Loni Love and Loretta Devine (Ramon C. Ward, Jr. photo)
From left are Joe Morton, Council President Herb Wesson and NAACP Hollywood/Beverly Hills Branch President Ron Hasson. (Ramon C. Ward, Jr. photo)

The Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP branch once again affirmed and celebrated the immensely rich talent found on the stages of Black theatre with an evening abounding with icons, legends and rising stars at the 28th Annual NAACP Theatre Awards held on June 17 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

The evening commenced with a lively red carpet beaming with Black Hollywood including actress Margaret Avery, actor James Pickens Jr., actor Orlando Bloom, actress Loretta Devine, film producer Clint Culpepper; actor/gospel star Bebe Winans, actor Glynn Turman, actress Logan Browning, film director Matty Rich, actor Quincy Brown, actress Raven-Symoné and playwright Don B. Welch.
For the first time, the Theatre Awards combined the Technical and Performance Awards into one ceremony. Kinnik Sky, producer and “American Idol” alum, kicked off the event by presenting the Technical Awards. J. Boykin, millennial saxophonist, provided the entertainment for this portion by weaving through the audience and playing above the crowd atop empty chairs, commanding the attention in the room.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” walked away with three technical awards for Best Costume, Best Lighting and Best Set Design in addition to an acting award for Best Ensemble Cast in an equity theatre. Nominated in the 99-seat theatre category, “Transition” took home three technical awards for Best Costumes, Best Lighting and Best Sound.

After the Technical Award winners were announced, the Amazing Grace Conservatory (AGC) performed a spirited performance from “Westside Story.” Founded by actress Wendy Raquel Robinson, AGC is a Los Angeles entertainment-training institute for youth and young adults interested in performing arts.

The host for the evening was none other than funny lady Loni Love. An Emmy and NAACP Image award winner, Love seamlessly combined humor with her knowledge of theatre while walking the audience through an evening of excellence.

From left are Billl Duke, James Pickens Jr., Joe Morton and Bebe Winans. (Ramon C. Ward, Jr. photo)

The evenings’ presenters included director Bill Duke; “Greenleaf” actress Deborah Joy Winans, comedian/actor London Brown, actresses Emayatzy Corinealdi and Kimberly Elise, theatre and television star Carly Hughes, Edwina Dickerson from “Tyler Perry’s If Loving You Is Wrong,” plus Joe Morton, stage/screen icon and star of “God Friended Me.”

The big winners of the night fell under the category of musical with “Born for This” taking home five trophies including Best Lead Male – Juan Winans, Best Supporting Female – Nita Whitaker, Best Director of a Musical – Charles Randolph-Wright, Best Music Director – Jaret Landon; and Best Playwright – Bebe Winans and Charles Randolph-Wright. “Born for This” follows the early career of famed brother and sister gospel duo Bebe and CeCe Winans.

Not to be undone, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” earned four wins including Best Ensemble Cast, Best Costumes – Paul Tazewell, Best Lighting – Howell Binkley, and Best Sound – Gareth Owen. This production portrays the life of legendary disco queen, Donna Summer.

In addition to the performance and technical awards, there were four very special honorees. The first of the evening was the Spirit Award, which is presented to an actor with tenacity, innovation, commitment, talent and spirit on the stage. This year’s Spirit Award honoree was actress Condola Rashad, who accepted her award from actor Orlando Bloom. Bloom and Rashad played the leading roles in the Broadway production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Logan Browning and Kimberly Elise. (Ramon C. Ward, Jr. photo)

In her acceptance speech, Rashad reminisced about two other honorees for the night –Lillias White and Viola Davis. Calling them “barrier breakers,” Rashad recalled meeting the two icons through her mother, Phylicia Rashad, who shared the theater stage with both actresses. Describing her love for the art form, Rashad said, “It is an artist’s greatest dream to be able to constantly utilize their time-traveling, shape-shifting ability to offer the opportunity to the audience to go on an incredible journey.” Later in the program, Rashad accepted Best Lead Female award on behalf of her mother, who was unable to attend.

Ron Hasson, president of Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP branch, along with Bill Duke presented the President’s Award to Los Angeles City Council president Herb Wesson, Jr. The President’s Award recognized Wesson for his dedication to keeping the arts alive, his hard work in the community and commitment to ending homelessness in and around Los Angeles.

Wesson joked about not being worthy of the award, but he promised he was not giving it back either. He thanked all the entertainers that night and added “Because of you, we can go to a theater, sit in a chair, watch you, and travel around the world without leaving that theater… You make us laugh; you make us cry; but most importantly, you inspire us, and you make our lives a little easier.”

Julius Tennon presented his uber-talented wife, Viola Davis, with the Trailblazer Award. He opened with all the titles that Davis carries: “Mother, wife, partner, philanthropist, actress.” Calling her, “a voice for women everywhere,” and “a kind and beautiful soul,” Tennon affectionately added, “My Boo,” to his introduction.

The audience ushered her to the stage with standing ovation. In her acceptance, she offered that, “I don’t see myself as a trailblazer, I see myself as authentic.” Davis reminded the audience that, “We have to support all voices…We are trying to put work out there that represents us…If you don’t go to see that movie, you are sending a very clear message to Hollywood that we don’t deserve diverse voices.” She closed with her favorite saying, “You can either leave something for people or leave something in people, and so what are you as an artist leaving in people?”

Glynn Turman and Margaret Avery (Ramon C. Ward, Jr. photo)

Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Lillias White serenaded the audience with a soulful rendition of “I Love the Lord” during her approach to the podium to accept her award. Former Lifetime Achievement Award honorees Loretta Devine and James Pickens, Jr., star of “Grey’s Anatomy,” presented White with the esteemed honor, touting her long list of achievements including acting with Devine in the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.”

Along with all her acknowledgements in her acceptance speech, White thanked her vocal coach of over 30 years, who was in the audience. She ended her remarks with a “sincere thank you” to the “African American audience for this glorious and confirming honor.” As she departed, White treated the audience to another sampling of her rich voice as she sang herself off the stage.

Raven-Symoné delivered a powerful speech that recapped the night’s special honorees and their accomplishments of sharing their incredible gifts with the world.

Executive producer Tia Boyd along with NAACP Theatre Committee members Martha Pruden-Hamiter and Lynn Patterson provided acknowledgements to the production team, theatregoers, performers, event producer and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas for his fight against housing discrimination and homelessness in Los Angeles County.

The committee then presented the tireless Boyd with a beautiful bouquet of flowers in gratitude for her efforts in putting the show together. Also, Hasson thanked the host, the executive producer and the Theatre Viewing Committee, who attended more than 75 productions throughout the year.

For full list of winners, visit naacptheatreawards.com/28th-annual-naacp-theatre-awards-winners-june-17-2019.