A group of six artists from Kokandy Productions's Sweeney Todd are pictured on the red carpet at the Non-Equity Jeffs. They are holding their awards. There are three men on the left, a woman in the center, and two men on the right.
The creative team from Kokandy Productions's Sweeney Todd celebrates on the red carpet at the Non-Equity Jeff Awards Monday, March 27, at the Park West. Credit: Courtesy Kokandy Productions

The Non-Equity Jeff Awards, affectionately known as “theater prom,” came roaring back after a four-year hiatus at the Park West on Monday, March 27. And it’s safe to say the program, directed by Adrian Abel Azevedo, was a lovefest through and through. The awards show (coming on the heels of the packed opening of the Understudy theater bookstore in Andersonville over the previous weekend) demonstrated the very real hunger for Chicago theater artists and audiences to come together and celebrate again.

Parker Guidry (host of the 2020 virtual Non-Equity Jeffs) worked the preshow red carpet interviews in a gown, designed by Uriel Gomez, in the colors of the trans flag. Support for LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, refugee and immigrant rights, and shout-outs to mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson found their way into several speeches throughout the evening. Cohosts Mitchell Fain and trans cabaret/musical legend Honey West cautioned good-naturedly about the perils of going over time, with the former saying, “If you’re gonna have snot bubbles and thank Jesus, do it quickly.” (West later performed a sneak peek number from her upcoming autobiographical show, The Boy in the Tutu.)

The Jeff Committee, made up of over 50 individuals with “varying backgrounds in theater,” first came together in 1968 to present the Joseph Jefferson Awards, named after the 19th-century actor who made regular appearances in Chicago. This year, they nominated 32 companies and 167 artists for Non-Equity Jeff Awards.

Kokandy Productions topped the honors list with six awards for its production of Sweeney Todd, including best production of a musical; music direction (Nick Sula); direction (Derek Van Barham, who noted in his speech that “a lot of us lost our joy” over the past few years and exhorted the crowd to remember the adage, “Don’t work with assholes”); supporting performer in a musical (Patrick O’Keefe for his portrayal of Tobias Ragg); and lead performers in a musical (Kevin Webb as Sweeney and Caitlin Jackson as Mrs. Lovett).

The Jeff Awards decided to eliminate gendered categories for performance in both the Equity and Non-Equity Awards in 2018. As Kris Vire of Chicago magazine noted that first year, that led to more men being nominated than women, and no nonbinary performers in the Equity Awards nominations. The two separate categories reflect theaters that operate using the Actors Equity Association union contract and those that don’t.

This year, the performing categories seemed much more evenly balanced between men and women. And nonbinary performers Dakota Hughes and LJ Bullen were both honored, the former for supporting performance in a production (short run) for their role in Hell in a Handbag Productions’s Frankenstreisand and the latter sharing the supporting performance in a musical award with O’Keefe for their turn in Blank Theatre Co.’s The Wild Party.

The short run category was instituted during the COVID-19 shutdown but will continue permanently. (The short run categories, unlike the longer runs, don’t separate out plays and musicals.) Also new this year: Productions in foreign languages that use subtitles were eligible for consideration. 

Two men seen behind a chicken wire fence, as if in a prison yard. A young bearded Latinx man is seated on the ground to the left. Behind him, seated slightly above, is an older Latinx man.
Tommy Rivera-Vega (left) and Esteban Schemberg in Tebas Land, part of Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. Credit: Rogelio Alguín

Both of these developments proved a boon for the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance (CLATA), a producer of the annual Destinos festival; their coproduction with the National Museum of Mexican Art of Sergio Blanco’s Tebas Land took home awards for best production (short run); for Tommy Rivera-Vega for performer in a principal role (short run); and for Daphne Agosin for artistic specialization in a short run for her lighting design. Rivera-Vega delivered most of his acceptance speech in Spanish and finished by triumphantly unfurling the flag of Puerto Rico to wide applause.

Other CLATA members who took home trophies included Aguijón Theater Co. (Chicago’s longest-running Latino company). Ana Santos-Sánchez won as best performer in a principal role (play) for her performance in La Gran Tirana (descarga dramática), sharing the category with Tekeisha Yelton-Hunter in Ruined for Invictus Theatre, and Augusto Yanacopulos’s properties design for La Gran Tirana also was recognized in the artistic specialization category.

UrbanTheater Company’s Evolution of a Sonero won the award for solo performance in a short run for star Flaco Navaja. Not surprising, as he was the only nominee, but Navaja demonstrated why he earned the plaudit by opening the show with a high-octane musical number. (Performances from the nominated musicals were also scattered throughout the evening with help from musical director Dr. Michael McBride.) Navaja gave thanks to the Razor Blades (his band), to Miranda González, UrbanTheater Company’s artistic director and director of Sonero, and to the Chicago theater community for welcoming him “during a difficult transition,” setting the stage for the heartfelt acceptance speeches to follow over the next three hours.

The most emotional moment came with a tribute to the late Myrna Salazar, founder of CLATA and a mentor to many Latinx artists over the decades. She received a posthumous special Jeff Award, presented by Justina Machado (One Day at a Time, Six Feet Under), who noted that she met Salazar first as a high school friend of Salazar’s daughter and then as an aspiring actress who was represented by Salazar through her Salazar & Navas talent agency, which provided a launchpad for many Latinx performers. Salazar’s daughter, Iliana Romero, accepted the award for the family. Salazar had been an advocate for the Jeffs to add foreign language productions and short runs for consideration, in part because of the vibrant work produced during the annual Destinos festival, as well as throughout the year by Chicago’s growing Latinx theater scene.

In the coveted ensemble categories (we’re an ensemble town, after all), Theo Ubique (now just known as Theo) won for both musical (8-Track: The Sounds of the 70s) and play (Refuge). In the short run ensemble category, the Story Theatre won for Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes, which also earned writer and director Terry Guest awards in those short production categories. (Upon winning his first award of the evening, Guest asked, “Is it tacky to say I really wanted this?”)

Invictus Theatre won five awards; in addition to Yelton-Hunter’s award for Ruined (she noted that this was her first professional production), Invictus’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won awards for best production (play) and for director Charles Askenaizer; scenic designer Kevin Rolfs; and supporting performer Rachel Livingston, who played Honey.

In new work, 19-year-old Siah Berlatsky (daughter of longtime Reader contributor Noah Berlatsky) shared the honor for her original comedy at Artistic Home, Malapert Love, with Tina Fakhrid-Deen for Pulled Punches at MPAACT.

A complete list of nominees and winners is available here.

During the show, Jeff committee chair John Glover announced a new funding initiative: the Jeff Impact Fellowship, which will provide direct grants to early-career to midcareer artists of color. The applications are open beginning April 1; information is available at the Jeff committee website.

Sideshow folds up the tent.

After 15 years and over 30 productions, Sideshow Theatre Company announced in mid-March that it has decided to cease operations. It’s not a complete surprise: The company had earlier gone on hiatus after the resignation in July of artistic director Regina Victor, which came in the wake of the dismissal of Ken-Matt Martin as artistic director at Victory Gardens Theater.

Sideshow had been in residence with Victory Gardens in the upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater at the Biograph for several years. In the closing announcement on the website, the company wrote, “Ultimately, the cancellations of our 2022 gala and planned production of [artistic associate Brynne Frauenhoffer’s] Pro-Am, the necessary departure from the venue where we have performed for a decade, and the diverging lives and careers of the artists in the company all made this the only responsible decision.”

Sideshow specialized in contemporary work, including several plays by Chicago-based writers. They received 23 Non-Equity Jeff nominations over their history and won five times, including best play in 2019 for Kristiana Rae Colón’s Tilikum, which used the real story of an orca at SeaWorld as an allegory for Black men in the carceral state, and best solo performance for Philip Dawkins’s The Happiest Place on Earth in 2017.

The company’s website announcement notes that all artist stipends for the canceled production of Pro-Am had been paid out. The remaining funds will be split evenly among the following nonprofits: First Floor Theater, Longacre Lea, Arts of Life, Midwest Action Coalition, Chicago Women’s Health Center, Congo Square Theatre, and Chicspeare.