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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

Unconcerned With Niceties, Aleshea Harris Rages Toward Success

The playwright Aleshea Harris knows the history. She understands the racism that fuels the self-protective impulse behind respectability politics — the idea that if members of a marginalized group behave impeccably, they won’t be oppressed.

She has a couple of problems with that strategy, though. First, it doesn’t work. Second, as a black artist, she needs to depict the complex humanity of black people, not a tidied-up version.

“I can’t be so concerned with what racist white people will think about my work that I can’t make my work,” she said the other day over a matcha latte in a Hell’s Kitchen café. “Let someone else play the best-behaved black person on the planet. I can’t do that. I’m fully human, I’m fucked-up in many ways, and I want to talk about that.”

So, onstage, she does — and lately it’s working out brilliantly. Harris’s breakthrough play, the poetic, bloody revenge tale Is God Is, put her on the radar just a year and a half ago when it won her the Relentless Award, a prestigious prize established in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman that comes with $45,000. Directed by Taibi Magar (Underground Railroad Game), the play premiered in February to acclaim at Soho Rep, and this week collected a flock of Obie awards: for Harris, Magar, and its lead actors, Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes, whose characters are young, black, Southern by birth, and profoundly unconcerned with the niceties.

Twin sisters named Racine and Anaia, they’re 21 when they get a letter from the mother they were sure had perished in the fire that burned them horribly when they were three. Their father, her husband, intended to kill her; he doused her with liquor and lit the match. Gruesomely scarred, she really is dying now, and she summons her girls to send them on a mission.

“Make your daddy dead dead dead,” she tells them. “And everything around him you can destroy, too.”

Inspired by Harris’s “strong nostalgic fever for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the play is a western of sorts that she describes as an “epic journey of, you know, taking care of familial business.” Armed with a rock in a sock, the twins set off for California to track their father down.

“I felt like my face melted off as I read it,” Magar said.

Harris began writing Is God Is as an operetta, commissioned by the California Institute of the Arts, where she got her MFA. When she couldn’t figure out an organic way to insert the music, she changed tacks and made it into a drama that feels like a fresh-voiced, West Coast relation of Suzan-Lori Parks. The Red Letter Plays, especially, come to mind.

“It’s really murderous, it’s really dark, but I also had sociopolitical interests. I always do,” said Harris, 36, who in conversation laughs easily and radiates a California sunniness even though she’s a transplant there. She lives on the outskirts of Los Angeles now, but was born in Germany and grew up the middle of three children in a U.S. Army family. Her single mother, an immigrant from Trinidad, spent twenty years in the military, and Harris had a peripatetic childhood, moving from base to base.

Her memories start around age three, in Panama. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, she was back in Germany. The biggest chunk of her childhood was spent in Mississippi, where she went to high school, community college, then the University of Southern Mississippi, studying acting. After graduation, she moved to Florida and started doing spoken-word poetry. The rhythms and musicality of that language continue to shape her work, as does her resistance to constraints.

“I am frustrated by what I think are narrow perceptions about how black people can exist onstage still,” she said, “and cultural pressure for black women to just endure. We are praised and honored for being strong and putting up with whatever the hardship. I’m frustrated by that. I think it’s dehumanizing. I’m not proposing that we go out and murder. But I am proposing new ways of thinking.”

That means making space for catharsis. In Is God Is — and in her new Philoctetes adaptation, commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which includes a female sniper — release comes from the retributive violence of black female characters who don’t take crimes against themselves and their families lying down.

“I’m interested in a nuanced exploration of black female anger. I think it’s a thing that we should talk about,” Harris said, noting that while she leads a joyful life, she is also angry. “I don’t want anyone to tell me that I don’t get to be that, that I have to put that away and be good.”

Besides which, she said, acts of vengeance can be a lot of fun to write.

Is God Is, on the page, is arresting not just for its content but for its form — “adventures in typography” that Harris says were inspired by Parks’s plays and a graphic version of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Like stage directions unignorably embedded in the text, the script’s variable font size, spacing of letters in words, and physical placement of those words all communicate information about performance.

“It was one of the more startling things about it that I loved,” said Magar, who first got the script from her agent, who also represents Harris. “Language as art, the way it’s laid out on the page and the way that it’s expressed. It’s just shocking, so beautiful.”

She says she begged Sarah Benson, Soho Rep’s artistic director, to let her direct it.

The success of that production further elevated Harris, who may soon get a shot at a screenplay. “There’s great interest in Is God Is as a film, luckily, so I would be writing that,” she said. “We’ll see where and how that lands.”

The striking thing about her success is how distant from it she seemed before she got the Relentless Award: agentless, broke, teaching as an adjunct at CalArts. She has been telling stories since early childhood (“I took Barbie doll play very seriously,” she says), but if she hadn’t won, she might have scaled back her ambitions, deciding for the sake of her sanity to be “content with readings with friends and self-producing in someone’s living room.”

But with the award came money and attention, and when Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon) saw her photo in the New York Times, he tracked down her plays and read them. Unbeknownst to her, she said, he also gave them to people, including Benson.

And so here Harris was on a Manhattan morning, in town not just for the Obies (her mom was around for those, too), but also for auditions — for an as-yet-unannounced production of one of her earlier plays. Suddenly, her career is flourishing.

“It’s a very strange life,” she said, pleased. Then, done with her latte, she headed out the door.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

Onstage and Off, Chukwudi Iwuji Relishes the Role of the Outsider

One cliché about actors — that their sense of identity can be slippery — doesn’t bother Chukwudi Iwuji. Having established himself in just a few years as one of New York’s most vibrant classical performers, Iwuji, 43, relishes his status as a product of many nations. Born to Nigerian parents who worked for the United Nations, he lived for a time in Ethiopia before attending boarding school in England. Iwuji studied economics at Yale University, but, lured by the siren stage, trained at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. A stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company put him on the map, and now he’s conquering local audiences, mainly through the Public Theater. This past spring he burned brightly in Bruce Norris’s The Low Road as John Blanke, an African slave adopted by an English aristocrat, stymied by proto-capitalists and nouveau riche boobs in Colonial America. Beginning May 29, Iwuji undertakes the titanic role of Othello for Shakespeare in the Park. So he has little time for musing about roots or belonging. Anyway, speaking to the Voice on Monday prior to the Obie awards, he was quite interested in matters sartorial. “I’m rather excited about this awesome double-breasted jacket that they’ve dressed me in,” he said. “It’s a very subtle checkered gray, nice weave. I just like my clothes. I really do.”

You’re rehearsing Othello for Central Park, your fifth job for the Public, and your second this year, after The Low Road. How did this relationship come about?

It started with Antony and Cleopatra in 2014. I was about to move from London to New York, and just before I left, the RSC mentioned this project, an English-American collaboration, their version of the Bridge Project. Then I got here, and the wonderful Heidi Griffiths brought me in. They were trying to find their Enobarbus. They made the offer and I thought, “This is a good way to start a relationship in maybe the single most important theater in the country.” They really took to my work, and I remember on opening night for Antony and Cleopatra, Oskar [Eustis, the Public’s artistic director] taking me aside and saying, “I just want to do big things with you.” That summer, they gave me Edgar in King Lear in the Park. It’s not just about giving you a job. It’s saying they invested in developing you as an artist. In that sense, I feel one of the luckiest actors in the city.

John Blanke in The Low Road seems like it was written for you.

I was in London when I got the email about it. In the middle of filming something. I just did Hedda Gabler and Obsession back-to-back with Ivo van Hove, and I’m like, “I just want to make some money for a while.” So I got home about midnight and thought, let me glance at the first, you know, twenty pages. I read it straight through to three in the morning. I’m finishing it up, laughing hard. I laughed so much, giggled, doubled back, underlined, penciled stuff.

What appealed to you about the script?

It’s a difficult thing to preach but make it not seem like preaching. What made me laugh is that when you can look at yourself and your society, and laugh and yet go, “I’m laughing, but we really need to deal with this” — those are the really great writers. Those are the great teachers. I’ve lived all over the world — in Ethiopia; Lesotho, South Africa — so I’ve lived in countries where there’s been deep oppression. I’ve known people from Russia who grew up during the Cold War under Stalin. When they talk about pain and tragedy, they say it laughing to each other. The tonic is humor.

While reading the script at three in the morning, were you flashing back to your days studying economics at Yale University? 

Absolutely. I mean: Keynesian theory, Adam Smith’s invisible hand. You don’t have to be an economist to lean into those ways of thinking. Is it every man for himself, or are we actually born wanting to be good? Or are we born Machiavellian and society makes us behave? Which version is it? Then you throw in the need to make money — or not make money. What Bruce’s play brought to me is: This is the bedrock of the country. And not just America. Tectonic shifts in culture are all geared to economics. There’s nothing that’s purely moral or not. The abolition of slavery wasn’t a moral choice. It was the economics of it.

John Blanke was an African slave, then an English aristocrat’s heir, then a slave again in America. Who was he to you?

It’s interesting to have all these awards nominations for John Blanke. Not to take anything away from him, but I just understood him. He’s the outsider. I grew up in Nigeria. I’ve been an outsider my whole life. My parents worked for the U.N. We left Nigeria, and later Ethiopia, and then I’m one of a handful of black kids in boarding school in England. Then I was made head boy of my school in England. You know: first black head boy. Then I come to America, to Yale. The whole thing of being an outsider has always been part of my makeup. Of course, there’s a side of me that understands social inequality and the frustration of it, so I really didn’t have to think.

Every now and then you get a character that fits you like a well-tailored suit, and your job is to make sure you do justice to the argument within the piece. I never once consciously thought about how John would stand or where he would get emotional. It flowed through the writing.

If roles can be like tailored suits, how does it feel wearing Othello?

Othello’s been more about having to get the suit custom-made for you. Not slipping into it. I mean, there’s a history of Othello for me. It was the last show I played in Yale undergrad. I cannot remember what I did. It’s so weird because normally I remember every production. Then, fast-forward: I hadn’t been thinking about Othello. I won’t lie to you. When I did Henry VI at the RSC in 2006, everyone came up and said, “Now you’re ready to think about Othello.” I was like, “Actually, no, I want to do Hamlet and Macbeth.”

What changed?

I was filming a BBC TV adaptation of King Lear in London with Richard Eyre, with Tony Hopkins as Lear. And Tony looked at me and went, “You must be ready for your Othello now.” I was like, “Ah…I was just thinking about it.” I’m at that age when you can have a dynamic Othello, where Othello doesn’t have to be that much older than Desdemona. He just has to feel like he’s in his prime. I started thinking about themes, because it is ultimately a love story, and I recently got engaged. I’m at a point in my career where I’m interested in exploring that guy. But it is the hardest role I’ve played. Hamlet will reach peaks of angst or despair, and he has these wonderful soliloquies to share with the audience, to literally ask for help. I realized that Othello, from Act III to the end, doesn’t have that release valve. I’ve never played a character that lives so entirely at such a pitch, in which you have to find the modulation. It’s really brutal, as a piece.

You talk positively about being an outsider. But I imagine the downside can be —

Isolated.

Yes, being vulnerable to prejudice or deception, like Othello. Is that feeding your sense of the character?

If you ask my siblings, they always thought I was a bit of a strange kid. I was always a bit of an outsider even living in Nigeria. I remember thinking, “God. No one understands me.” I’m lucky to say that I always embraced the fact that I was the other. I never felt it was a detriment to me at all. I like the fact that people wanted to know what it was like in Ethiopia. I like the fact that just because I went to an American school in Ethiopia for a couple of years before coming to England, the English thought I sounded slightly American. I love the fact that when I came to America, they thought I sounded really British. I’ve never had a problem with being the other because I’m a very functional introvert. I’ve always liked the escape route of being embraced as much as I want and being able to step aside, without feeling that I’m breaking any social norms.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

Billy Crudup, Off-Broadway’s Accidental Seducer

Billy Crudup didn’t mean to seduce you. In the fall and then again in the spring, he played the criminally charming (and sometimes just plain criminal) title character in David Cale’s Harry Clarke. As Harry Clarke is a solo show, Crudup played all the other characters, too. He wanted to thrill, to terrify, to delight, to persuade. But seduce? “I don’t know if we ever really used that word in rehearsal,” he said during a recent telephone interview with the Voice.

Harry Clarke isn’t really a person, not even in the play’s fictive world. He’s an irresistible cockney schemer dreamed up by Philip Brugglestein, a frightened Midwestern boy shamed for his queerness. Philip grows up. He moves away. But one day Harry returns. With his sly smile, his dropped aitches, his sexuality and sociopathy, he manages to bed an entire family.

Maybe Harry got your knickers in a twist. Maybe he made you want to take them off and throw them onstage. That was your fault. Not Crudup’s. He was just trying to tell a good story.

A character actor who’s been blessed or cursed — probably blessed — with a leading man’s good looks, Crudup is mercurial, changeable, incisive. His playful intelligence has made him a Tom Stoppard regular and burnished a highbrow Broadway résumé: Pinter, Beckett, Chekhov. “I guess I am attracted to that rigor and to taking your job seriously,” he said. On Monday night, that rigor paid off: Crudup’s multifaceted work in Harry Clarke earned him an Obie award, a significant sign of recognition from his Off-Broadway peers.

Crudup has always gone black-hole deep into his stage and screen roles. He shaved seconds off his 200-meter sprint to embody Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits, learned guitar to play golden god Russell Hammond in Almost Famous, lost twenty pounds to lace up Ned Kynaston’s corset in Stage Beauty. He likes to disappear into each part. “Listen,” he said. “Every actor wants attention and gratification and recognition. But it is an extreme compliment to me when people say, ‘Wait, you were in that?’ ”

There’s no forgetting that Crudup was in Harry Clarke. His name stood lonely on the cast list, and he was tasked with playing all nineteen roles, assigning each of them a specific voice and stance. The six or so main characters received a full psychological work-up, too. The rehearsal process was, Crudup said, “an extension of all the different ways I’ve learned to build characters applied at once.”

The weeks spent learning the lines and differentiating the characters were arduous — or “tedious,” the word Crudup used. He’d find that toward the end of a day working with Cale and the director, Leigh Silverman, his brain couldn’t take much more. Most of this initial work was mechanical. It was only in performance, he said, that the characters took on anything like life. Eventually, without the help of costumes or props, he could delineate each of them with just a gesture, just a tone. He made it look so frolicsome, so easy. It wasn’t.

If you were in the audience, the play’s eighty minutes probably hurtled by, but for Crudup, alone onstage, “time slows down for me in a very profound way.” During the play’s first performances at the Vineyard Theatre, Crudup would sometimes miss a chunk of text and then have to find some way to bring himself back. (The stage managers, who kept calm and continued to call the tech cues, were the real stars, the actor suggested.) When he forgot a line, his vision would close in, his heart would pound, time would more or less stop, just as it does during a fall or a car crash. “It’s an out-of-body experience,” he said.

The next day, at home, returned to what he called his usual, “boring” self, his body would feel wrecked — Harry would probably say “knackered” — battered by an endocrine hangover. “Part of the process is managing your body when it’s in that state of heightened adrenaline and total exhaustion,” he said. So he’d manage. Then he’d have to come back to the theater and do it all over again.

Why put himself through it? And why, once the Vineyard run had finished, would he agree to an Audible-sponsored encore, at the Minetta Lane Theatre? Well, he’s seen too many of his friends and classmates “busting their ass and running around just to get walk-on roles,” he said. So when a part — or nineteen parts — comes along “that gives you the opportunity to be extravagant and grow as an artist and grow your understanding of the material, you have to take it.”

Besides, he said, “Nobody ever gets a fucking chance to be cool in something. Nobody ever has a chance to have a wicked part.” There it is: With his swagger, his daring, his sexual brinksmanship, Harry Clarke seduced him, too.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

All Access: The Obie Awards From Every Angle You Can Imagine

The 63rd edition of the Obie awards, hosted by John Leguizamo, were held Monday night at Terminal 5. The Voice was on site during the ceremony, taking photographs of presenters and winners as they spoke at the podium, celebrated with colleagues backstage, and enjoyed the festivities themselves. Here are some of the best shots from the evening. For a look at the Voice’s red-carpet Obies photography, click here; for a look at our backstage portrait studio, here.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

Heartfelt and a Little Raucous, the Obies Are Still the Best Awards Show in Town

“No one’s a loser,” the actress Laura Benanti said at the 63rd Annual Obie awards, which were held last night at Terminal 5. “Because this is the theater and everyone’s a loser!” Then she threw some diapers into the crowd.

Heartfelt, raucous, and occasionally lewd, the awards, co-produced by the American Theater Wing and the Village Voice, honor excellence in Off-Broadway theater. This year the awards were live-streamed on Twitter, where playwright Abe Koogler’s parents watched them — “if they figured out how to make it work,” Koogler, a winner for Fulfillment Center, joked.

Champagne flowed, lights flashed, a live band jammed in thirty-second intervals, and the evening’s logo, bright cutouts that looked like Matisse on molly, danced across the screens that backed the stage. There were lots of tears and lots of laughs and, at one point, the evening’s host, John Leguizamo — a past Obie winner and a Tony nominee for Latin History for Morons — reappeared in a garter belt. Two plays about Russia were honored. This doesn’t indicate collusion.

Leguizamo arrived hyped-up and rumpled, hurling himself over a small wall at the back of the stage, chased by two burly ICE agents. He gave a motor-mouth monologue about his early attraction to theater and his habit of second-acting Broadway shows. “The only thing I ever stole was theater,” he said. “And a few VCRs.” He also told the crowd that his acting killed Lee Strasberg.

He teased the winners about Off-Broadway’s economics. “Off-Broadway knows how to mount a play on the kind of money that Andrew Lloyd Webber uses to tip his masseuse,” he said. “If you put together the budgets for every show here tonight it would still be less than what Donald Trump uses to pay off porn stars.”

Then he turned a little more serious. “It cost you,” he told the audience, who were seated on ballroom chairs below and perched on the balconies above. “You gave up financial security and normal working hours to have your chance to tell the truth.”

He also told the winners that if they didn’t keep their speeches short and sweet, “these ICE agents will take you away and separate you from your family.” (Andrew Garfield, the evening’s inaugural presenter, briefly thought that those ICE agents were real.)

Denise Gough, the first winner for her work in People, Places & Things, strode up to the podium barefoot, her red heels in her hand. “I know I have to keep it quick,” she said, looking around for the security staff, “but I’m Irish and I talk a lot and I’m really emotional.” She said that working on the show, about a woman in recovery, had affirmed her belief “that theater can change lives. I just didn’t think it would change mine.”

Transport Group took home an award for a six-hour Strange Interlude in a speech that lasted almost as long. (Where were those ICE agents?) Lap Chi Chu, who won for sustained excellence of lighting design, gave a very short one, mostly because of the ceremony’s own lighting design. “I’m blinded,” he said.

Designers usually work behind the scenes, but lighting designer Natasha Katz, costume designer William Ivey Long, and costume designer Emilio Sosa, who revealed a long-standing grudge against Leguizamo over a tiff involving silk taffeta cargo pants, all presented awards. The set and costume designer David Zinn teared up while awarding an Obie to Sarah Laux for her Jerry Springer – The Opera costumes. Laux teared up in turn, thanking the man who “took me as a wild animal and kept me as a wild animal and taught me some taste and how to shop.”

Rajiv Joseph took home the Best New American Play award for his Slav epic Describe the Night, while Amy Herzog, Aleshea Harris, and Dominique Morisseau also received playwriting awards. Herzog, a winner for Mary Jane, told Harris that she loved her play Is God Is and had “talked about it for an hour with my therapist who is also a rabbi.” Morisseau, who won for Pipeline, had lost her voice. She stood to the side of the podium as her friend, Stori Ayers, read her speech for her. She thanked the Obies and the writers of color who had come before her “for lifting me and my voice,” which was poignant and also a little funny.

Happily, Stephen Trask hadn’t lost his, and he celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with a sublime, piano-thumping rendition of “Wig in a Box.” (He wore the same jacket he’d worn to the ceremony twenty years ago; Sosa had taken it in.) After that transcendence, Leguizamo and Pixie Aventura lowered the tone, taking wigs back out of boxes for a drag act that had Leguizamo dressed as Cardi B, lobbing Trump dick-pic jokes and lusting after Billy Crudup, whose name he mispronounced.

Crudup, a winner for the solo show Harry Clarke, took it in stride. “That was pretty wicked,” he said. “I’d consider changing my name.” Other performance winners included Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes for Is God Is and Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi for Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. The actor Chukwudi Iwuji, a winner for The Low Road, cited the MTA itself. In New York, he said, “There’s a belief that if you make it through the subway, you can make all your dreams happen.”

The director Anne Kauffman, a winner for Mary Jane, reminded the crowd that the Obies were not only “the fucking coolest award,” but also “a really high-class networking situation.” Then she reminded Trask that they had a meeting on the thirtieth. The director Jesse Berger, a winner for The Government Inspector, said that he felt “totally not cool enough” to be receiving an Obie, but the committee let it slide.

Several performers gave particular thanks to the Obie committee’s chairman and longtime Voice critic Michael Feingold, including the actress Jessica Hecht, a winner for Admissions, who said that, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, “I just plundered all the Village Voice boxes to read what he’d write. He informed what we all do.”

The actress Kathleen Chalfant, who won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement award for, in the words of the presenter Beth Malone, “her artistry, her integrity, her infallible commitment to the truth of every role she plays,” said that she couldn’t thank everyone, because she’d been working since 1973. “It would take years. You would never get home.” Instead she told the crowd, “In this time in which the world seems to have fallen into a terrible darkness, we are the people who can pull us back from the abyss.” More light was to be found in the faces of the artists lost this year, who flickered on the screen as Laura Osnes sang “What Matters Most.”

At the end, after grants had been awarded to the Ma-Yi Theater Company, the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre, and the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series, and the actress Carrie Coon, the evening’s final awardee for her work in Mary Jane, had thanked “those of you who are left,” Leguizamo returned, wigless and newly sincere. “There are no losers,” he said. “Everybody here walks out a winner. Everybody here did beautiful work. That’s all that matters.” Then the ICE agents dragged him away. “Somebody sanctuary me,” he shouted.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

The Obie Awards: Glimpses From the Red Carpet

The 63rd edition of the Obie awards, hosted by John Leguizamo, were held last night at Terminal 5. Amy Herzog’s healthcare-themed drama Mary Jane and Aleshea Harris’s revenge story Is God Is were among the big winners, taking home three awards apiece. Before the ceremony, which kicked off shortly after 7 p.m., the evening’s presenters, organizers, and eventual winners strolled across the red carpet, where the Voice was stationed. Here are some of our best photographs from the pre-show display.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

As Broadway Turns to Spectacle, Off-Broadway Nourishes Original Plays

To judge by this year’s Obie award winners, American playwriting is in a wonderful state. Which, for me, dramatizes the startling difference between the American theater and that strange money-driven place we call Broadway. It’s a paradox: We at the Obies are giving no less than five awards to exceptional new plays, selected from a very long and impressive list. Meantime, the Tony Awards, which confine themselves to Broadway, could barely find five new plays to nominate in the Best Play category. Three of them are British imports, and two of those — Farinelli and the King and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — essentially “stunt” productions in which the writing is largely a mere excuse to display, in the former, the showy acting of Mark Rylance and the sumptuous singing of Iesten Davies; and, in the latter, a parade of magical effects and J.K. Rowling’s beloved characters. Slim pickings uptown in the playwriting department.

But that’s really no longer news. Despite now having four nonprofit institutions that regularly produce there (Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout, and Second Stage), Broadway, with its high costs and staggeringly high ticket prices, has remained in essence a commercial enterprise. If those who bankroll its shows see a possibility of profit in a new play, it can arrive there. Last year, the Tony nominators found four new plays, all of them American, to compete for the Best Play title. Three of them, as it happened, had previously been produced Off-Broadway (and been accorded various Obie honors); the fourth was by a gifted young writer who’d won an Obie for his two previous plays. All four playwrights were making their Broadway debuts, though the list included two Pulitzer Prize winners, one of whom was at the same time receiving an Obie for Lifetime Achievement.

This year, perhaps by coincidence, or maybe because none of last year’s Tony nominees was a gigantic money success on the Big Street, Broadway offered no such flurry of new playwriting. All the Tony nominators could find, along with the two works I’ve mentioned above, were one serious British play, The Children, imported by one of Broadway’s four nonprofits in a production by a London nonprofit; one serious (and to my mind first-rate) new American play, Junk, also produced by one of the nonprofits; and a smart, funny solo piece, Latin History for Morons, by John Leguizamo, who had already been announced as the recipient of a special Tony Award, apparently just for being an all-around, theater-loving good guy. Well, we love Leguizamo downtown too; he is a good guy, and a spectacular writer-performer. But what about playwriting?

Left to right: Obie winners Aleshea Harris, Abe Koogler, Amy Herzog, Rajiv Joseph, and Dominique Morisseau

That’s why the juxtaposition of our five Obies for playwriting with the slender list of Tony nominees underscores the point so strongly: Playwriting, as an enterprise, has purposes other than making money. And while money is a key factor in everyone’s life — nobody writes plays in order to starve to death — it really isn’t the central motivation. People create theater — make plays, stage them, perform in them, design them, produce them — because their hearts and minds are full of visions that demand expression. Nor do those visions grow in them by accident: They spring directly from an artist’s transactions with the surrounding society. That’s true most of all for playwrights, in whose inner life the outside world is transformed, to be spun back into an external object that — if the playwright has any artistic power — will in turn work its own transformation, however small, on the world. Plays evoke the past, confront the present, are harbingers of the future.

When a theater based on money, as Broadway largely is, doesn’t want to do any of these things, that’s a dangerous sign for society at large. It’s also a sign that the impulse has moved elsewhere — to Off-Broadway, to the Off-Off experimental spaces and workshops, to the regions. This has been happening in the theater for some time; increasingly, it reflects the disaster of our current political situation. People whose sole concern is acquiring money rule Broadway as they rule the present administration. (I’m not saying they’re the same people — the quest for money above all can pay lip service to various sets of political beliefs.) But the creative impulse, like the feelings of most Americans, lies elsewhere. And between caring for money and caring for creation, it’s easy to see which one ultimately triumphs; money often wins the day, but its victories are always temporary, and often bitterly regretted.

Because the quest for money notoriously hardens the heart, it’s not irrelevant that all five of this year’s Obie-winning plays deal, each in its different way, with the dialectic between caring and cruelty. That includes the winner of our Best New American Play award, by tradition the only “Best” the Obies give. Dense, elaborate, and multigenerational, Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night travels through some of modern European history’s cruelest phases, mixing fact with rumor and imagination in a sheerly magical way. Its pivotal characters are a great writer, Isaac Babel, and his youthful friend, Nikolai Yezhov, who becomes head of the Soviet secret police. Their interaction — based on historical fact — has not only resonance but ramifications in the present: One of Yezhov’s followers is a young KGB man with a striking similarity to Putin. Poetically treated, this improbable-but-true bit of history becomes the basis for a worldview, weighing juxtaposed parallel legacies — the artist’s and the censor’s, the creator’s and the bureaucratic killer’s — as they’re handed down through an increasingly complex world.

Heather Velazquez (left) and Namir Smallwood in “Pipeline,” which explores ways of learning and teaching.

Every play we honored this year turns out to contain some version of the same dialectic between caring and cruelty, and each also reaches back, in its own way, into its characters’ pasts. Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane and Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline both deal, heartbreakingly, with mothers, struggling against a nightmarish world for their children’s survival. Both, intriguingly, are filled with non-malevolent secondary characters, eager to help, to do the right thing, or just to be there. That what they say and do brings no surcease underscores the nature of the world their central figures are battling. The outcomes are at best equivocal; our society isn’t promoting easy victories these days, and our playwrights know better than to paste up false ones that send the audience home with its anxieties soothed — another point on which playwrights take issue with the commercial theater’s premises.

At least three of the four fascinating characters in Abe Koogler’s Fulfillment Center do end on a note of hope, but it’s a decidedly tentative one. Like Mary Jane and Pipeline, Fulfillment Center uses one aspect of contemporary life as the focal point for an image of our society’s troubled condition. In Mary Jane it’s healthcare — the endless bureaucracy, the elaborate anonymous machinery, the constant encounters with strangers (caregivers or fellow patients) in a similarly disoriented state. In Pipeline, the focus is education — ways of teaching, ways of learning, and the way either privilege or its lack can impair even the brightest student. Fulfillment Center, as its title implies, takes place at the point where our new virtual consumerism seems most surreal: people in an anonymous warehouse in the middle of a desert, plucking random goods manufactured elsewhere to ship to unseen customers equally far away. Like the goods, the characters come from all over, bringing the disparate fragments of their various pasts with them. There’s occasional sharing, but no real common culture.

Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, conversely, presents the reverse view: The characters share common cultural assumptions but are so displaced in their relationships that there’s absolutely no hope. This story of personal revenge for a long-ago crime ends in a heap of corpses, framed in a flurry of moral questions and doubts about the rightness or wrongness of revenge that, like the highly stylized writing, keeps the gut feeling at the play’s core in an equivocal position. We live in a time when we hardly know how justified our anger is, let alone what we should do about it. The murderous fury of the twin sisters in Is God Is has obvious justifications, but that never wholly seems to make it right, and it often seizes on undeserving targets: One of the play’s principal comedy scenes involves their killing a crooked lawyer who’s already in the process of committing suicide when they confront him — an irony not dissimilar to those that crop up in the tangled histories of Describe the Night.

The moral questions and doubts of “Is God Is” are presented through highly stylized writing.

These weren’t by any means the year’s only commendable plays Off-Broadway. Our list was so crowded that Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, which carried off the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, barely got a look-in. Neither did the 86-year-old Adrienne Kennedy’s dense, elliptical miniature He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, though its designers are receiving a joint Obie for the remarkable beauty they were able to unpack from its deep-buried substance. I could easily list a dozen more plays that, in a less fertile season, would have ranked higher, from the sharp-edged wit of Sarah Burgess’s Kings to the gaudy outrageousness of Robert O’Hara’s Mankind. We harvested a bumper crop Off-Broadway, while the high-priced midtown theaters were largely making do with revivals and lavish musicals based on recent movies or animated TV-toons.

Even while reveling in our profusion of playwrights, I’m not entirely happy with that division of the spoils. I think more of our writers should get a crack at the big money, and that the uptown audience that’s apparently willing to shell out for a somewhat edgy Obie-winning musical that transfers to Broadway (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Band’s Visit) could — maybe with a little lowering of the ticket prices — be getting regular dispatches from downtown playwrights. This segregation by potential profit doesn’t strike me as the best way to run a city’s or a nation’s theatrical culture, any more than the segregation by salary level on which the party in power currently bases its political procedures strikes me as a good way to run a country. But I firmly believe that, in both areas of our life, this bad idea is not going to last. The need for money will always be with us, but the accumulated cultural power that’s piling up everywhere in our theater except on Broadway will ultimately become too great to withstand. Finding five playwrights to honor Off-Broadway this year was so astonishingly easy that I won’t be surprised if next year there are ten. And by then, money may well have started to slide away from the center of the debate, with art and what art says to the audience taking its place.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

“Mary Jane” and “Is God Is” Achieve a Glorious Trifecta at the 63rd Obie Awards

The 63rd edition of the Obie awards, hosted by John Leguizamo, just concluded at Terminal 5. Two works by female playwrights achieved a remarkable trifecta, winning awards for playwriting, directing, and performance; those were Amy Herzog’s healthcare-themed drama Mary Jane, directed by Anne Kauffman and starring Carrie Coon, and Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, a revenge plot involving twin sisters, directed by Taibi Magar and starring Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes. Jerry Springer — The Opera also garnered multiple victories, including for one of its lead performers, Will Swenson; Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night triumphed in the evening’s only category with an outright “best” in the name (New American Play); and the great Kathleen Chalfant accepted her Lifetime Achievement award.

The complete list of winners can be found below, along with links to related coverage. The Voice will be publishing more Obies recap stories throughout the week — in addition to red-carpet and backstage photography from the event  so check back often.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT

Kathleen Chalfant [Miriam Felton-Dansky’s interview]

BEST NEW AMERICAN PLAY

Rajiv Joseph
Describe the Night (Atlantic Theater Company)

PLAYWRITING

Aleshea Harris
Is God Is (Soho Rep) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Amy Herzog
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop) [David Cote’s review]

Abe Koogler
Fulfillment Center (Manhattan Theatre Club) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Dominique Morisseau
Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

DIRECTING

Jesse Berger
The Government Inspector (Red Bull Theater) [Joseph Cermatori’s review]

Anne Kauffman
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop) [David Cote’s review]

Taibi Magar
Is God Is (Soho Rep) [Michael Feingold’s review]

PERFORMANCE

Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Signature Theatre Company)

Carrie Coon
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop) [David Cote’s review]

Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes
Is God Is (Soho Rep) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Denise Gough
People, Places & Things (National Theatre/Headlong/St.Ann’s Warehouse) [David Cote’s review]

Will Swenson
Jerry Springer — The Opera (The New Group) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Chukwudi Iwuji
The Low Road (Public Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Robert Sean Leonard
At Home at the Zoo (Signature Theatre Company) [Laura Collins-Hughes’s review]

Jessica Hecht
Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Ben Edelman
Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Billy Crudup
Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theatre)

DESIGN

Lap Chi Chu
Sustained excellence of lighting design

Sarah Laux
Costume design, Jerry Springer — The Opera (The New Group) [Michael Feingold’s review]

The design team, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (Theatre for a New Audience):
Christopher Barreca (set design), Justin Ellington (sound design), Donald Holder (lighting design), Montana Levi Blanco (costume design), Austin Switser (video design) [Michael Feingold’s review]

SPECIAL CITATIONS

Ariane Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil
A Room in India (Park Avenue Armory) [Michael Feingold’s review]

The cast and creative team of Yerma (Park Avenue Armory):
Simon Stone (director), Lizzie Clachan (set design), Alice Babidge (costume design), James Farncombe (lighting design), Stefan Gregory (sound design), Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira (cast) [Elisabeth Vincentelli’s review]

David Greenspan, Jack Cummings III, and Transport Group
Strange Interlude (Transport Group)

THE ROSS WETZSTEON AWARD

Ma-Yi Theater Company

OBIE GRANTS

Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre

York Theatre Company for its “Musicals in Mufti” series

JUDGES

Michael Feingold, chairman; Melissa Rose Bernardo, Wendall K. Harrington, Charles Isherwood, Toni-Leslie James, Sondra Lee, Arian Moayed, Ching Valdes-Aran

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

‘I Was Being Baptized Into Acting’: An Interview With Obies Host John Leguizamo

Twenty-seven years after winning an Obie award for performing in his one-man show Mambo Mouth, John Leguizamo is hosting the 2018 edition of the annual ceremony on Monday night, where presenters are set to include Andrew Garfield, Laura Benanti, Matthew Broderick, Emilio Sosa, David Henry Hwang, Pixie Aventura, and the Village Voice’s own Michael Feingold. Currently a Tony Award contender for Latin History for Morons, which transferred to Broadway after a successful run last season at the Public Theater, Leguizamo traces his own love of theater to the Off-Broadway productions he caught while growing up in Jackson Heights.

Chatting by phone recently with the Voice, the multitasking actor and writer acknowledged this debt, and spoke a bit about what he has on tap for awards night and beyond.

Do you remember when you first became aware of the Obie awards, or Off- and Off-Off-Broadway generally?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Off-Broadway, of the kind of acting and storytelling that can happen there. The most important shows of my life, I saw there. I remember seeing Sam Shepard’s True West with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and seeing Al Pacino in American Buffalo at Circle in the Square [Downtown]. That’s how old I am. I don’t know how my mom got those tickets, but they were in the front row, and Pacino spit on me. I was about fifteen, and I felt like I was being baptized into acting.

Then you won an Obie yourself.

I got my first Obie for Mambo Mouth. I think Spalding Gray gave me my award. It was 1991, and I remember being flabbergasted that here was one of my idols, giving me an award. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I’m guessing one-man shows in particular were a source of inspiration for you. Any other favorites?

Eric Bogosian, he’ll always be the guy who brought that great anger to his shows. And David Cale, he did beautiful work. All these people inspired me so that I could develop my own version of that sort of autobiographical work.

And Latin History for Morons, your most recent show — which is now up for a Tony Award — premiered Off-Broadway, at the Public Theater.

You need to experiment, to be able to fail to get great work, and Off-Broadway allows you to do that. You have all these incredible, trusting people, like [Public artistic director] Oskar Eustis and [associate artistic director] Mandy Hackett, who make you feel safe.

Do you still see a lot of stuff, when you’re not performing yourself?

Oh, yeah. I guess now Off-Broadway is different than it was. The New Group, I go see stuff there. Playwrights Horizons, Signature Theatre. The Public, of course — I just saw Miss You Like Hell. Very touching, very powerful, about immigration and being an illegal immigrant in America.

You discuss your children in Latin History. Have you brought them to the theater with you a lot?

Yeah, particularly my daughter. She’s eighteen now, and she has the same love of theater and storytelling and playwriting as I do. When I was seventeen I was a play-reading addict, and my daughter is like that too. She’s seen Hamilton four times, and sees shows on and Off-Broadway all the time. She has a real passion for it. She’s going to study acting.

Can you say where?

At Northwestern. I’m so proud of her.

So what are your plans for Monday night?

I’m hoping to have fun, to celebrate Off-Broadway theater, share my love for it and my own journey. And take a jibe at Broadway a little bit — why not? And take the piss out of myself a little bit too. Hopefully I’ll make people laugh. It’s an enormous space, a cavernous space, which is hard, because that echo chamber is a laugh-killer. And when you have people sitting at tables, it’s not always conducive to laughter. But I’ve been to these events, and I know that even if I’m not laughing outwardly, I’m still enjoying it, you know? I’m figuring that if I’m having a good time, it means someone else is.

Should we expect any political jokes?

A little bit. You can’t not talk about the elephant in the room. But I don’t want to harp on it and ruin the evening for everyone. You want to celebrate the good things that are happening in this country, and the beauty of Off-Broadway theater and the powerful work they do.

You obviously have a lot of experience holding a stage on your own, but is there a particular pressure or energy when you host an event like this?

Well, you’re the host of the party, so if the party isn’t going well, you’ll get blamed for it. But I only have about eight minutes at the top. I’ll talk about my experiences Off-Broadway, my foibles. You want to be edgy enough, to strike the right balance.

Any favorites in this arena, awards-show hosts?

I like Martin Short a lot. I saw George Lopez once and really enjoyed it. He was really acerbic, very dark, and I’d never seen that side of him. I had a blast — I was howling.

How about Lea DeLaria, who hosted the last three Obie awards presentations?

I just saw her recently, at an event — it was opening night of Miss You Like Hell, at the Public Theater. She goes, “Oh, you’re taking my gig!” And I said, “I’ll gladly give it back to you.” She’s funny, man. I always love her work.

Are you working with any co-writers?

Yes, [journalist and author] Rob Tannenbaum is helping me out, because this is not my métier. Rob’s the bomb. He’s a funny dude.

And can you tell us what you’ll be wearing?

A suit and tie — but with the tie not really knotted all the way to the top. Like, fake-casual.

Any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share with us?

I’m about to shoot this really great movie with Helen Hunt and Tye Sheridan, called Night Clerk. And oh, I have a movie coming out called Nancy, with the great actress Andrea Riseborough; it’s like a psychological thriller. And my graphic novel Ghetto Klown was nominated for an Eisner Award, which is like the Oscars for graphic novels.

You’ll return to the stage, of course.

There’s definitely something special about theater; when you see someone live, it becomes a part of you. I still remember the first time I saw A Chorus Line, and there was a Latin person in the show. I felt like the baton was being passed to me.

Would you consider doing a musical?

Not being in one, but I’m actually working on one, writing one. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but we’re workshopping it at the Public. They created space for me to work on it privately.

That’s exciting. Any other details you can give us about Monday — maybe just one bit you’re thinking of working in?

I’m hoping to do a little spoof of Cardi B, but I don’t know if it’ll make it, if it’s good enough. We’ll see on Monday.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Obies Theater

Before They Were Stars: Distinguished Artists Recall Their Very First Date With Obie

“It was exciting, but it was nerve-racking,” says Laurie Metcalf, recalling the night in 1985 when she attended the Obies ceremony to accept an award for her performance in Balm in Gilead. “I had never done a play outside of Chicago,” explains the actress, who made her Off-Broadway debut in that celebrated revival of the Lanford Wilson drama. “So it was kind of nerve-racking for me because there I was around all of these downtown actors and writers — and I did not know anybody.”

Appropriately enough, the character Metcalf played in Balm in Gilead — which studies the low-life denizens of a 24-hour diner — was a naive newcomer to New York City from Chicago. A newcomer no longer today, Metcalf currently is a star of Three Tall Women on Broadway and received the 2017 Tony Award for her leading performance in A Doll’s House, Part 2. She has also delivered award-winning appearances in films such as Lady Bird and on television series such as Roseanne.

Christopher Durang hoists his 1980 Playwriting Obie for “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.”

In the years before and since Metcalf first encountered the Obies — and she subsequently has collected two more of them — many other relative newbies have garnered the award early in their careers for the artistry they displayed upon Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stages. Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story, landed him an Obie. Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, and George C. Scott are other legends whose Obies arrived during the nascent years of their careers, in the Fifties. Denzel Washington, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Al Pacino, Viola Davis, Eric Bogosian, Christopher Durang, and Paula Vogel are just a few of the folks who, in later decades, took home Obies back in the day before they became boldface names.

In addition to Metcalf, half a dozen other artists recently recalled to the Voice their first dates with Obie.

The Obies were ahead of the curve in honoring Eve Ensler (left) and Ping Chong for “The Vagina Monologues” and “Humboldt’s Current,” respectively.

“It was my very first award, actually,” says the playwright and performer Eve Ensler. She had previously crafted several Off-Off-Broadway plays “on subjects people didn’t want to hear about” before she was recognized with an Obie for writing The Vagina Monologues in 1997. Ensler received the award when she still was performing the piece simply as a modest solo show at HERE Arts Center. Ensler believes that getting the Obie helped give The Vagina Monologues a significant push toward becoming the global phenomenon it would evolve into over the following years. “People were really scared of the show when I started doing it,” Ensler declares. “Getting the Obie legitimized it in some way.”

Designer John Lee Beatty was practically fresh out of the Yale School of Drama when he found himself immersed in creating the settings for an eclectic 1974–1975 season by Circle Repertory Company: A rare revival of Tennessee Williams’s Battle of Angels, along with the world premiere of Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders and the New York premiere of Julie Bovasso’s Down by the River Where Waterlilies Are Disfigured Every Day. The first play was set in a shabby dry goods store in Mississippi; the second one unfolded at the site of an archeological dig in Southern Illinois; and Bovasso’s ultra-experimental work has been described as “a romp among hypothetical possibilities of the improbable.”

John Lee Beatty keeps his 1975 Obie certificate on a shelf next to his two Tony Awards.

Beatty remembers “working my ass off all day and all night” building the sets as well as designing them. “Somewhere in the middle of it all, Jennifer von Mayrhauser, the costume designer, said to me, ‘I think you might get an Obie for this’ — and I did not even know what she was talking about,” Beatty confesses. The designer suspects that the contrasting environs demanded by those dissimilar plays impressed the judges. “It was a wonderful showcase,” says Beatty. “I was just a very lucky boy.” While he continues to create Off-Broadway settings, Beatty also has designed more than one hundred Broadway productions and won, among other honors, two Tony Awards, which he keeps on a shelf next to the certificate for his 1975 Obie.

A dozen years before her celebrated staging and designs for The Lion King reached Broadway, Julie Taymor had already nabbed a “special citation” Obie lauding the scenery, costumes, masks, puppetry, and other visuals she had created for a number of scrappier productions. “I have no memory precisely for what,” admits Taymor today of earning the citation. (The digital archive for the 1985 Obie winners is similarly blank regarding those specifics.) By then, Taymor’s work had appeared in half a dozen New York shows, including The Courtroom, for which she provided the puppets who comprised a smug jury, and Black Elk Speaks, a short-lived but visually notable drama about Native Americans. The Haggadah: A Passover Cantata, a musical drama by Elizabeth Swados, gave Taymor the opportunity to craft life-size puppets of Talmudic scholars plus representations for a sphinx, the pyramids, and, in an especially striking sequence, a vast seder tablecloth that suddenly billowed up to become the Red Sea. “I was doing a conceptual and visual sort of approach to drama,” says Taymor. “My way of working was not so common back then.”

1977’s “Humboldt’s Current” earned a “special citation” Obie for Ping Chong, but the director-choreographer couldn’t attend the ceremony — he spent the time standing on the unemployment line.

A master of conceptual and multidisciplinary theater, the visionary director-choreographer Ping Chong is yet another artist who received an Obie during the ascendant chapters of his career for creating and staging Humboldt’s Current. A satire of colonialism that melded music, movement, and film (by Meredith Monk), the 1977 work centered upon a nineteenth-century explorer — hunting for a mythical beast — who proved to be blind to what he actually saw. “It was inspired to some extent by Heart of Darkness,” Chong notes. Although he had received several fellowships by that point, the Obie was the first public recognition of Chong’s work. (In 2000, Chong received a second Obie for “sustained achievement.”) “It was a scary and wonderful time for me,” recollects Chong, who was then occupying a basement apartment on Bleecker Street for which he paid $50 per month. “I was lucky that you still were able to be an artist and afford to live in the city then.” Chong adds that he was not able to attend the ceremony to collect his Obie because he spent the time standing on the unemployment line.

The Obie that Michael John LaChiusa received in 1994 for writing the scores and texts for the musicals First Lady Suite and Hello Again happens to be a source of both considerable pride and some slight embarrassment for him today. “Those shows put me on the map as a composer-lyricist,” he says. “And because I was then and am now pretty much of a downtown theater person, it felt good being recognized by the same people I grew up with.” LaChiusa recalls his appearance at the ceremony with chagrin, however: “It was my very first time getting an award and it taught me not to be off-the-cuff when accepting anything like that. After I got back to my seat, shoot: I suddenly remembered a whole bunch of people I forgot to thank!”

Terrence McNally remains grateful for his first Obie, in 1974. “In those days,” McNally reminisces, “the New York Times did not go below 34th Street to cover the theater.”

Terrence McNally was scarcely a newcomer when his Bad Habits nabbed an Obie as a distinguished play in 1974. But McNally’s Broadway works up to that time had been quick flops and, with the exception of Adaptation/Next, his previous Off-Broadway shows did not run for long. Bad Habits, a bill of two short comedies that satirized fashionable psychotherapy and its victims, was the first among McNally’s works to win any kind of an award and one that he now considers fondly. “It was pretty special,” says the playwright regarding his comedy’s premiere at the Astor Place Theatre in a “really basic” staging. “We did the scenery with just a couple of chairs and I ran the lights myself. They were overhead fluorescent lights and I flipped them on and off.” McNally recalls being surprised when leading critics reviewed the show at all, let alone favorably. “In those days, the New York Times did not go below 34th Street to cover the theater,” he notes. Some three months later, Bad Habits and its actors — including F. Murray Abraham and Doris Roberts — moved uptown to a Broadway house. “Making theater is fun, but it is always so much hard work. It’s wonderful to be recognized by your peers with something like the Obies,” remarks McNally. “I’m glad the Obies are still going so strong.” In 1995, McNally scored himself a second Obie for writing Love! Valour! Compassion!

The Foundry Theatre, which commissions and develops unusual forms of stage works, received an Obie for its first production, W. David Hancock’s The Convention of Cartography. Staged within a small house in Chelsea, the event ostensibly presented a traveling art exhibit and, with it, a curatorial lecture regarding the works by a now-deceased itinerant artist. But this interactive installation, packed with folk-type curios and treasures, really harbored a clandestine narrative concerning art, fiction, and the nature of truth. Melanie Joseph, who directed the 1994 piece and established the Foundry, of which she remains the artistic producer, laughs as she looks back on the recognition: “It’s good that the Obies were around because our show obviously was too unusual for the Drama Desk and other organizations like that.”

In the years since, the Foundry and its productions have amassed fourteen Obies, including two Ross Wetzsteon Awards, named after the late longtime theater editor of the Voice; it today carries a $3,000 prize for companies that nurture innovative works. “It’s such a friggin’ honor to get those,” says Joseph. “Ross was such an elegant man.” Recalling that there was no award certificate accompanying the first Wetzsteon grant that the company received, Joseph notes, “We wanted to frame the check, but we needed the money too badly.”

What Joseph especially appreciates about the Obies is their freewheeling format, in which there are no competitive nominations or established categories for awards. “For many years, the Obies have been the most meaningful awards for artists because they were not a marketing gimmick,” she says. “It’s a community celebration of whatever was good that year — not just what was best.” Other recipients chime in with similar observations. “The Obies give you really good street cred,” believes LaChiusa. “It confirms that the work artists are doing in downtown theaters still matters,” says Ensler. And Metcalf fondly thinks back to some 33 years before, when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s staging of Balm in Gilead with Circle Repertory won Obies not only for herself but also for John Malkovich, its director. “It was thrilling for our little company from Chicago to be singled out and attention paid to us like that,” she says. “The Obies really helped to get our names out there.”