links. And maybe that’s the moral, not only for the Obie awards but for our traumatized and riven society as a whole: Find your own links. Stop pretending you’re not a part of this time. Learn what you’re living in, and how you’ve helped make it happen. If you can’t perceive that, you’ll be trapped in your petty resentment, which is not a good way to live.

That thought reminds me of something I particularly relish about this year: Two of the plays I most enjoyed, both of which are winning awards, are African-American works in which the authors have created key roles for white male actors — not stereotype “bad whitey” characters, but complex roles that invite (and got) deep, nuanced performances. Do I know some writers, of an ethnicity and generation different from mine, who have also had the sense to get well beyond petty resentment? Suddenly I don’t feel so alone anymore.