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Black Catholics up for honors at the 76th Tony Awards

Black nominees in the 2023 field are plenty, and several have interesting connections with the Catholic Church.

Jordan E. Cooper, Rashad V. Chambers, LaChanze, Wendell Pierce, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Debra Martin Chase and John Douglas Thompson at an African American Film Critics Association event last fall. Pierce and Chase are two Black Catholics nominated for Tonys this year. (Rowena Husbands)

The 76th Tony Awards will take place on Sunday, June 11, in New York City, where the stars will gather at the United Palace in Upper Manhattan to celebrate Broadway's finest—including a number of Black Catholics.

For the second year in a row, the Afro-Latina actress Ariana DeBose will host the ceremony, which will air amid a nationwide writer’s strike. DeBose had been expected to perform an opening number written by the Catholic-raised Lin-Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame, but—despite a picketing waiver granted by the striking Writer’s Guild of America—no new written content from WGA members can be used for the ceremony.

Leading off in the Black nominee field is Wendell Pierce, who received his first-ever Tony nod for acting with his leading role as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which is in its fifth revival on Broadway. It first premiered with Pierce in 2022, following his run with the show three years earlier on the West End in London. The production is the first version on Broadway to feature a Black cast in the lead roles.

Pierce, a Black Catholic, wrote last month that he is “proud and grateful” for the recognition “after years of creating a body of work in the theater.”

“I received a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Play… I am profoundly grateful and moved to tears that my colleagues would bestow on me this honor. I share this with my cast. We create as one.”

RuPaul Charles (of “Drag Race” fame), another Catholic-raised nominee, will be up for Best Play as a coproducer on Jordan E. Cooper’s “Ain’t No Mo’”, set in an alternate universe where the U.S. government plots to send willing African Americans back to Africa. Cooper made history with the play as the youngest African American to make his Broadway writing debut, at just 27 years old.

The production’s lead, the Catholic-educated Crystal Lucas-Perry, is nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Play, her first Tony nomination and one of six for Cooper’s Broadway debut—leading this year’s field for plays.

Cynthia Erivo, an English Catholic singer-actress of Nigerian descent, is a coproducer on “Fat Ham,” a Black-centered rendering of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” from Villanova University professor James IJames. The production is also up for Best Play and previously won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year.

This year marks the first time that two non-binary performers will be nominated for performances in the same year, though the award’s categories remain gendered. One of the two is the Catholic-educated Alex Newell, who is a nominee for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. Newell plays Lulu in “Shucked,” which narrates the journey of a Midwestern couple forced to postpone their wedding due to a corn crop failure.

A reworking of “The Piano Lesson,” the 1987 work written by Black Catholic playwright August Wilson, is nominated for Best Revival of a Play. The production covers two siblings in Wilson’s emblematic Charles family (part of his Pittsburgh Cycle of plays) and was helmed in its revival by LaTanya Richardson Jackson—the wife of Samuel L. Jackson, who stars in (and is nominated for) the leading role.

The veteran TV and film producer Debra Martin Chase (1997’s “Cinderella,” “The Princess Diaries,” “The Cheetah Girls”), the first Black woman to sign a deal with a major studio, is up as a producer for Best Revival of a Play with “Topdog/Underdog.” The play covers the troubled lives of two African-American brothers. Both Chase and the play’s creator, Suzan-Lori Parks, were raised Catholic; for her work on “Topdog/Underdog,” Parks became in 2002 the first Black woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

At the 71st Annual Spring Luncheon Tribute hosted by the New Dramatists, Parks was honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award for her more than three decades of service in theater, during which she has written 19 plays and four screenplays. All of this year’s Tony nominees were honored with official plaques at the Tony Nominees Luncheon at the Rainbow Room at the Rockefeller Center on June 1.

The Tony Awards show will air live on June 11 at 8pm ET  on CBS and Paramount+, with a pre-awards show airing on the free streaming platform Pluto TV.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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