By Keyanah Nurse
As award-winning actress Lisa Arrindell took the stage to perform her tribute to the late Toni Morrison, the audience fell silent, intent to pay homage to one of the most prolific American writers of all time. Primarily comprised of black women, the audience collectively murmured in agreement as Arrindell, through Morrison’s timeless words, reminded us of the necessity to love the black flesh that we inhabit. We must nourish it, nurture it, and care for it, despite living in a world that would otherwise destroy it. The powerful yet angelic voice of the renowned Deborah Cox followed such a performance, echoing and exemplifying the importance of celebrating black talent.
Both Arrindell and Cox’s performances served as powerful openings for Café Mocha Radio’s 2019 Salute Her Awards, held on September 16, 2019 in New York City. As Sheila Eldridge, the creator and executive producer of the Café Mocha Radio Show, explained in her opening remarks, she founded the Salute Her Awards in order to recognize and celebrate the trailblazing efforts of women of color in the arts, business, and philanthropy. Over the past nine years, the awards ceremony has occurred in cities across the United States, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
In spirit of the ceremony’s opening debut in New York City, seven of the eight honorees were pioneers and legends within the world of theatre. As black women, they collectively have made significant strides to change the so-called “Great White Way,” a nickname for a section of Broadway that cuts through Manhattan’s Theatre District. Although the nickname emerged in the early 1900s to describe the unprecedented electric lighting of the area, it also functions as a double entendre for the performers, producers, writers, designers, and directors of color who have fought for more diversity within an unkind and historically white industry.
The seven honorees recognized for their contribution to theatre included Alia Jones-Harvey, a Olivier Award winner and Tony Award-nominated producer; LaTanya Richardson Jackson, a multiple award-winning actress and philanthropist; Lynn Nottage, the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama; Linda Stewart, a trailblazing public relations CEO; Cookie Johnson, legendary wig, hair, and makeup designer; Dr. Indira Etwaroo, a Fulbright Scholar and executive director of the Brooklyn-based Billie Holiday Theatre; Dominique Morisseau, a MacArthur Genius Award winning playwright; and Leslie Uggams, a legendary Tony and Emmy-award winning actress with a career spanning over seventy years.
Although each honoree shared the particularities and challenges of her own professional journey, a central theme emerged across them: black stories matter, and the successful execution of those stories in the theatre must be supported by talent on and off the stage. As these women explained to the audience, black actors and actresses may be the stars of the theatre industry, but they can only thrive when they are supported by black playwrights, black directors, black designers, and black producers.
The ceremony certainly celebrated the importance of the African American experience within theatre, but it also highlighted the ways in which black women specifically are often at the vanguard of instituting change across various institutions. In addition to honoring the aforementioned women, the Salute Her Awards celebrated two black women with a demonstrated commitment to serving and improving their communities. Victoria Roberts won the “Nominate Her Award,” an award presented to a woman within the tri-state area who has been recognized and nominated by her local community. As a formerly incarcerated person, she now works to help others in comparable situations to re-enter society successfully. Retired Colonel Annette Tucker Osborne was also recognized both for her military service as well as the continued work she does as president of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Association of Black Military Women. She received the American Pride Award, presented by one of the event’s primary sponsors, Toyota.
As the evening drew to a close and the audience filed out of the auditorium, the collective sense of sisterhood and solidarity was impossible to miss. Indeed, the event’s tagline, “step into your power,” not only reminded us of the profound legacy these women have shaped, but it also served as a mandate for the future: that those of us in the audience can similarly step into our own power and create more space at the table for other women trying to grab a seat.
Keyanah Nurse is a femme intellectual queen on a mission to change the way we think about love, intimacy, and connection. Follow her on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.