The Exuberance of the Helen Hayes Awards

Carolyn Cole received Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Musical, for "Hairspray" at Signature Theatre.
theatreWashington
Carolyn Cole received Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Musical, for "Hairspray" at Signature Theatre.

A circus troupe sat in front of me at the 28th annual Helen Hayes Awards at the Warner Theatre April 23, or at least it felt like that.

At this annual bash and awards show for the Washington theater community, actors, designers, directors and entire companies become winners but somehow never losers. Unlike the Tonys, the Oscars or the Emmys, there's nary a snide comment--certainly not on stage, but who knows what goes on in the bathrooms--or cause consciousness-raising, or political statements. Nevertheless, on Monday evening, there were politicians also on stage, reveling--can you believe it?--in the spotlight.

And there was the cast and company of Signature Theatre's "Hairspray" (which starred D.C. cultural critic Robert Aubrey Davis as Edna), up for a number of awards, including outstanding resident musical ensemble. One member of said ensemble (she had suffered an injury during a performance of the show) was Kara Tameika Watkins, just dazzling in a red-gown-crutches ensemble which she brought off with remarkable aplomb, with a little help from her mom.

I was sitting right behind them in row Y in the back, and I asked Watkins's mother, Sheila, if they had thought about what would happen if they would win. Mom shook her head and said, "She'll be just fine."

You know how this story ends.

Up on stage, a voice rings out: "And the outstanding ensemble, resident musical is...."

"Hairspray, Signature Theatre."

They squealed, they yelled, they screamed, they jumped out of their seats, and, what, maybe 50, I don't know exactly how many, struggled into the aisles as if they had just opened the doors at Walmart for the first hours of Christmas shopping. Right there in the middle, wielding and walking and, I thought, running with her crutches was the vision in red, Kara Tameika Watkins.

They were up there, hugging each other, jumping up and down. Davis, at the mike but not in costume, showered them with eloquence, erudition and theater love, as he thanked them for accepting him in their midst.

It was a Helen Hayes moment--and a "theatreWashington" moment--one of many that seem to become an instant part of the lore and legend of each and every one of the 28 awards nights, all but two of which I've attended. I am a lot older than the young Ms. Watkins, but for a shining moment I felt, if not just as young, a little less old.

"Hairspray" was a big winner that night--the show's super-charged star Carolyn Cole got best actress kudos in a resident musical, and the show itself was named Best Resident Musical

But that noise in the back--including the very loud sound of "The Sound of Music" supporters, is always something that seems unique to these awards, and mark it as a celebration not a competition. Sure, you can grouse about the results, the judges, the critics, the ties, the process and make perfect sense while you propose restructuring plans.

But the night isn't about making sense. It's about theater, which hardly ever makes perfect sense--oh, that nicely made play--but beats with the fever of heart, soul and imagination, and in this case, about a community.

"I don't know, it hardly seems so local any more," I heard somebody say in the street. "It's getting a little big."

Well, here's a scoop: Washington's theater world has indeed gotten bigger with 805 productions, 84 theaters, 9,903 performances and 2,261,509 audience members, according to the stats in the program. These numbers do not include dozens, maybe hundreds of critics, writers and freeloaders who have the audacity to take their tickets and still feel free to complain about what they've seen.

But I don't think it has gotten too big for its britches, not even, and especially during the course of the Helen Hayes Awards. There are always ghosts in the house, puns in the air, and all these people to thank. If the first words spoken by a recipient was, "Wow" (I think it was Mark Acito, author of "Birds of a Feather" at the rising Hub Theatre in Virginia), it was not the last time the word was heard. It was topped only by the all-purpose "amazing," a word--like "dude"--which should be retired or at least allowed to be used only once by each winner.

At these awards there are always luminaries who are honored and present for their star power--in the past we have had everyone from Angela Lansbury to Derek Jacoby. This year, we had Kevin Spacey.

Spacey was the recipient of the Helen Hayes Tribute--sponsored by Washington uber-theater benefactor and philantropist Jaylee Mead--and the man knows how to put on a show.

Spacey has roots here, as he acknowledged, but more than that he is one of those stage actors who became a big movie star (two Oscars), but never abandoned the stage, supporting young actors and now being the American head of the classic Old Vic in London.

He's also an FOB--Friend of Bill--former President Bill Clinton who showed up in the form of a video tribute to Spacey. Spacey could have done it himself--he gave a wicked, thickly corn-pone accented impression of Clinton.

We remember Spacey here at the early stages of his stage career: awkwardly as the son to Liv Ullman's mother in Ibsen's "Ghosts" at the Kennedy Center ("My first Broadway play," he said.); splendidly as the son to Colleen Dewhurst's actress mother in Peter Sellars's pitch-perfect "A Seagull" at the Kennedy Center; superbly as the son to Jack Lemmon's father in Jason Miller's strange version of O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the National Theatre; and winningly as the mobster uncle in Neil Simon's "Lost In Yonkers."

Spacey--he won Oscars for "The Usual Suspects" and "American Beauty"--was mindful of giving back. "I learned that from Lemmon, my mentor, my friend," he said.

He was eloquent, funny, inspiring and profane--he managed to drop the F-word not once but twice, tying Robin Williams's old record from the Mark Twain Awards, or maybe not.

The F word is easy. Pronouncing the names of many of the Synetic Theater performers and artists of the theatre company which specializes in a form of silent and action theatre created by the company's directors Irina and Paata Tsikurishvili is not so easy, nor is spelling them. Nevertheless, the company's production of "King Lear" (silent Shakespeare) won several awards, including outstanding ensemble.

There were outsiders here: elected officials and media types like Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who read the city-council official proclamation for theatreWashington's theater week, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

But mostly, there were these our players, our magic makers, such as Mitchell Hebert, who won best actor for Theater J's quasi-Arthur Miller substitute in "All Fall Down," Ted van Griethuysen, for "Dogberry," praising his comrade-in-arms Floyd King. "Ruined," the great play at Arena grabbed only one award, but it was the one that really counts -- "outstanding resident play." Adventure Theater under Michael Bobbitt continued its amazing rise with several awards. Holly Twyford was singing and hoofing her heart out. There were the ghosts of Helen Hayes and James MacArthur.

And, of course, the girl in red, her mom, all the kids screaming and yelling their hearts out.

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Thu, 18 Sep 2014 21:46:49 -0400

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