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In Conversation: Drew Shade and Ashley C. Ford on the Antonyo Awards

June 18, 2020 by Ashley C. Ford
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Andrew Shade and Ashley C. Ford (Ford photo by Heather Sten)

Friends (since the eighth grade!) Drew Shade and Ashley C. Ford have a lot to catch up on. They both grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, attended the same schools, and are incredibly proud of each other’s success.

The Broadway Black founder and the acclaimed writer met up virtually to discuss Shade’s latest venture, The Antonyo Awards, which celebrate the Black theater community.

The awards will air on June 19, also known as Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. The broadcast, which will feature performers like Audra McDonald, LaChanze, Cynthia Erivo, Alex Newell, and more, will be broadcast on Broadway Black’s YouTube and Facebook pages at 7PM EST.

Ford and Shade discuss what makes this moment so significant for the Black theater community and why lifting up Black joy is so important during this time.

Ashley: Why did you pick Juneteenth for the first Antonyos ceremony?

Drew: One of our board members, Ianne Fields Stewart, recommended just off the top and it should be on Juneteenth, signifies a day of freedom. A day of… A new way, a new life, and just really a great homage to the ancestors and the people that come before.

Ashley: What was the reaction of the people you reached out to, to be part of the Antonyos, when you let them know that this was your idea that it was going to be on Juneteenth? How did they respond to that?

Drew: It was a resounding, “Yes.” Anybody that didn’t… weren’t able to be a part of it in a way that we were asking to, fully supported the idea. Literally just thought it was a wonderful event to be happening, especially during this particular time. It’s all been just nothing but love and more so than we ever really thought. People are getting so much joy from this, and that was the goal, but this is more than we ever, ever thought it would be.

Ashley: I was playing Kelly [my husband] the recording of you singing.

Drew: Oh, my goodness.

Ashley: I did not realize it was his first time hearing you sing, which is wild to me.

Drew: Really?

Ashley: Yes. He had never heard you sing before. He started to cry. He had all these big emotions about it because he’s like, “You’ve been telling me about Andrew and I never heard him sing,” he said, “and you know, I knew he would be good because you said he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.” I started to talk to him about how long we’ve known each other. We’ve known each other since the sixth grade.

Drew: Yeah.

Ashley: I told Kel, “And he’s been like this the whole time. He introduced me to Cab Calloway in middle school. I didn’t know who Cab Calloway was. We both loved theater and performing, but he was part of these show then. He sought these opportunities out.” This has always been part of you, a dream you’ve always had. So how did you decide now is the time?

Drew: I just listened to my gut instinct. I needed something to hold onto. I felt like I’d lost everything. I was doing a show in Virginia—doing “Dreamgirls,” one of my all-time favorite shows. I was playing Curtis. I’ve done every other one. I’ve done C.C., I’ve done Jimmy. I’ve been a part of the ensemble.

And so being able to play Curtis and being at that point in my life where I fit that role, and then have it just snatched away in the blink of an eye was very devastating. It was finally the time, I thought, for myself to hit the stage. I needed something to ground me, to insulate me from what was happening in the world, and I’m so glad that I did because we started planning this before George Floyd’s murder. When that happened, I was sort of protected. It was like a sort of a shield of joy around me that I had to hold on to people that I don’t know. Being such an empath, I don’t know how I would’ve absorbed that.

Ashley: It came when you needed it.

Drew: Exactly right on time. I cannot tell you how the pieces just fit together with the team, with the ideas, with people just understanding what needs to be done. You know, Ash, me trying to do this for the past eight years has it fallen into place like this. It’s sort of surreal. I am humbled and ecstatic for people to see what it is that I’ve envisioned for a long time. Even if it’s virtually; it’s still something that we’ve carved and created to celebrate everything that I’ve been trying to do for my lifetime is celebrate Black people in theater and Black theater artists.

Ashley: And for you, it’s a project that is rooted in the celebration of Blackness in the midst of an uprising in this country. I’m just wondering what is that giving you particularly? That element of having it be celebratory?

Drew: Well, I think that what’s unique about this particular social uprising and on the left is that the white people that are getting on board. We have been going through this as Black people and experiencing this sort of pain and trauma with each other for many, many years, just most so in the mainstream media over the past five years. And I think that the Antonyos and this particular project saved me from having to fully encompass that pain again. We’ve been down that road. This is not anything new. It was just divine.

I don’t know how to explain that, because there’s literally no reason for the puzzle pieces to fit together the way that they have. Just with where everyone is, what’s happening in the world, what it is that we’re creating and talking about a specific niche thing, specifically, Black experience in theater.

Our message was always going to be in the vein of what that experience is, but it just happened to fall at a time where everything was being uprooted.

It’s just a perfect storm of pain. Everything is being uprooted. Even within the theater world when it comes to Blackness, people are now speaking out so much more and really standing on their experience because they have nothing left to lose. They don’t have any jobs.

There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore, so everyone is speaking out. They have earned the right to tell their story. It is a time for them to be heard. And so just trusting my gut at the right time and leaning into this project and going forth with what I thought was best, and the people are coming on board and trusting me and trusting that vision just all happened right in the eye of the storm.

Ashley: Wow.

Drew: There’s no explanation. I don’t know how to say how we got here, it just… We’re here, we’re protected. It’s like that one house that goes untouched in the middle of the tornado. That’s what it feels like, in a way.

Ashley: Do you think you’re getting more meaning from planning this now than you thought you would when you started?

Drew: Oh, definitely. [We thought] it would just be, “Oh, it’d be fun for the Black community in the theater. People might do it, they might not have the space for it, where I have the energy for it. It’s a difficult time.” This was before any riots, before George Floyd. No idea where we would be at just a few weeks later.

That’s why it seems like, to a lot of people,  it just sort of fell out of the sky. They needed something to really bring them joy. Ashley, you know that I plan things. I like things to be a certain way. I’m very particular about presentation. I take my time with things. Sometimes I don’t even release them because I can’t even fathom putting it out half done.

Or not to the fullness of the vision. So I hold on for a lot of stuff. This could have definitely gone into the pocket of, “Oh yeah, it didn’t work out.” But everyone came on board and gave 125 percent and volunteered their time. Nobody’s getting paid to do this so there was no way that I thought we were going to put together something that was of this magnitude of being able to create musical numbers and arrange things and get guest presenters and performers.

Ashley: Who’s going to be there?

Drew: There will be some really great people that just really showed up and showed out. So we have Audra McDonald, LaChanze, Tituss Burgess, Cynthia Erivo. That’s a new one, I don’t think anybody knows that one yet. You might be the first person I told that. As well as, James Monroe Iglehart, Nicolette Robinson, Michael McElroy, Jelani Alladin. I mean, just so many just wonderful people from our community. Like Audra? I’m done. I’m out. Never have to do anything else. LaChanze? Oh, just take me now.

Ashley: When the curtain comes down and the show is over and people start closing their screens from watching the Antonyos, how do you want them to feel?

Drew: I want nothing but smiles. I want them to feel full of power, of joy. I want them to feel like royalty. I want them to know that they’re loved. That they are seen — that we are seen. I want to feel whole. Whole in the sense that who I am is wholly recognized. That I am not a token or a filler or a trope, that I am a whole person with a whole experience all my own. I want to leave it on the screen and I want that to be felt.

Andrew Shade, founder of Broadway Black, creator and co-host of the Off Book podcast, is beyond excited to share his vision for The Antonyo Awards. Shade is a multi-hyphenated artist who strives to foster artistic diversity and excellence for the love of Black theater on and off the stage. He would like to thank the entire team of people who came together to work on this project solely on the strength of their love for US! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Ashley C. Ford is a writer, host, and educator who lives in Brooklyn by way of Indiana. She’s currently writing her memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter,” which will be published by Flatiron Books under the imprint An Oprah Book. Ford also hosts seasons one and three of Mastercard’s Fortune Favors The Bold podcast. Ford has written or guest-edited for The Guardian, ELLE, BuzzFeed, OUT Magazine, Slate, Teen Vogue, New York Magazine, Allure, Marie Claire, The New York Times, Netflix Queue, Cup of Jo, and various other web and print publications. She’s taught creative nonfiction writing at The New School and Catapult.Co, and had her work listed among Longform & Longread’s Best of 2017.