by ED RAMPELL
In 1989, LA STAGE Alliance founded the annual Ovation Awards ceremony “to recognize excellence in theatrical performance, production and design in the Greater Los Angeles area,” as the event program explains. But attendees could be excused for mistakenly thinking the January 17 ceremony was part-awards show, part-political rally. Before the show, protesters (unaffiliated with guests or the Ovation Awards producing team) stood outside the Ahmanson, greeting audience members with signs spelling out “I-L-L-E-G-I-T-I-M-A-T-E.” Inside, many presenters and award winners — including actors, playwrights, directors, designers, etc. — included decidedly anti-Trump messages in their talking points and acceptance speeches.
Meryl Streep may have ignited the Golden Globes with her stinging rebuke of Trump on live TV, but there were at least a dozen onstage denunciations of Trump during the Ovation Awards. Some were delivered with humor, such as the double entendre involving Kitty Swink’s feline first name. (During the presenters’ banter, referencing Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, the actress — who appeared in 1988’s Patty Hearst — quipped: “Let’s just say, this ‘kitty’ grabs back.”) Other jibes at Trump went further. Luis Alfaro, who won for Playwriting for an Original Play (Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles), made a rabble-rousing speech, exhorting writers, then actors, to stand up — urging them to use their voices and theatrical talents in the upcoming months to oppose any injustices to come.
Steven Leigh Morris, LA STAGE Alliance’s Executive Director, stressed the importance of “empathy” within the theater community. As Streep and others have noted, Trump’s mocking of a disabled journalist, and his disparaging remarks about women, immigrants, refugees and others indicate a lack of empathy, and compassion.
Echoing remarks made by Brandon Victor Dixon (Hamilton’s Aaron Burr) to Mike Pence from the stage of Manhattan’s Richard Rodgers Theater, presenter Sterling K. Brown (of TV’s This is Us and The People v. O.J. Simpson.) put his finger on the Ahmanson audience’s underlying anxiety about the new administration: “L.A. is the most diverse theater in the country,” insisted Brown.
This diversity refers to ethnicity, as well as to sexual preference and identity — the types of diverse communities that have been attacked by President Trump and are threatened by his perceived white nationalism and sexism, and the types of communities so prevalent in Los Angeles’ creative community.
The Ovation Awards was hosted by transgender actress Alexandra Billings (Transparent), and LGBTQ-themed plays and venues were among the evening’s big successes. Celebration Theatre’s The Boy From Oz was a multiple winner, while Los Angeles LGBT Center scored the Best Season accolade. In his acceptance speech for the Center, Director of Cultural Arts & Education Jon Imparato proclaimed: “We’re in for the fight of our life with… the Trump regime.”
Although L.A. and California overwhelmingly voted blue, the criticism wasn’t particularly partisan — few, if any, mentioned Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party (although one presenter, Democrat Mitch O’Farrell, is an L.A. city councilman). Still, the message of acceptance, empathy, and fighting for the diversity within the arts community united the words of presenters and winners; if there was a fuming Trump supporter in the mix, no remarks were made to indicate as such.
From Hamilton’s cast speaking directly to Vice President Pence on Broadway to tweetstorms attacking SNL, from entertainers declining to perform at the inauguration to Meryl’s Golden Globes moment, it’s clear that the relationship between the new administration and the creative community isn’t going to be an easy one. Much of Trump’s current rhetoric has sounded alarm bells for those whose livelihoods depend on the free expression guarantees of the First Amendment, which is enshrined in the Constitution Trump swore to “preserve and protect” just days after the Ovation Awards ceremony.
Arguably more than any other single major arts occasion in 2017 so far, the almost nonstop excoriation of Trump’s White House by dissenting talents during the Ovation Awards is a sign of things to come: Artists and the press will continue to speak out against the President’s attacks on civil liberties. From the Great White Way to L.A., the stage and screen are careening on a collision course with the Trump presidency.