Inside the 2020 TCG Gala: Our Stories Honoring David Henry Hwang and NC Black Rep’s National Black Theatre Festival with André De Shields

Awards, Benefits, Photography, Theater

Hadestown star André De Shields, a TCG/Victory Gardens Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellow, 2020 Grammy winner and 2019 Tony winner arrived at The Edison Ballroom in New York just in time to catch an excerpt of Holy Ground, a documentary film celebrating the legacy of the National Black Theatre Festival® (NBTF) and its founder Larry Leon Hamlin, “Mr. Marvtastic,” at the 2020 TCG Gala: Our Stories on February 3, 2020.

Melissa Joyner, kb saine, Jackie Alexander, Clarielle Marsh, André De Shields, Michael Dinwiddie, Teresa Eyring and Erich McMillan-McCall. Photo by Lia Chang

The film features interviews with Black Theatre legends, groundbreaking performances, archival NBTF footage, and a behind-the-scenes look at NC Black Rep, while shining a light on the birthplace of NBTF, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the City of Arts and Innovation. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Ka’ramuu Kush, Holy Ground promises to be one of the most entertaining and culturally significant films in in the history of Black Theatre.

kb saine, Woodie King, Jr. Michael Dinwiddie, Elizabeth Van Dyke and André De Shields. Photo by Lia Chang

Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for theatre, celebrated the NC Black Rep’s National Black Theatre Festival® (NBTF), Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and TCG’s arts advocacy at the federal level during a festive evening.

Lia Chang, David Henry Hwang, Kathryn Layng, Alyse Alan Louis and Billy Bustamante.

Performance highlights included James Jackson, Jr. singing “Memory Song” from A Strange Loop, written by Michael R. Jackson and directed by Stephen Brackett.

James Jackson, Jr. Photo by Lia Chang

Playwright and actress Nambi E. Kelley shared Dr. Maya Angelou’s manifesto for the National Black Theatre Festival, originally delivered by Angelou at the inaugural Festival in 1989, and then read her poem, Alone.

André De Shields and Nambi E. Kelley. Photo by Lia Chang

Ms. Kelley also gave props to Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre in New York where she served as a playwright in residence from 2015 -2017. In 2019, she was awarded the inaugural Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin Rolling World Premiere Award at the National Black Theatre Festival commission from NC Black Rep to develop a play based on the life of Dr. Maya Angelou, and guarantees the play three productions at NC Black Rep, Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis, and Ensemble Theatre in Houston. Her new play, Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou, will open at NC Black Rep in May 2020.

Producer Steven Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey introduced NBTF artistic director Jackie Alexander and board president Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin.

The performances continued with a song from Soft Power, written by Hwang, with music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, and directed by Leigh Silverman. The scene was introduced by Silverman and featured “Happy Enough” sung by Alyse Alan Louis and Billy Bustamante.

Called “thrilling, moving, and revolutionary,” by Variety, Soft Power premiered in May 2018 at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles where it won 6 Ovation Awards, including Best New Production, and enjoyed a successful run in Fall 2019 at The Public Theater.

Alyse Alan Louis and Billy Bustamante. Photo by Lia Chang

Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, introduced Hwang who received a standing ovation.

Below is David’s acceptance speech:

David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang

“Thank you Oskar, for being my friend, my artistic collaborator, and now my producer for almost 30 years. And thanks to Alyse and Billy and Leigh and Sam and Jeanine for bringing some Soft Power into this room!

Oskar Eustis, Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang

TCG suggested I might accept this amazing honor with a story from my life. However, I happen to be a playwright who has been putting those stories into my shows, and often, in case anyone missed it, naming the main character “DHH.” So let me try instead a story comprised of many.

I once asked my friend, the playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, what he would not have predicted when we began writing plays with Asian American stories in the late-1970’s. Philip replied, “I never even thought we would be studied in schools and colleges.”

So I want to recognize my fellow artists along the way who told their stories without expectation about where their hard work and passion would lead, but simply because these stories had to be told.

• Thanks to actors like Mako, who co-founded East-West Players in Los Angeles, where I hung out as a 10 year-old when my mother was a rehearsal pianist for one of their early shows. Without any of us knowing it at the time, they put into my head the idea that people who looked like me could be actors, directors, and artistic leaders.
• Thanks to the Asian American playwrights who preceded me like Wakako Yamauchi and Momoko Iko and yes Frank Chin, who did come into my life later on to call me a sell-out and a white racist, but before that, made me realize that such a thing as an Asian American playwright could exist.
• Thanks to the playwrights of my generation, like Philip Gotanda, who I toured with in a band playing what I sometimes now refer to as Asian American protest music, until we both walked away from performing to pursue the much more practical career path of playwriting. While we were still musicians, we were brought up to Vancouver once for a gig produced by a community organizer named Rick Shiomi, who would also become a playwright and later the artistic director of Theatre Mu in Minneapolis.
• Thanks to all the Asian American Theatres, including the wildly creative, anarchic, sometimes rather dangerous Asian American Theatre Company in SF, where I once threw a chair through a window and also met an actress named Emilya Cachapero who let me sleep on her and her then-boyfriend Jim’s couch for a whole summer.
• Thanks to the Asian American actors, whose names I’ve never learned, but in 1979, staged the first “yellow face” protest in New York history outside the Public Theater, which had hired a non-Asian actor for an Asian role. Joe Papp, who was still the Producer then, responded by hiring one of the protesters onto his staff to find plays for Asian actors, which led to the production of my first show, FOB, a year later. And that makes me the proud beneficiary of affirmative action.

This is how artistic movements grow, through the intersection of circles which start to converge – young artists who make work simply out of a need to tell their stories, without knowing where their paths will lead. Intersecting with circles of allies and supporters, who decide for whatever reason – artistic, political, commercial, they’re all good enough, in my view – to devote their resources and influence and boost these voices.

Snehal Desai, Emilya Cachapero, David Henry Hwang, Mia Katigbak, Soriya Chum, Billy Bustamante and Alyse Alan Louis. Photo by Lia Chang

For me, that includes so many people, many of whom are in this room, thank you for being here. I only get to tell my stories – even still today – because of you all. But at this event, I particularly want to remember Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch, who ran TCG for almost 25 years. They began inviting me to panels and events after my first play was produced, then put me on TCG’s board in the mid-1980’s, when I was only in my 20’s. And a shout-out to my longtime collaborator Terry Nemeth, who has not only kept my plays in print for almost 40 years, but has arguably kept play publishing itself alive in America all this time.

Leigh Silverman, Kathryn Layng, David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang

My mother passed away last year. I’m sure she would’ve enjoyed being here because she too always supported me. But her passing reinforces the importance of family, which is such a Chinese-y thing, but also pretty universal, so thank you to my wife, Kathryn, who has always valued the importance of my work, but when our kids were little, also taught me to take weekends off.

Joe Papp gave me my first production because he wanted to create “a theatre which looked like New York.” From the perspective of forty years ago, we have come a long way. But as someone still working today, we have so far to go — to become a theatre which looks like this country. When I think of TCG, I think of the “C:” communication. I’m only here thanks to a web of communication which could link communities. Today, there’s a whole new generation of artists out there, doing the most important thing they can: taking what is unique and idiosyncratic and weird about them as their gift, to make the work only they can make. They will become the new mainstream. Because their stories are our stories.”

David Henry Hwang’s stage work includes the plays M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face, Kung Fu, Golden Child, The Dance and the Railroad, and FOB, as well as the Broadway musicals Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song(2002 revival) and Disney’s Tarzan. Hwang is a Tony Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time Obie Award winner, and a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the most-produced living American opera librettist, whose works have been honored with two Grammy Awards. He co-wrote the Gold Record “Solo” with the late pop icon Prince, and worked for four seasons as a Writer/Consulting Producer for the Golden Globe-winning television series “The Affair.” Hwang serves on the Board of the Lark Play Development Center, as Head of Playwriting at Columbia University School of the Arts, and as Chair of the American Theatre Wing. M. Butterfly recently returned to Broadway in a revival directed by Julie Taymor, which marked his eighth Broadway production. East West Players has named its mainstage the David Henry Hwang Theatre and recent honors include his 2018 induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Hwang was a Residency One playwright from 2012-14 at New York’s Signature Theatre.

André De Shields and David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang

After Hwang’s speech, Jackson performed “Solo,” a song Hwang penned with Prince. The final performance of the evening featured Bustamante, Jackson and Louis performing “What a Wonderful World”.

Alyse Alan Louis, James Jackson, Jr. and Billy Bustamante. Photo by Lia Chang

Alyse Alan Louis, James Jackson, Jr. and Billy Bustamante. Photo by Lia Chang

Click below for full coverage of the night. 2020 TCG Gala Celebrates Legacies and Potential 

TCG is the primary advocate for the not-for-profit professional theatre in the United States. TCG represents the theatre field both in Washington, D.C., and nationally, to provide timely information for theatres and theatre artists on federal legislation, regulations, and other significant government opportunities and issues. TCG focuses its advocacy in five major areas: 1) increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; 2) increased funding for arts education within the U.S. Department of Education; 3) favorable tax treatment of not-for-profit arts organizations and charitable contributions; 4) working toward improved cultural exchange by improving visa processing for artists from abroad and increasing funding and 5) White Space – protecting wireless microphones from interference.

Erich McMillan McCall, Nambi E. Kelley, Lia Chang, kb saine, Woodie King, Jr., Michael Dinwiddie, André De Shields and Elizabeth Van Dyke. Photo by Lia Chang

Jerry Patch, Kathryn Layng, David Henry Hwang, James Jackson, Jr., Pun Bandhu and a guest. Photo by Lia Chang

The National Black Theatre Festival® (NBTF) is a program of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NC Black Rep). Presented every odd numbered year, the festival hosts upwards of 120 performances, attracts upwards of 65,000 visitors to Winston-Salem, and has contributed over $230 million dollars to the Winston-Salem economy since its inception in 1989. Founded in 1979 by Larry Leon Hamlin, NC Black Rep was the first professional Black theatre company in North Carolina. NC Black Rep’s mission is to engage, enrich, and entertain with innovative programming that resonates across the community and challenges social perceptions. The Company is universally recognized for its artistic and administrative achievements and its international outreach program, the NBTF.

TCG’s annual Our Stories Gala supports vital programs and services for the theatre community. Past honorees at the TCG annual gala-now in its eighth year- include actor Brian Dennehy, director Kenny Leon, playwright Lynn Nottage, actress and playwright Danai Gurira, theatrical producers Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, set designer Ming Cho Lee, lighting designer Jules Fisher, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, The Vilcek Foundation, producers Ruth and Stephen Hendel, Judith O. Rubin, and the creators of War Paint (Scott Frankel, Michael Greif, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright).

Lia Chang and André De Shields

Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers,  musicians and corporations. Lia has appeared in the filmsWolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman. She stars in and served as Executive Producer for the short independent films Hide and Seek, Balancing Act, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness and When the World was Young. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and She is profiled in Jade Magazine and

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