As nonbinary performers gain recognition, will the Tony Awards nix gendered acting categories?

The Tony Awards Administration committee unveiled their first round of eligibility determinations on February 2 for the 2023 Tony Awards. Pundits eagerly anticipate these determinations because they officially categorize contenders for the race ahead. We find out which performers are deemed lead or featured, and which productions are considered new works or revivals. But for one performer this Broadway season, the prospect of slotting themself into any of the existing acting categories didn’t feel right, and it’s shining a spotlight on inclusivity when it comes to the awards race.

The performer in question is Justin David Sullivan, who identifies as trans nonbinary and portrays May in the hit jukebox musical “& Juliet.” They would have been eligible for consideration in either Featured Actor in a Musical or Featured Actress in a Musical, but they did not feel like their identity fit either designation, and so withdrew their name from consideration altogether. In a statement to the New York Times, Sullivan said “I felt I had no choice but to abstain from being considered for a nomination this season. I hope that award shows across the industry will expand their reach to be able to honor and award people of all gender identities.”

Gender neutral acting categories have become a growing topic of discussion with awards bodies as nonbinary performers continue to procure prominent roles across theater, film, and television. Nonbinary actor J. Harrison Ghee currently stars in the new musical “Some Like it Hot” and has chosen to compete for Lead Actor in a Musical at the Tonys, where they are seen as a frontrunner. Just recently, the Outer Critics Circle announced that they will remove gender designations from their categories for this season’s awards. The Lucille Lortel Awards, which exclusively honor Off-Broadway productions, already adopted gender neutral acting races last year. We have also seen other major regional theater awards adopt this model, such as the Helen Hayes Awards in DC and the Jeff Awards in Chicago; and with awards for other mediums, including the Grammys, Indie Spirits, Gothams, Dorians, and MTV Movie Awards.

SEE 2023 Tony Awards eligibility rulings (round 1): ‘Kimberly Akimbo,’ ‘Into the Woods’…

Nonbinary performers have argued that forcing an actor to identify as a cisgender man or woman (when they identify as neither) in order to have the chance for awards is a form of erasure. Asia Kate Dillon sums this up succinctly in their open letter to SAG from 2020: “Separating people based on their assigned sex, and/or their gender identity, is not only irrelevant when it comes to how an acting performance should be judged, it is also a form of discrimination. Not only do your current categories erase non-binary identities by limiting performers to identifying as male or female / man or womxn (which not all SAG members, like myself, do), they also serve as an endorsement of the gender binary at large, which actively upholds other forms of discrimination, including racism, the patriarchy, and gender violence.” Dillon recently starred as Malcolm in a Broadway revival of “Macbeth” opposite Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, and removed themself from competition just as Sullivan did this year.

In response to Sullivan’s decision the Tony Awards released the following statement to the Times: “We recognize that the current acting categories are not fully inclusive, and we are currently in discussion about how to best adjust them to address this. Unfortunately, we are still in process on this and our rules do not allow us to make changes once a season has begun. We are working thoughtfully to ensure that no member of our community feels excluded on the basis of gender identity in future seasons.”

If there are discussions afoot about making these awards races more inclusive (and it’s worth remembering that acting is the only discipline at the Tonys which is separated by gender), then what might be the best way to desegregate the acting categories? I may not have all the answers, but I am a Broadway and Tonys obsessive. So allow me to put forth a few ideas.

The most obvious solution is to combine lead and featured races, so that like other disciplines, there is no mention of gender in the title. This would still leave the Tony Awards with four acting categories in their ceremony: Lead Performer in a Musical, Featured Performer in a Musical, Lead Performer in a Play, and Featured Performer in a Play. These four races would have a standard set of ten nominees each, with the ability to include one to three additional nominees per the Tony Awards’ rules on tie votes.

Speaking of ties: I suggest that when it comes time to declare a winner, the Tonys increase the percentage of votes between the first and second place finishers which constitute a tie. The administration already does this in the nomination round: the difference between fifth and sixth place votes in a category can be within 10 percent of total votes cast in order for it to qualify as a tie. In these cases, a sixth nominee is added to the lineup. Producers, who use Tony wins as important advertising tools, would no doubt fret about cutting down on the number of awards given. But if we expand the possibility of double winners, it increases the likelihood that two actors could walk away with trophies when there are two truly iconic performances within one category. Bette Midler (“Hello, Dolly!”) and Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”) in 2017 immediately spring to mind as a past example.

SEE 2023 Tony Awards: Get your MetroCard ready, new venue is 6 miles from Broadway

If the industry is worried about cutting the total number of awards, then might I suggest that this would be a fabulous opportunity to add a Best Ensemble prize to the mix. This would provide another opportunity to recognize actors, specifically the type of performance work that is regularly overlooked at the Tonys, yet is the lifeblood of a Broadway show. For plays, an ensemble category could honor the type of hyper-connected collective work found in last season’s “For Colored Girls.” For musicals, it’s a chance to recognize the unceasing athleticism of a dance ensemble, like in this season’s high-octane “Some Like it Hot.”

If you ask industry members about gender neutral acting categories, the most consistent fear among them is the worry that women will suddenly be underrepresented in the eventual list of nominees. Given that women have had to work for decades to receive an equal seat at the table in the industry, and indeed, are still working towards equal representation, it’s a valid fear. This is especially true when it comes to non-musical plays, where male roles tend to dominate the scripts which arrive on Broadway. Final category placements have not been made for every production in the 2022-2023 season, but by my count there are 15 leading male roles in plays, compared to just seven leads for women. This speaks to a greater discussion, expanding beyond the Tonys, as we must investigate what stories are being funded on Broadway, and how to increase gender equity in storytelling.

Using the above breakdown of roles as an example, would a combined Lead Performance in a Play category result in men dominating the field? That was unfortunately the case with the Brit Awards, where despite a mix of genders in most categories, the Best Artist field consisted entirely of cisgender men. But the data we have from awards bodies who have eliminated gender segregation from their awards tells us that this type of outcome is an exception, not the rule.

In examining the 2022 Lucille Lortel nominations, which was their first year presenting gender-neutral acting categories, the fear that women would be overlooked did not come to pass. Their Lead Performer in a Play category consisted of four women and one man. Featured Performer in a Play and Lead Performer in a Musical both had three women and two men. Featured Performer in a Musical was made up of three men and two women. While it would be impossible to guarantee that a slate of nominees in a gender-neutral acting category consists of truly equal representation of all genders, we see similar results to those above when looking at the nomination lists at the Gotham, Dorian, and Independent Spirit Awards.

Justin David Sullivan and J. Harrison Ghee are just two examples of nonbinary performers doing incredible work on the rialto. They will certainly not be the last, and so the question of gendered acting categories at the Tonys is not one that will go away. Especially as our industry, and society as a whole, increasingly strives towards a true sense of equity.

Equity is already a tricky concept to marry with an awards race. Art is subjective after all. Every season I champion actors, writers, and designers who move me to tears and laughter, yet ultimately fail to receive any Tony recognition. But in an effort to celebrate this artform that we love, we must place rules around it. Only so many people can be nominated. Even fewer can win. The concept of winners and losers isn’t inherently equitable. But I still believe that there is a way in which we can listen to and empathize with artists whose experiences in life may be different from our own. A nonbinary actor may win or lose. But we can still make space for them in a way that recognizes who they are as a person. After all, the Tony Awards at their core are a celebration of Broadway. Let’s make sure it feels that way for everyone.

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