Why Eclipsed is making Tony history and breaking glass ceilings

Nominated for 6 Tony Awards this season, Eclipsed truly is one of a kind. Penned by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame and starring Lupita Nyong’o, Eclipsed offers something completely unique to both the Tonys and current stage politics: and all female cast and female lead creatives.

Last year the team behind Fun Home made history as the first female writing team to win for Best Original Score. That revelation took a lot of people off-guard, including myself. However, it came as no surprise to me that Eclipsed premiered at The Public Theater, where Fun Home and Hamilton also launched. The Public, along with a good portion of Off-Broadway theatres have become hubs for diverse stage work, and have slowly been pushing that trend towards larger Broadway stages.

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In recent years, the move and trend towards diversity in stage work  has been bumpy to say the least, but Eclipsed offers yet another milestone- not only are the cast all women, but they are all women of color. This extends to the creative team too, where all members are either a person of color or female, something almost completely unheard of on Broadway either historically or currently.

The show itself is based in Liberia during the country’s still ongoing civil war. Four of the women featured are all wives of a rebel general who’s lives are turned upside down when a new wife is brought to the compound.

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Rather than focus on the war at large, Gurira chose to focus on those it still affects most: the women captives, the wives of war, and female soldiers. I discovered that Gurira wrote the script after research and a trip to Liberia, where she interviewed women who would become the basis for her characters. These women have been captured by Liberian rebel forces and forced to become soldier wives to strengthen the rebel cause. Many are raped and assaulted, all are held hostage.

Read about Danai Gurira’s trip: here

This tie to reality allowed me to become completely engrossed in the script, as the women struggle to live, hope for peace, and find comfort in each other. Often times, scripts fall prey to the “strong woman” stereotype, but the way that Gurira writes these characters and Liesl Tommy directs them never feels contrived. The conflict that the protagonists face feels real because it is literally rooted in reality.

Many critics have pointed to Eclipsed as revolutionary because the voice it gives to the unheard, and I have to agree. All female casts are rare enough, but combined with this subject matter puts the play in another league. Both Gurira and Tommy are African born, and their passion for African women and their voices is clear. They say, and I agree, that shining a light on the Liberian struggle through performance allows audiences to access the hardships in a more meaningful way.

Having only read the script and not seen a full performance, I can only comment about the writing of Danai Gurira and direction of Liesl Tommy, but the acting nominations point to a strong cast as well.

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Lupita Nyong’o already has an Academy Award for her work in 12 Years A Slave, so her nomination for Leading Actress here seems to reflect her ability. Also nominated in the acting categories are Pascale Armand and Saycon Sengbloh for Featured Actress. Clint Ramos is also nominated for Costume Design.

Out of all Tony eligible new plays, Eclipsed has the most nominations (tied with The Humans at 6 each). Movie, television, and theatre critics alike have historically pointed to the lack of female driven performances and reasoned that the gap exists because these pieces aren’t engaging or entertaining. Eclipsed has provided the next brick in the wall of female driven performances, and with 6 nominations and critical acclaim, it is a strong brick indeed.

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A Deeper Look At The Special Tony Awards

Every Award season, the Tony Awards voting committee gives four “Special” Tony Awards. Often, these are the first awards to be decided, and most are granted before the actual televised ceremony.

So what are these awards, and how can someone be qualified for them?


 

Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre

The longest-running non-competitive Tony, this award was established in 1947 and has been awarded consistently into the present season.

This award is largely presented to individuals in recognition of their “body of lifetime work”, although some partners and groups have also won the award. Most recipients are still living upon receiving this award, but many are given posthumously, as was the case with Brock Pemberton in 1950 (as the co-founder of the American Theatre Wing).

2016 recipients:

Sheldon Harnick (Songwriter, librettist, composer)

Marshall W. Mason (Founding Artistic Director: Circle Repertory Company, director)

 

Past recipients:

1970: Barbara Streisand (Star Of The Decade)

1999: Arthur Miller (Lifetime Achievement)

2008: Stephen Sondheim (Lifetime Achievement in Theatre)

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Mandy Patankin accepting on behalf of Sondheim at the 62nd Tony Awards


 

Regional Theatre Tony Award

Initially given in 1948, this Tony became an established award in 1976 and is given to regional theatres that display “outstanding productions and promotion of theatrical arts.” This award is the only to include a monetary prize, which amounts to a $25,000 grant.

The established goal of this award is to promote the creation of new theatre, and no theatre has ever won the award twice. The most common theatre types to win the award are repertory theatres and Shakespeare companies.

2016 Recipient:

Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, New Jersey)

 

Past recipients:

1997: Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2008: Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Winner at the 62nd Tony Awards


 

Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award

This award is named for the late president of the American Theatre Wing, Isabelle Stevenson, and is the youngest of the Special Tonys, first being awarded in 2009.

The Isabelle Stevenson Tony is given to “an individual from the theatre community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations, regardless of whether such organizations relate to the theatre.”

2016 Recipient:

Brian Stokes Mitchell (for his work with The Actors Fund)

 

Past recipients:

2013: Larry Kramer for his work as one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

2014: Rosie O’Donnell for her work and commitment to arts education in New York City Public Schools

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Rosie O’Donnell accepting her award at the 68th Tony Awards


 

Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre

Created in 1990, this award  was designed to recognize “institutions, individuals, or organizations that have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theatre” but who are not eligible to compete in any of the current competitive Tony Award categories.

2016 Recipients:

Seth Gelblum (Theatre and Entertainment Lawyer)

Joan Lader (Vocal Coach)

Sally Ann Parsons (Costume Design/Tech)

 

Past recipients:

1993: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids

1995: National Endowment For The Arts

2013: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro, the four actresses who share the lead in Matilda: the Musical (awarded jointly to all four girls)

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“The Four Matildas” after their Matilda: The Musical medley at the 67th Tony Awards

 

“But Where Is The Award For Best Sound Design?” And Other Award Vacancies

In recent years, the debate for against including sound in the Tony technical awards has looked like a tug of war.

Only created in 2008, sound design was the youngest Tony Award until 2014, when the organization decided to pull the plug- quite literally. Unless reinstated, sound design will remain the shortest lived award in Tony history. But many sound designers and members of the technical theatre community continue to put up a fight.

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Brian Ronan accepting the 2014 Best Sound Design of a Musical Award. Received for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”

Every other major award show includes a category for excellence in sound design (this includes the Oscars, Grammy, etc.) but the Tony Awards were last on this train. The reason given? The same as why the committee decided to retract the award: the voters and committee don’t understand the craft, and when the award was still included, most voting members chose to forgo voting in the sound design category anyway.

The Tony Administration Committee has since said that they feel sound design is more of a technical award than a theatrical award. To many, this appears more of a lack of understanding than a shift in definitions.

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Hashtag started by the technical theatre community in 2014 after the announcement the Sound Design awards would be discontinued.

It’s been suggested by current West End and Broadway sound designers that Tony Award voters be educated on what to listen and look for with sound design, the same as they would listen to the original music in a play, or score of a musical. The committee has stated their hope to create a Special Tony Award for sound designers- but this would make sound the only “technical” category not included in the main award set.

Read about the committee’s announcement: click here

This has raised the question about what other awards the theatre community feel the Tony Awards have overlooked, and once they’re put in to a list, it may come as a surprise that these categories have never been historically considered.

  • Best Ensemble
  • Best Makeup and Hair Design
  • Best Original Score (Play)

 

MITM Musings: Have you ever thought about any other “missing” awards that could be added to this list?
Do you agree with those who want to add back the award or those who want to create the Special Tony Award?

 

“Let’s start at the very beginning!”: A History of the Tony Awards

After all, the beginning is a very good place to start! Maybe you’re new to the Tony Awards this year, or maybe you’ve never had the time to research before, but either way, we’ve got a brief history of the Tony’s for you today.

The Beginning of A Name

In 1947, the American Theatre Wing had recently lost one of it’s co-founders, Antionette Perry. Perry, who’s nickname was indeed Tony, had been both an actress and a director in early 20th century America, as well as helping found the American Theatre Wing. PBDANPE CS001

Perry’s dedication to high standards of theatre sparked an idea from the members of the American Theatre Wing committee. An award in Perry’s honor for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement in theatre. At the time, no such award existed for the theatre community, though the Academy Awards had already been in operation since 1929.

 

The official first awards ceremony was held on April 6, 1947, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, though through the years the ceremony would move both its date and location to be featured at Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre in June. The first “Tony Awards” were not Tony Awards in the sense that we know them. The prizes awarded were things such as “a scroll, cigarette lighter and articles of jewelry such as 14-carat gold compacts and bracelets for the women, and money clips for the men.” It was not until the third awards ceremony in 1949 that the first Tony medallion (pictured below) was handed out to award winners. Picturing the “comedy/tragedy” masks of Greek theatre tradition, all winners receive the same style of award.

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The Public Broadcast

It wasn’t until 1967 that the Tony Awards started their television broadcasts. Before then, the ceremony was considered a closed event for those in the theatre community, however, with the growing mainstream popularity of both the stage and television, the American Theatre Wing decided to bring the ceremony to the American people as well.

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Presenter Barbara Streisand with the winners of the 1967 Best Musical award, Cabaret. Librettist Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb, and producer Hal Prince.

 

The broadcast has remained much as we know it today, with from the nominated musicals, clips and presentations for the nominated plays, as well as celebrity announcers and skits.

Currently, The American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League administer the awards jointly as Tony Award Productions, but the ceremony is still billed as belonging to the American Theatre Wing.

In recent years, the viewing audience size for the broadcast is far below that of the Academy Awards broadcast, landing between six and eight million viewers on average.

To put the audience number in perspective, the 2009 Oscar broadcast netted 36.3 million viewers. However, if you’ve ever watched the broadcast before, you are aware of the dedication of those six to eight million viewers. Critics and professionals have likened the Tony Awards as being the “Oscar’s for the stage”, and the broadcast has come to be one of the theatre community’s biggest nights.

 

This Year’s Broadcast

In case you’ve missed it, the 2016 Tony’s are going to be broadcast on June 12 at 8 EST. Are you going to be joining the crowd of eight million watching the Sunday night broadcast? Or are you going to pick up the highlights following instead?

 


 

Quotes regarding original Tony Award ceremony: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/151713-FROM-THE-2011-TONY-PLAYBILL-Tony-Awards-at-65-Then-and-Now

Tony statistics:
Guess This Year’s ‘Tony Awards’ Viewership (Poll) + Ratings History

Oscar statistics:
https://ewinsidetv.wordpress.com/2009/02/oscars-dollhous.html

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