Once again, the Non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards ceremony at Park West was sold out, and once again, the evening was hosted by Sarah Hayes and Karl Hamilton, whose hilarious commentary kept the show moving along rapidly. But while last year’s awards were dominated by Bailiwick’s phenomenal production of The Wild Party, this year a far higher number of shows received recognition as both nominees and recipients. Early in the evening, the hosts pointed out that 82% of Jeff recommended shows this year received at least one nomination, and that 44% of eligible shows were recommended. They called this #sexymath (with an educational strip-tease from multiple-nominee Chris Logan), the first of a series of mock-hashtags used by director Brenda Didier to demonstrate that the Jeff Awards are as cool as the people competing for them.
Those who did not see many of the recipient shows will have another chance to do so soon. Definition Theatre Company and The New Colony’s collaboration Byhalia Mississippi and Oracle’s The Hairy Ape, which each received three awards, will be remounted at Steppenwolf and the Park District’s Theatre on the Lake, respectively. Seeing these shows receive so much recognition was a very happy moment for my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, of which Byhalia director and Definition artistic director Tyrone Phillips and Jeff Award for Actor in a Principal Role in a Play recipient Julian Parker are recent alumni. Raven Theatre will also be remounting Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, which shared the award for ensemble with Steep’s Posh, and features Breon Arzell, who received the award for Artistic Specialization for being The Hairy Ape’s step master.
A frequent theme of the Non-Equity Jeffs is “emerging talent,” so much so that the hosts made the phrase into criteria for a drinking game. In truth, not all the artists at the Non-Equity Awards are kids. The first award of the night went to Byhalia actor Cecelia Wingate, who is new to Chicago, but has an established career in Memphis, and most of the design recipients have been at this for a while. Christina Calvit, who shared the award for New Adaptation for her script of Miss Buncle’s Book at Lifeline, has been with that company since her partner Dorothy Milne founded it thirty years ago.
However, Courtney Mack, who received the award for Actress in a Principal Role in a Musical for Heathers, graduated from Columbia College in 2015, and Aubrey McGrath, who received the award for Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical for Rent, graduated last year from Northwestern University’s theatre program. The ensembles of Posh, Direct from Death Row, Rent, and The Hairy Ape were all quite young, and those of The Drowning Girls and Incident at Vichy skewed young, as well. While being awarded her special honor, director Kimberly Senior was praised mainly for her advocacy and mentoring of up-and-coming directors. There are a few nominees who theatre-watchers may well expect to see go Equity this year, but there are others who have had the opportunity to do so for a while, and have simply chosen to remain with Non-Equity companies.
Overall, the standard of competition in almost every category was very high this year, and the wide array of recipients in terms of companies, style of work, and demographics of the artists signal an exciting future for both the Chicago theatre scene and the Jeff Awards themselves (most of those hashtags actually were quite funny). Despite the category Production of a Revue, which Theo Ubique had long dominated, being merged with Production of a Musical, Theo Ubique still took the award. Bailiwick, Kokandy, and Griffin received an equal number of awards this year, after Bailiwick’s near-clean-sweep last year mainly beat out those other two. Griffin’s Robin Witt received the award for Director of a Play for the second year in a row, and once again the drama she directed got the award for Production of a Play. This year’s ceremony was also a bit more logical, in that the In Memoriam segment has apparently been moved to the Equity Ceremony, so we won’t have overlapping memorials that some people are arbitrarily shared or divided between, and the excerpts from dramatic works performed as part of the ceremony were chosen to make a bit more sense out of context. Direct from Death Row’s excerpt was basically an extra musical number. Hopefully we’ll see the same caliber of work continue from the Non-Equity division, from which several strong shows have already been recommended, and a similar level of competition for this year’s Equity Awards, which will be in October.
PRODUCTION – PLAY
“London Wall” – Griffin Theatre Company
PRODUCTION – MUSICAL OR REVUE
“Rent” – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
DIRECTOR – PLAY
Robin Witt – “London Wall” – Griffin Theatre Company
DIRECTOR – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Scott Weinstein – “Rent” – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Julian Parker (Yank) – “The Hairy Ape” – Oracle Theatre
ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICAL
Quinton Guyton (Mama) – “Lawd the CVS is Burning…A Gospel Musical Stage Play” – MPAACT
ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Amanda Drinkall (May) – “Last Train to Nibroc” – Haven Theatre
ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICAL
Courtney Mack (Veronica) – “Heathers: The Musical” – Kokandy Productions
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – PLAY
JP Pierson (Mendy) – “The Lisbon Traviata” – Eclipse Theatre Company
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Aubrey McGrath (Angel) – “Rent” – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – PLAY
Cecelia Wingate (Celeste) – “Byhalia, Mississippi” – The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL OR REVUE
Amanda Horvath (Sara) – “Murder Ballad” – Bailiwick Chicago
Anna Dauzvardis (April, et al.) – “Liberty City” – eta Creative Arts Foundation
Evan Linder – “Byhalia, Mississippi” – The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company
Elizabeth Lovelady – “D.O.A.” – Strawdog Theatre Company
Christina Calvit – “Miss Buncle’s Book” – Lifeline Theatre
Sawyer Smith – “Heathers: The Musical” – Kokandy Productions
ORIGINAL MUSIC IN A PLAY
Danny Rockett – “How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients” – Trap Door Theatre
Jeremy Ramey – “Rent” – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
John Wilson – “Byhalia, Mississippi” – The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company
Charles Cooper – “Murder Ballad” – Bailiwick Chicago
John Nasca – “Design for Living” – Pride Films and Plays
Jeffrey Levin – “The Hairy Ape” – Oracle Theatre
Breon Arzell – Step Master – “The Hairy Ape” – Oracle Theatre
SPECIAL JEFF AWARD
For more information, see the Jeff Awards’ website.