On June 27, 2019, the League of Professional Theatre Women held their first Rachel Crothers Leadership Award luncheon honoring Donna Walker-Kuhne, founder of Walker International Communications Group Inc. The event celebrated the extraordinary achievements of Walker-Kuhne who has dedicated her life to community engagement, bringing theatre to diverse constituents and helping theatres build and deepen relationships with multicultural communities. The entire celebration was true in spirit to Walker-Kuhne’s generosity, warmth, and commitment to diverse voices. Although it was Walker-Kuhne who was receiving the award, the event was more than an encomium. It turned into an occasion to celebrate the achievements of women-identifying theatre artists in a precarious political climate and to foster the vibrant and thriving community that is the League of Professional Theatre Women.
The luncheon opened with a South African song of welcome, Siyahamba, performed by Marvin Lowe, followed by words of welcome from the Chair of the Rachel Crothers Leadership Award, the radiant Yvette Heyliger. Zoe Kaplan, author of Woman in Focus in Major Plays and Productions of Rachel Crothers, then introduced the life and work of Rachel Crothers, the first woman to become a commercially successful playwright and director on Broadway. Yet it is not only Crothers’ financial success that makes her an excellent choice to give the award its name. It is also her work with communities at risk. In 1917, at a time when women could not even vote, Crothers led a group of theatre women in supporting American troops during World War I. This organization would become the American Theater Wing, which created the “Tony Award.” Appropriately, the host of luncheon was the charismatic André de Shields, who has recently won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor for his performance as Hermes in the musical Hadestown. De Shields brought humor and poignancy to the festivities, reminding us that everything that we do is always political. LaChanze, another Tony-Award winning actress, performed Feeling Good, accompanied by Marco Paguia, concluding the first half of the program with a summery mood of hope and possibility.
Under the request of Walker-Kuhne, the award was presented by Rehana Lew Mirza, a gifted young playwright who explores issues of biracial identity and the experiences of Muslim-Americans, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. Lew Mirza expressed gratitude for Walker-Kuhne’s indefatigable commitment to diversifying audiences and bringing communities in conversation. At one point, Lew Mirza jokingly mentioned that she wouldn’t even be at an event like this had it not been for the colossal work that Walker-Kuhne has done, expanding artistic horizons from Harlem, United States to Johannesburg, South Africa.
The co-presidents of the League of Professional Theatre Women, Kelli Lynn Harrison and Catherine Porter, concluded the ceremony by inviting everyone to join the league regardless of where they were in their professional trajectory. Galvanized by the enthusiasm and good vibes in the room, they encouraged those in attendance to turn their inspiration into meaningful action such as connecting with other women and joining the movement of #OneMoreConversation—a call to theatre professionals to have one more conversation with a woman-identifying candidate before making a final hiring choice. By the time Yvette Heylinger delivered the farewell, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie and hope for a brighter tomorrow.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.