By Bill Hirschman
The 44th annual Carbonell Awards celebration unveiled Monday night was unique, not simply because it was held online in a polished prerecorded production during an unmoored time of uncertainty, but because of its noticeable acknowledgement of the diversity of the South Florida theater community.
Honoring excellence in South Florida theater for calendar year 2019, the awards, which have been quietly accused over the years of not reflecting diversity, pointedly went out of its way this year to be inclusive in its annual celebration.
Zoetic Stage in Miami dominated with 12 awards – including most of top honors – during the one-hour 49 minute event “broadcast” on the Carbonell’s YouTube channel. More than 500 people tuned in and more were expected to check out the archived edition on the homepage of the Carbonell Awards (carbonellawards.org).
The equity effort was visible from the choice of on-camera musical performers to those presenting awards, such as African-American Darius J. Manuel, executive artistic director of the Renegade Theatre Company established two months ago in Lauderhill to “create bold, socially and politically motivated work.”
In presenting the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Manuel said, “We were founded in the middle of a global pandemic, but we are a diverse group of artists and we are here to disrupt the racial status quo and to revitalize the voice of the underdog…. We know theater is on a short intermission right now, but we plan to be a part of the re-launch and we plan to be a part of the revolution so that we can redirect the way we are telling stories.”
Manuel, an educator as well, posted a scathing lengthy letter on Facebook a week ago accusing his former employer of Florida Children’s Theatre of repeated and extensive “micro- and macro- aggressions.”
Similarly, William Fernandez, one of the producers of the immersive Amparo The Experience, said in accepting the special Ruth Foreman Award for the production, “We will treasure this the rest of our lives…. But I wish to make a plea to South Florida theater owners and operators… to include people of color in leadership positions. It’s very, very important that these voices be heard.”
In a section spotlighting Palm Beach Dramawork’s best play nominee Fences, nominated actress Karen Stephens said “Playing (the wife) Rose gave me the opportunity to explore the dynamics of the black household that is responding to societal oppression, and having been born a black woman in this country, I felt like I had some experience to bring to that role. “
The awards’ commitment extended to hiring local actress and diversity consultant Christina Alexander to advise the evolving production.
Although nominations went to eight artists of color and 16 nods in 20 overlapping categories went to productions concerning race, African Americans Rita Cole took home an award as best supporting actress in a play for New City Players’ production of A Raisin in the Sun and Justin M. Lewis won for choreography for Hot Shoe Shuffle.
The winning statistics were unusual as well with an overwhelming sweep by Zoetic Stage, which accumulated the most wins by a single company in the awards’ history. The Miami company won Best Musical for its vibrant small-cast staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Best Play for its unique imaginatively visual edition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Zoetic also scored Best Ensemble for The Wolves about a girls’ high school soccer team and Matt Corey’s work in Sound Design for Every Brilliant Thing.
The Sweeney sweep of eight awards tied it with a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Actors’ Playhouse in the 1999/2000 season as the most awarded show in Carbonell history
Company co-founder Stuart Meltzer won both directing awards for a musical and a play. The last time that happened was in 2002 when GableStage’s Joe Adler won for A Lesson Before Dying and James Joyce’s The Dead – which won Best Play and Best Musical.
Other notable results centered around writer-actor-producer Ronnie Larsen and actress Jeni Hacker. Larsen, best known for his gay-themed farces, won Best New Work for his world premiere Grindr Mom, a gently humorous yet insightful play in which a conservative Mormon mom comes to terms with the fact that her son is gay. Larsen also had been nominated in that category for his other serious play of the season, An Evening with John Wayne Gacy.
The titular wife in Grindr Mom was portrayed by Hacker who won the Best Actress in A Play Award for that role. And she won the Best Actress in Musical Award as the demented pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett in Zoetic’s Sweeney Todd, again a rare double score in different genres. A highlight of the Carbonell broadcast was Hacker recreating Mrs. Lovett’s manic solo “The Worst Pies in London” filmed in Hacker’s own kitchen.
The Wick Theatre was host to one winner: Lewis’ sometimes percussive, sometimes graceful choreography for Hot Shoe Shuffle.
Palm Beach Dramaworks, which received the Bill Von Maurer Award, came into the evening leading the field with 29 competitive nominations. It hosted three winners: Best Supporting Actress in a Musical to Amy Miller Brennan as Shelby, the wife who blossoms during The Spitfire Grill; Best Scenic Design went to Anne Mundell for an evocative slice of the French Quarter in A Streetcar Named Desire; and Best Supporting Actor in a Play to David Kwiat as Phil, the doomed actor in the company’s world premiere of Ordinary Americans.
New City Players, the young troupe in Fort Lauderdale soon to move to the ArtServe space, was home to Cole’s performance in Raisin as well as the acclaimed central performance of the troupe’s producing artistic director Timothy Mark Davis as an autistic adult in Falling, earning him the Best Actor In A Play award.
Winners were encouraged to post acceptance speeches and photos on the Carbonell’s social media pages.
The evening occurred at a time of frustration and fear in the theater, but the event was infused with hope.
To that end, the event’s opening — usually a classic showtune with parody lyrics – was much different this year. The Carbonell staff previously asked anyone to submit a photo or short video of them holding up three words that answered the question “Why does theater matter now?”
As Ben Bagby and Leah Sessa sang “You Matter To Me” from the musical Waitress, the screen unreeled about sixty responses – wry, heartfelt, jocular, touching — from actors, producers, children, designers, stage managers, administrators, some local, some who have left, all bearing sentiments reaffirming their sense of being members of a community. Answers scrawled, painted and printed out encompassed sentiments such as: brings humanity together, remembrance hope commitment, health insurance payment, theatre springs eternal, restoration change forward, it’s my soul, healing transformative family, and a dancer swaying by the sign I Can Breathe.
Similarly, Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, accepted the Carbonell’s most prestigious honor, the George Abbott Award, by saying, “As we all navigate the unknown path back to live theater and our livelihoods, keep this in mind: The human spirit longs for the shared experience of live theater that you all provide so well. If anything, you know that better now, we feel it more deeply now, and we know it’s going to be an important part of our lives forever. And when our theaters are active again, it will be a signal to say we have survived and it’s time to thrive. So stay ready and we’ll be there together when the curtain rises.”
The gala nicknamed theater prom was scheduled to be held April 6 at the Broward Center where theater artists, patrons and fans gather annually in their finery for the premier socializing reunion of the theater season. But COVID 19 forced the non-profit board to hire Fantel Music to create the event.
Veteran musical director Caryl Fantel; her husband, Roy; their actress daughter Alyssa, and James Weiss applied varied talents to create the evening designed to break the paradigm of the traditional Carbonell gala. For instance, there was no running host, just announcer Geoffrey Short, and no acceptance speeches thanking mothers and spouses. But that allowed for extended scenes from nominated musicals either as clips from the shows or recreated numbers, plus interviews with artists involved in all of the nominated plays.
The opening was followed by an extensive photo montage set to the overtures from Gypsy and My Fair Lady of virtually every professional production from 2019. It was followed by a message: “Dedicated to the life and legacy of Joe Adler for his years of passion and commitment to the South Florida theatre community.” Adler, the beloved artistic director of GableStage, died in April as he was rehearsing The Price.
The Carbonells have been a flashpoint for discussion whether South Florida theater has a racism problem. All of the winners in the performance and directing categories in 2018 were white, as well as nearly every winning designer. But in 2017, four of the winners in eight acting categories were African-American. M Ensemble, the oldest continuing black troupe in the state, was also awarded statues for Best Director, Best Ensemble, Best Supporting Actor in a Play and Best Production of a Play in connection with Kings of Harlem.
A Florida Theater On Stage analysis of nominees and recipients listed on the award’s website plus reporting on the program from 2011 through 2019 showed 14 productions dealing directly about race or with a specific racial element received nominations and four of those won the award. Similarly, artists of color from actors to designers received 74 nominations with 16 of them bringing home the award.
In addition to Hacker’s kitchen performance from Sweeney Todd, the evening included clips of the productions of Memphis from Actors’ Playhouse, the cast of Slow Burn Theatre’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Julie Kleiner leading the cast of the Wick Theatre’s Crazy For You in “I Got Rhythm,” and a Zoomed reprise of “The Colors of Paradise” from Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Spitfire Grill, sung by Ashley Rose, Amy Miller Brennan and Elizabeth Dimon, and accompanied by the show’s original band Michael, Tom, Katie and Josh Lubben. Accompaniment on other music during the evening was provided by Caryl and Roy Fantel, Liubov Ohrimenco, Elena Alamilla and Paul Tine.
The annual special awards allowed recipients to give pre-recorded acceptance speeches.
Veteran actress Barbara Bradshaw received the Bill Hindman Award “recognizing contributions to South Florida theater development by an individual or group, for singular achievement and/or career contributions.”
She responded that it was both the best and worst of times to receive this award during such a difficult time for her community. But “to be recognized by the Carbonell board for my 45-year career in South Florida, a career spent speaking the words of brilliant playwrights and sharing the stage with the finest talent one could ever hope to work with, well, I can only say that there is no more blessed gift, no more delightfully welcomed honor than one given to one by colleagues and respected artists.”
Dramaworks’ leaders Sue Ellen Beryl and William Hayes accepted the Bill Von Maurer Award “given to the theater company that exemplifies excellence for the totality of its programming: productions, educational outreach, developmental programs and audiences served.”
Shanley received the George Abbot Award from local critic Christine Dolen who has given the award for several years alongside the late Joy Abbott, the famed director’s widow.
The memorial section, with Kareema Khouri singing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” honored Jerry Herman, Jeff Ostrow, Tom Regnier, Kevin Coughlin, Judy Drucker, Zev Buffman, George Wentzler, Joy Abbott and Joe Adler.
The winners of the Jack Zink Memorial Student Scholarships also spoke in pre-recorded acceptance speeches: Skye Alyssa Friedman of Palm Beach County, Jeremy Fuentes of Broward County and Amaris Rios of Miami-Dade County.
Awards were presented in 20 competitive categories, featuring 100 different nominations. Out of more than 80 shows that opened in 2019 at regional theaters, 62 were eligible for nominations.
The elephant in the room was the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. One of the most award-honored companies in the region, its management requested in September that none of its shows be considered. City Theatre in Miami also asked that its Shorts programs be removed from consideration, although not its full-length plays, one of which did produce a nomination for Irene Adjan for Best Actress in a Play in Cake.
The Maltz leaders’ concerns included perceiving favoritism among nominators and judges, a lack of transparency of the board of directors, questioning the expertise of some nominators and judges in technical categories, unfairly giving more weight to smaller companies without the Maltz’s resources, and a lack of responsiveness to producers’ concerns.
Carbonell officials disagree with the validity of some of the concerns, although board president Don Walters has invited anyone to discuss them. Further, the board has made alterations to the system in recent years to address some concerns.
The Maltz’s request removed from consideration several potential nominees, most notably in some observers’ minds Al Blackstone’s choreography for West Side Story and Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design for Mamma Mia!
Usually, the event is memorable for artists dressing up and embracing friends they have not seen in months or even years. To make up for a bit of the lost glamour, Managing Director Mary Damiano invited attendees to submit a photo of themselves wearing their party attire, which she posted on the organization’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CarbonellAwardsInc/) to create a virtual red carpet. The evening’s program can be seen at https://view.flipdocs.com/?ID=10026442_652725
(Full disclosure: This reporter has been a Carbonell nominator, assistant administrator and is currently a judge.)