Steve Griffiths: Audra McDonald's Tony Awards speech personal

FresnoJune 13, 2014 

NEW YORK – The fuss about Audra McDonald's acceptance speech at the Tony Awards needs to fade away as fast as fake fog on a stage.

Some have criticized the former Fresno artist for saying during her acceptance speech: "I want to thank my mom and my dad up in heaven for disobeying the doctors' orders and not medicating their hyperactive girl and finding out what she was into instead, and pushing her into the theater."

On the Internet, many who choose to medicate their children with an array of drugs are feeling a lack of support. They should focus on what is best for their family and refrain from insipid criticism.

"I just had a nervous breakdown," she explained in my presence, referring to her genuine teary acceptance speech Sunday at The American Theater Wing's 68th annual award ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. Yet that was joy, not advocacy.

Everyone has a personal decision to make about treatment of their loved ones. It is ridiculous to think that a 90-second award show speech will change a course of treatment.

But about two hours in the theater can open minds and possibilities.

Just weeks after a luminous appearance in Visalia, McDonald was center stage at America's most prestigious theater ceremony. At age 43, she is within a career that could eventually require a Broadway theater to be named for her. For now, she will continue her role as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" along with other projects.

McDonald, a veteran of Fresno's Good Company Players, now has been honored with six Tony Awards, a record not necessarily because of the number but because of the range of categories in which she has been honored.

"It is just such a privilege to be part of this community," she genuinely told me. One frequently hears the word "community" at the Tonys, especially from the artists.

Although there is brutal competition among producers for theater space, there is a difference from the plasticity of Hollywood and the authenticity of Broadway

On Broadway, there are eight shows a week for a typical production. No retakes. No cuts. Just raw emotion and amazing talent.

McDonald has both of those attributes. And she should not be forced to defend her comments. We do not need to agree; we need to consider other points of view.

This is part of the thrill of live theater, on and off stage. We listen, we learn and we question. Some see theater as an escape, and that is fair. Others see that red velvet curtain as a mirror. When they descended this year, there was much at which to look inside yourself.

Example: In "Mothers and Sons," Tyne Daly forcefully interpreted Terrence McNally's new script about a mother's long-postponed reconciliation with "the summer cough" — AIDS — and her refusal to accept that her deceased son was gay.

Although Daly was my personal favorite, the five women nominated for leading actress in a play all deserved the honor. Tough choice.

Elsewhere on Broadway, "All The Way," an exquisite portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson's push for civil rights, won for best play. Consider the similarity: It recounts the struggle for civil rights and "Mothers and Sons" involves the modern movement for equal marriage, which I wholeheartedly support as a gay man.

As for the recipient of best musical, I am probably the only patron on the planet who did not enjoy "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," the senseless spectacle of — I lost count — 17 redundant murders to propel a self-serving distant heir to a throne.

Thankfully, instead of the talented but underused leading man of "Guide," Neil Patrick Harris was honored as best actor in a musical for his amazing leadership in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

More than ever, the awards serve as a marketing tool. There is a suspicion that the voters — mostly producers, directors and venue owners — look for something to sell nationally. Not to disparage current casts, but anyone can do "Gentleman." All that is needed is hyperactivity. With limited exceptions, I doubt a dozen simultaneous productions could equal Harris' involvement in the "Hedwig" role.

The good news is that in Fresno and the Valley, it is possible to enjoy theater, opera and art without traveling 2,875 miles to New York. Keep your eyes and ears open to opportunities. Imagination fuels creativity and energy.

McDonald is a Valley treasure – no, a global treasure. The next one, perhaps your child or grandchild, could be standing on that stage crying with joy some day. Inspire that child, because the honor could some day belong to everyone. Theater is life.


Lemoore resident Steve Griffiths is a member of the Visalia Arts Consortium and the Tulare County Symphony Association board of directors. He has attended more than 1,200 performances on Broadway since 1984, and this year marked his 25th annual attendance at the annual Antoinette Perry "Tony" Awards.

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