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What Tony's Done That Oscar Hasn't

A survey of how often African-Americans have received or been nominated for Tony Awards as compared to Oscars yields some interesting facts and figures. logo

Audra McDonald
So I see that the Academy Awards are very excited because two African-Americans--Will Smith and Denzel Washington--are competing in the Best Actor category. What's more, with Halle Berry up for Monster's Ball, there are three--count 'em, three--African-American nominees this year.

Big deal. Ever take a look how African-Americans have done in the Tony Awards? Much better, to be sure. When did we first have three blacks vying for awards? Oh, only 44 years ago, in 1958, when Lena Horne, Ossie Davis, and Josephine Premice were all nominated for Jamaica. By 1965, there were four blacks up for Tonys. In 1968, there were "only" three, but two of them won: Leslie Uggams and Lillian Hayman, both for Hallelujah, Baby!. In 1972, the last time the Oscars had two blacks in one category (Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson for Best Actress), the Tonys honored five black performers with nominations. I know, I know: The Oscars have four acting categories while the Tonys, with both plays and musicals to contend with, have eight. True enough...but let's not forget that the Oscars have five nominees per category while the Tonys have much more often than not had four.

How many years did it take Oscar to give an African-American an award? Twelve: Hattie McDaniel finally scored in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. The Tonys? Four: Juanita Hall won for South Pacific in 1950. Each of those was in supporting categories. How many years did it take Oscar to give an African American an award for a leading role? Thirty-six years: Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field. And the Tonys? Fifteen: Diahann Carroll won in 1962 for No Strings.

How many African-Americans have won Oscars? All of six, with only Poitier winning in the lead category. Given that there have been 73 years of lead performer categories and 67 years of supporting performer categories, making a grand total of 278 categories, 6 for 278 makes a percentage of .022. Pathetic! Meanwhile, in its 55-year history, the Tonys have offered 51 years of leading performer categories. (There were some best lead and featured actor categories before that but they were more scattershot in organization.) That makes 406 categories, when you factor in that there was no actor or actress category for musicals in 1985. So, how many wins for African-Americans? Forty-four, for a .108 average--more than five times as high.

Hinton Battle
And the winners are, in alphabetical order, Mary Alice, Hinton Battle (three times), Harry Belafonte, Trazana Beverly, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Greta Boston, Ruth Brown, Virginia Capers, Diahann Carroll, Nell Carter, Charles "Honi" Coles, Chuck Cooper, Cleavant Derricks, Ann Duquesnay, Lawrence Fishburne, Delores Hall, Juanita Hall, Ben Harney, Lillian Hayman, Heather Headley, Gregory Hines, Jennifer Holliday, James Earl Jones (twice), Lelani Jones, John Kani, Cleavon Little, Audra McDonald (three times), Brian Stokes Mitchell, Zakes Mokae, Melba Moore, Winston Ntshona, Tonya Pinkins, Ron Richardson, Ted Ross, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lynne Thigpen, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Lillias White, and Jeffrey Wright. Another salient fact: While the Oscars can only boast a total of six African-American winners, in two different years there were four blacks winning and spinning their Tonys: 1975 (Kani, Ntshona, Ross, and Bridgewater) and 1982 (Mokae, Harney, Holliday, and Derricks).

How many times in Oscar history have two African-Americans been nominated in the same category? After it happened in 1972, when Ross and Tyson made the cut 45 years after the Oscars were born, it didn't occur again until this year. And the Tonys? In 1965, only 19 years after the awards' inception, Bea Richards (The Amen Corner) and Diana Sands (The Owl and the Pussycat) were tabbed for best actress in a play. For that matter, the Tonys have seen two nominees in each and every one of the eight acting categories in at least one year. Take a look in your history book and you'll see why we should be proud. Granted, it only happened once for Best Actor in a Play, when John Kani and Winston Ntshona were both nominated--and won!--for Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. And it's only happened once for Best Actress in a Play, for the aforementioned Richards and Sands in 1965.

For Best Supporting Actor in a Play, it's happened twice: Douglas Turner Ward (The River Niger) and Dick Anthony Williams (What the Wine Sellers Buy) in 1974; Laurence Fishburne, who won, and Roscoe Lee Browne, both for Two Trains Running in 1991. And in 1988, in the Best Supporting Actress in a Play category, African-American performers were thrice blessed as Kimberley Aarn, L. Scott Caldwell, and Kimberly Scott were all nominated for Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Ben Vereen
Three times, the Best Actor in a Musical category has had two African-American nominees: Ben Vereen (Pippin), who won, and Brock Peters (Lost in the Stars) in 1973; Al Green (Your Arm's Too Short to Box with God) and Michael V. Smartt (Porgy and Bess) in 1983; Cleavant Derricks (Big Deal) and Maurice Hines (Uptown ... It's Hot!) in 1986. It's occurred twice for Best Actress in a Musical: Clamma Dale (Porgy and Bess) and Ernestine Jackson (Guys and Dolls) in 1977; Heather Headley (Aida), who won, and Audra McDonald (Marie Christine).

But then there's a deluge in the best musical supporting categories. It's happened seven times for African-American actors: Avon Long (Don't Play Us Cheap) and Gilbert Price (Lost in the Stars) in 1973; Ted Ross (The Wiz), who won, and Gilbert Price (The Night That Made America Famous) in 1975. Even more to our credit, in 1982 there were three African-American nominees: Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls), who won, Obba Babatunde (also Dreamgirls), and David Allan Grier (The First); then, Hinton Battle, who won, and Samuel E. Wright, each for The Tap-Dance Kid in 1984; Savion Glover and Bunny Briggs (Black and Blue) in 1989; Chuck Cooper (The Life) and André DeShields (Play On!) in 1997; Desmond Richardson (Fosse) and Ron Taylor (It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues) in 1999.

It's occurred seven times for African-American actresses: Linda Hopkins (Inner City), who won, and Beatrice Winde (Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death) in 1972; Nell Carter, who won, and Charlayne Woodward, both for Ain't Misbehavin' in 1978; Phyllis Hyman (Sophisticated Ladies) and Lynne Thigpen (Tintypes) in 1981; Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jam), who won, and Vivian Reed (The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club) in 1992; Gretha Boston (Show Boat), who won, as well as Brenda Braxton and B.J. Crosby, both for Smokey Joe's Cafe in 1996; Pamela Isaacs (The Life) and Tonya Pinkins (Play On!) in 1997; Audra MacDonald (Ragtime) and Tsidii Le Loka (The Lion King) in 1998.

The total number of nominees in each category: 6 for Best Actress/Play, 10 for Best Supporting Actress/Play, 13 for Best Actor/Play, 14 for Best Actress/Musical, 17 for Best Supporting Actor/Play, 18 for Best Actor/Musical, 28 for Best Supporting Actor/Musical, 32 Best Supporting Actress/Musical. Say what you will, but I say that Broadway is much more of an equal-opportunity bestower than Hollywood.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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