It began quietly enough: A receptionist strapped an all-access paper bracelet to my wrist. But access to what? The 2016 Obie awards, the annual celebration of the best Off-Broadway theater co-presented by the Voice and the American Theatre Wing, looked roughly the same as it had for all the years I’d been showing up. But there were signs that things were different, sleeker. In the funky main-floor lounge of Webster Hall, where there’d always been drinks and tempting platters of donated canapés around which conversation thrived, stood a huge step-and-repeat past which the host (the irrepressible Lea DeLaria), the talent (like Leslie Odom Jr.), and a few awardees (the glamorous Carmen de Lavallade) slowly proceeded, herded by official-looking PR guys in jackets and ear mics. A scrum of photographers and Web journalists stayed on their side of a line carefully marked with the names of media outlets.
Practically everybody in the room brandished a camera. One woman wielded what looked like a hand mirror Snow White’s mother might have used. “It’s a Twitter Mirror,” she said brightly — actually an iPad in a glittery frame, perfect for posting to Twitter and Instagram. A pretty blonde in an orange prison jumpsuit, Emily Althaus, muttered, “I wanna stop taking pictures and get into my actor head!” Where the food used to be sat pale-green beach balls bearing Obie logos.
Meanwhile, I was hungry. Where were the tables of hors d’oeuvres? “Upstairs,” a figure in black whispered. I climbed and climbed, flashing my pass, and finally found an inner sanctum full of folks in prison jumpsuits — the cast of Orange Is the New Black, warming up for the opening number in front of yet another step-and-repeat. Off to the side were trays of pork-belly tarts and guacamole cornets. An obliging cater-waiter handed me a coconut shrimp.
When you recruit Lea DeLaria to host your show, you get your money’s worth. The musical-comedy star, comedian, and OITNB actor brought eleven colleagues to perform “Obie Is the New Black,” a medley parodying classic showtunes, for which she also provided her own writing team. “I’m in for breaking and entering the fourth wall,” murmured a jumpsuited Kimiko Glenn (OITNB‘s Brook Soso), wandering down the aisle. DeLaria knocked off one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton raps. Another chorister rocked a Phantom mask. The ensemble formed a kick-line as DeLaria trumpeted, “Yass, bitches, yass, the Obie awards are streaming live, for those hundreds of thousands of high school theater queens” following along at home. “Do not fuck with this big fat dyke,” she admonished those who might win and make rambling speeches. “Keep it short and stumpy, like Donald Trump’s fingers.”
A fashion theme emerged among the awardees: black lace adorned with sparkles and spangles. De Lavallade wore it, as did Kaye Voyce (sustained achievement in costume design) and Emily Donahoe (performance in The Christians) and Saycon Sengbloh of the Eclipsed cast. Danai Gurira, author of Eclipsed, who presented Obies to her show’s posse of fabulous women, had the best spangles: yellow paillettes on a halter top, over a shapely pink skirt.
Two Obie-winning shows, Eclipsed and The Humans, transferred this season from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way. Jayne Houdyshell, recognized for her role in The Humans, observed that its cast has “taught each other the meaning of Thanksgiving.” A veteran of 42 years on American stages, she said she’d told that cast, who learned they were going to Broadway on opening night of the original Roundabout/Laura Pels production, “Remember this — it never happens this way.”
Lifetime Achievement winner A.R. Gurney told us, “The best thing to write is a play, because you can create a real sense of community.” Bray Poor, meanwhile, accepting his Obie for sustained excellence of sound design, took a moment to philosophize. “Being married is like being in a bag of rocks,” he said. “The jagged rocks bump up against each other, smooth each other, until they’re more like stones.” He thanked his many colleagues “for hanging out in the bag with me,” a sentiment he repeated when the creative team of John received a special citation for collaboration. Noah Mease, props guy on John, declared that his prize was only the second Obie ever awarded to a props person. “I’m hopeful for the future of props,” he said.
Collaboration and gratitude prevailed at this 61st iteration of the Obies; Michael Feingold, back where he belongs as chairman of the judges, even thanked the community’s dead, their photos projected as their names were invoked. De Lavallade noted that if it weren’t for Off-Broadway, we wouldn’t have Broadway.
A rowdy birthday celebration for DeLaria, by now wearing a burgundy tux, erupted halfway through; pals presented her with huge balloon animals and baptized her with confetti. Then came the awards carrying cash prizes: a grand to Rajiv Joseph for Best New American Play, Guards at the Taj, and a total of $15,000, desperately needed, to four emerging troupes. More gratitude; more thanksgiving. The ceremony ended with a barrage, from the balcony, of the Obie-logo beach balls.
[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]