On June 13, two days after the Tonys, Actors’ Equity Foundation honored four of their own for performances on Broadway and off that were given during the year just ended.
First, the Clarence Derwent Award—at 72 the oldest honor on Broadway and named for the actor who served as Equity president from 1946 to 1952—went to the most promising female and male on the New York metropolitan scene. In this case, Katrina Lenk for her performances in Indecent (now closing June 25)and The Band’s Visit—and to Will Pullen as a volatile young factory worker in Sweat.
The intent of the second honor—the Richard Seff Award—is to acknowledge a veteran male and female in a supporting role. It was named after the 89-year-old character actor who specialized in such parts—and he was very much present in the Equity meeting room to see it go to Anthony Chisholm (Jitney) and Barbara Barrie (Significant Other).
“I can’t believe people cry at these things—I get so mad,” Lenk said, batting back her own tears with a laugh. She was presented the prize by one of her co-stars in The Band’s Visit, George Abud.
“These past couple of years since I moved to New York, I’ve been so fortunate to work on so many projects that fulfill me artistically,” she said. “It’s a dream to be challenged as an artist and as a person and to constantly learn and be inspired.”
Pullen was cited for his Broadway debut but has been distinguishing himself with a rangy array of blistering and/or touching performances Off-Broadway (Scarcity, The Wayside Motor Inn, and Punk Rock, for three). This being his first award ever, he confessed he was quite nervous but managed to distribute his gratitude carefully all the same.
“I’d like to thank Oskar Eustis and everybody at The Public for this opportunity and for bringing this very, very important story to Broadway,” Pullen said of Sweat, which just posted a June 25 closing notice at Studio 54. He also thanked his Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lynn Nottage, “who will go down as one of the great American playwright of our time or any time. She writes characters with depth, complexity and humanity, and I am so fortunate that she gave me the responsibility of bringing this person to life on stage every night.” And there were also some very kind words for “our fearless leader,” director Kate Whoriskey.
Barrie, who turned 86 last month, dashed in from Fire Island to pick up her trophy and dashed back out. She thanked all the personnel connected with Joshua Harmon’s play and did a deep bow in the direction of her son, theatre producer Aaron Harnick, and daughter Jane.
“They’re also my severest critics—they let me have it!” she added. “However, they are the best things that ever happened to me—including the grandchildren they have given me—and I wanted to say I’m so happy they’re here today. Their father and my husband [Theatreworks USA founder] Jay Harnick, loved the theatre more than anybody I ever knew. If he were here today, he would be so thrilled with this ceremony. So, to you all from the entire Harnick family and not just me, I want to say thank you so much. This is really a thrill, and I am very honored to accept the award.”
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Derwent- and Tony-winning actor in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars and the director of the Tony-winning revival of Wilson’s Jitney, introduced Chisholm by doing a hilarious, over-the-top imitation of him. They had co-starred in another Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, and Wilson had to cut one of Chisholm’s big speeches because he was delivering it with a mouthful of cornbread and beans and splattering food all over Santiago-Hudson’s hat.
A third of the Jitney cast—Michael Potts, Harvy Blanks and Tony-nominated John Douglas Thompson—were there to witness his win and smiled when he suggested they all share the wealth. “People I worked with—they should all be up here because this should be an ensemble acknowledgement,” he declared. “August wrote one of the purest ensemble pieces you could ever imagine. The Tony Award Committee should have a category for Best Ensemble.”
It was a sentiment that brought a quick, robust response from the Equity members.
The judges’ panel for these AEF awards hasn’t got an actor on it: Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News; Adam Feldman, Time Out New York; Susan Haskins, Theater Talk; David Rosenberg, The Hour Newspapers; and the author of this story, Playbill/Observer.