2023 Helen Hayes Awards
Gaby Albo and ensemble in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan ¡En español!, which won nine awards at the 2023 Helen Hayes Awards; Photo by Stan Weinstein

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Just minutes into opening the 37th Helen Hayes Awards, co-host Naomi Jacobson addressed the tragic elephant in the room. Hugo Medrano, the co-founder and producing artistic director of GALA Hispanic Theatre, had died hours before the awards’ evening kickoff. 

Jacobson took the moment to honor Medrano and his commitment to the local theater community, of which she declared he was a “beloved member.” Medrano and his wife, Rebecca, founded GALA in 1976 to create space for and celebrate Latinx performing arts. Today, GALA says it’s an “institution of international significance”; locally, Medrano was the longest serving artistic director in the Washington region.

“We’ll remember him with deep gratitude,” said Jacobson, before adding that, earlier in the day, Rebecca told the Helen Hayes awards team that she wanted them to celebrate “tonight.” 

And celebrate they did. As a tribute and testament to Medrano’s work, GALA was the night’s biggest winner, taking home a total of 11 awards for its 2022 productions, including nine for On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan ¡En español! (musical, Helen), one for REVOLTOSA (musical, Helen), and one for La casa de la laguna (play, Helen). Of its nine awards, On Your Feet! Won for choreography and its stars Gaby Albo and Fran Tapia (who described herself as a “Chilean queer,” thanked her wife, and dedicated her award to Medrano) took home both Helen awards for Outstanding Supporting Performer. 

Medrano “gave me my first job in the United States,” Tapia said. “May his spirit continue to inspire us.”

In one of the final wins of the night, On Your Feet! was named one of 2022’s six Outstanding Productions (for a musical, Helen). Once on stage, the cast and crew of On Your Feet! again paid their respects to Medrano and had the entire theater cheer, “Viva Hugo.”

Patrick Lord, who received the inaugural award for Outstanding Media/Projections Design (along with Jared Mezzocchi for Round House Theatre’s We declare you a terrorist), also made a point of thanking industry insiders who’ve spoken up against workplace toxicity. Last spring, Lord was part of a group of artists and production staff calling for a change in leadership at Spooky Action Theater, which just recently hired a new artistic director, Elizabeth Dinkova.

The Anthem filling up before the 2023 Helen Hayes Awards begins; Credit: Sarah Marloff

Last night’s ceremony, held at the Anthem, was the first in-person Helen Hayes Awards since 2019. (Jacobson joked that she’s been waiting three years to wear “this dress”—seeing as it was a great dress, it was worth the wait.) The awards, frequently described as D.C.’s version of the Tonys, recognized 131 2022 productions across more than 41 categories, including 97 plays, 39 musicals, and 38 world premieres. The Helen versus Hayes distinction depends on the number of union members involved in each production. 

This year was the second in which the awards did away with gendered acting categories. Instead of Best Actor and Actress, Helen Hayes nominates 10 and awards two performers the award for Outstanding Lead Performer

The two presenters handing out the Supporting Performers awards declared that making Helen Hayes gender inclusive frees actors from having to “misgender themselves.” Noting that this was the second year of gender inclusive awards, one yelled: “It’s about fucking time.”

Other big winners of the night included Signature Theatre’s productions of The Color Purple (musical, Hayes), which won four awards including Outstanding Production, and She Loves Me (musical, Hayes), which garnered two awards. Olney Theatre Center took home a total of five Hayes awards: three for Meredith Willson’s The Music Man and one each for The Joy That Carries You (play, Hayes) and A.D. 16 (musical, Hayes). 

Last summer’s production of The Music Man made headlines for casting a mixed company of Deaf and hearing performers. Likewise, one half of its co-directors is Deaf (Sandra Mae Frank), the other (Michael Baron) is hearing. Deaf lead James Caverly, who worked at the theater as a carpenter seven years ago, was awarded one of two Hayes awards for Outstanding Lead Performer. Signing from the podium, his interpreter voiced: “Never thought I’d come here tonight with so many Deaf nominees, let alone that I’d win one.” 

Nova Y. Payton took home the second Hayes for Outstanding Lead Performer for her role in Sigurnature’s The Color Purple. Payton was nominated twice in the category, also earning a nod for her work in Grace at Ford’s Theatre. 

The night ended with a major win for Studio Theatre. After Synetic Theater received its award for Outstanding Production for Host & Guest (play, Helen), last spring’s world premiere of John Proctor Is the Villain won the Hayes for Outstanding Production (play). Last fall, Kimberly Belflower’s play was awarded a Best of D.C. by yours truly for its daringness to ask “what would happen if we believed women first?”

Resa Mishina, Deidre Staples, Miranda Rizzolo, and Jordan Slattery in John Proctor Is the Villain; Credit: Margot Schulman

But it turns out the play was a risk Studio took. The theater’s artistic director David Muse, accepting the award as the cast and playwright gathered around him on stage, admitted, “This was one of those plays that we had to decide whether or not to produce coming out of the pandemic. And I have to be honest, at the time, it didn’t feel like an easy decision. It had an author that a whole lot of people hadn’t heard of and a cast of nine in a time when financial considerations were very much top of mind. But we loved it and we did it anyway and it wound up being one of the highlights of my tenure at Studio.”

This was the second win for John Proctor Is the Villain, its cast of nine having won Outstanding Ensemble earlier in the night. The actors were giddy when they, like Muse, thanked Belflower for her work. Muse concluded his speech, saying: “For me, this is just a really nice reminder that sometimes the right call is to trust your gut, and follow your heart, and take a risk.”

Though there are too many highlights to do justice to them all, a few other winners worth mentioning:

ExPats Theatre and Prologue Theatre were two recipients of the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. In her acceptance speech, ExPats founder Karin Rosnizeck said she started the company to bring more women’s stories to the stage. Listing ExPats many dark story lines, including its just wrapped production of The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield, Rosnizeck said, “I hope we’ll do a comedy soon.”

Justin Weaks and January LaVoy took home the Hayes for Outstanding Lead in a play: Weaks for playing T in Woolly Mammoth’s There’s Always the Hudson—the actor dedicated the award to survivors of sexual assault—and LaVoy for Theater J’s Fires in the Mirror. In a quick but lovely speech, LaVoy noted, “There’s no such thing as one-person shows, only shows where you see one person on stage.”

Raymond O. Caldwell and Adrienne Torf received the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical Adaptation (play, Helen) for Theater Alliance & IN Series’ production of  Poetry for the People: The June Jordan Experience.

Fabiolla Da Silva was named Outstanding Supporting Performer (play, Helen) for Prologue Theatre’s Revolutionists, declaring on stage: “Y’all, I quit my full time job last year to do this for a living! This is insane.” The play also won an award for best direction.

Billie Krishawn screamed into the microphone upon reaching the stage to collect her award for Outstanding Supporting Performer (play, Hayes) for Mosaic Theater Company’s The Ballad of Emmett Till

And while Round House’s much-beloved production of The Tempest took home four Hayes awards, cheers might have been loudest when Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers received their joint Outstanding Supporting Performer win for playing the monster Caliban. In Chris Klimek’s December review, he noted, “The pair should win a special Helen Hayes Award for outstanding achievement in athleticism.” 

Muhammad called the role the “hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional career,” but said it keeps on giving.

Ryan Sellers and Hassiem Muhammad as Caliban in The Tempest; Credit: Scott Suchman

Visit Theatre Washington, the organization behind the awards, for the full list of winners. theatrewashington.org.