A musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker’s timeless exploration of Black queer love, took top honors at the 2019 Barrymore Awards, which recognizes excellence in Philadelphia theater. The ceremony took place on Oct. 14 at the Bok Building in South Philadelphia.
Produced by Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, “The Color Purple” won the prize for Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical. Amina Robinson took home the statue for Outstanding Direction of a Musical, and Amanda Morton was crowned for Outstanding Musical Direction.
Jessica M. Johnson and Ebony Pullum, who portrayed the central couple, Celie Johnson and Shug Avery, were awarded Outstanding Leading Performance in a Musical and Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Musical, respectively. The entire company, which included several out performers, won in the category of Outstanding Ensemble of a Musical.
“The Color Purple” also received the Brown Martin Philadelphia Award, which is given to “a production that best leads audiences to a better understanding of the unique experiences of particular segments of our global community.” The award carries a $25,000 honorarium.
The evening’s other big winner was the Arden Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” which was directed by multitalented out artist James Ijames. Ijames received the award for Outstanding Direction of a Play, his second win in that category.
“Gem of the Ocean” won a total of nine awards, including Outstanding Ensemble of a Play. Ijames was thrilled to share the moment with his cast and collaborators.
“I felt really proud because everyone worked incredibly hard,” Ijames told PGN. “I’ve never seen people work so hard on a production. It really meant something to each of us to be as true to the play as we possibly could, while also putting ourselves into it, so that we could extend the imagination of the play.”
In 2018, the Barrymores joined the growing ranks of theatrical awards that have done away with binary gendered performance categories. In an effort to recognize the gender diversity on display within the local artistic community, there are now Outstanding Leading Performance and Outstanding Supporting Performance categories for plays and musicals. Each category has a maximum of two winners.
This year, the Charlotte Cushman Award for Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play went to two out local actors: Brandi Burgess won for her performance in “Cry It Out,” which was produced by Simpatico Theatre Project; and Justin Jain won for his performance in InterAct Theatre Company’s production of “The Great Leap.”
“It was very shocking, because my fellow nominees are awe-inspiring,” said Burgess. “It’s just great to be on the list, but it’s such a shock when they’re calling your name. I felt so honored.”
“Cry It Out” considers the expectations placed on new mothers. Burgess highlighted the diversity and accessibility embedded in Simpatico’s production — including a partnership with the Parent Artist Advocacy League that provided childcare and flexibility for the working parents in the company — and hoped it could serve as a model for equity in the future.
“We had a femme-powered production team, and a lot of thick and plus-sized bodies in the room,” Burgess said. “There was a lot of schedule flexibility, especially for the parents in the room, and for people like me who are balancing complicated work schedules. The accessibility of the production was such a treasure, and it felt so good to be able to celebrate that.”
The Charlotte Cushman Award is named for the legendary 19th-century stage actress Charlotte Cushman, who was openly lesbian. Cushman frequently appeared on stage in Philadelphia, often playing male and female roles in equal measure.
Jain is the first Asian American man to win a Barrymore for a leading performance, and he sees special significance in receiving the award for a play that centers on a distinctly Asian story. “The Great Leap” chronicles a “friendship” game played between American and Chinese basketball teams in the 1980s, with Jain taking the part of a Beijing university basketball coach.
“Growing up, I never saw bodies like mine onstage,” Jain told PGN. “Going to college, I never thought I would have the opportunities that I have. Back then, the most mainstream things were ‘Miss Saigon’ and ‘Flower Drum Song’ and ‘M. Butterfly,’ and I had a very myopic view of what was available to me. Over the course of my career, theater has changed and America has changed. To be the first Asian American male to win this award is huge, and I hope there’s another young person of color who can see me up there and think, ‘I could be up there someday.’”
The Steve and June Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company was presented to Lightning Rod Special, a company that often focuses on LGBTQ perspectives. The award comes with an honorarium of $10,000.
This year’s ceremony also saw the introduction of an award for Outstanding Outdoor Theatre Production. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, a local queer performance collective, received the inaugural award for their production “Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes.”
For a complete listing of this year’s winners, please visit theatrephiladelphia.org/barrymore-awards.