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Audra McDonald honors history as she makes her own on Broadway

Audra McDonald was the queen of Broadway even before she picked up her history-making sixth Tony Award for best actress in a play for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” on Sunday night. When she won, not only racking up No. 6 but completing her domination across all acting categories — leading and featured, play and musical — the crowd stood and roared.

Then she spoke, and became something more. McDonald reached back, starting with supportive and strong-minded parents now “up in heaven,” for “disobeying the doctor’s orders and not medicating their hyperactive girl and finding out what she was into instead.”

Audra McDonald accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at the 68th annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 8, 2014, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Audra McDonald accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at the 68th annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 8, 2014, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

McDonald honored trailblazers when she paid tribute to a tradition of African American women, thanking “all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I’m standing on” – Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, all achievers through obstacles. She had special words for Billie Holiday, the talented Lady Day she channeled onstage, the performer who died at the age of 44, just a year older than the actress and singer holding her latest award. “You deserved so much more than you were given when you were on this planet,” McDonald said to the spirit of Holiday. “This is for you.”

I wasn’t at all surprised that she won as I watched the Tony Awards Sunday, because the night before I was in the audience as McDonald turned Broadway’s Circle in the Square theater into the intimate bar that now stands abandoned on a corner in Philadelphia. In the play’s 1950’s setting, it is Holiday’s last hope and a long way from the New York City clubs she had once ruled. She died a few months after, the Playbill tells us, of cirrhosis and heart failure.

The play does not gloss over Holiday’s troubled and sometimes hard life — childhood abuse and rape, bad choices in men and, worse, drugs. But with humor and dignity, with a fine script, a great voice and pitch-perfect acting, McDonald never lets you forget that Holiday was special.

Her portrait of Holiday, dressed in white and occasionally shaky, sings the songs she wants to sing, how and when she wants to sing them, making the most of choices that became increasingly limited toward the end of her life. Holiday performs when she feels something, and the audience experiences it all when McDonald transforms her own distinctive voice for Holiday-like renditions of “God Bless the Child,” which Holiday helped to write, and “Strange Fruit,” with its stark images of lynching. Her Holiday also gives a nod to pioneering blues singer Bessie Smith with a rousing “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer).”

I have now seen McDonald onstage six times – in Shakespeare and in musicals, in the “Carousel” revival that won her Tony No. 1 and as Ruth Younger, the wife of the lead character in a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” a decade ago, which won her another.  It was Dee who created the role onstage and in the 1961 film version.

For that part in this year’s version of that play, actress Sophie Okonedo won her first Tony. She thanked playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who died young but will always be remembered for the characters she created in “Raisin,” strivers not seen onstage then and often not believed now, people who face the consequences of racism and their own mistakes and love each other enough to keep going. “Your words heal me,” Okonedo said of Hansberry.

She was part of a parade of black female talent broadcast to the world Sunday night. Early in the broadcast, Fantasia Barrino, Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight joined dancers and singers in scenes from the musical “After Midnight.”

It would be easy to say this is a time for black women and the lessons they can teach us as they take turns in the spotlight and grab the microphone, even when it is not handed to them. But as McDonald and others remind us, they stand on the shoulders of others. Like McDonald, many are doing what has been labeled “it all.” McDonald thanked her family in the Tony audience, and told her beaming daughter “mommy is nothing without you.”

The only downside of being in New York and not home in North Carolina on Saturday was missing the Winston-Salem memorial to Maya Angelou. I did note the words that many spoke from the heart.

Michelle Obama remembered the child she was, the one whose first doll and model of feminine perfection was a Malibu Barbie until Angelou’s poetry opened her eyes to her own beauty. Oprah Winfrey and others still use the road map Angelou laid down, they said.

These are black women with their own long lists of accomplishments. But still the insults come, aimed at the breadwinner working hard at a minimum-wage job as well as at the first lady of the United States.

McDonald’s speech name-checked pioneers and a tradition of family support that many black women relate to far more than the caricatured images that have shaped distorted pictures of who we are, the goals we aspire to reach and the hard work we are willing to do to get us there.

Shonda Rhimes, the African-American creator of “Private Practice,” a television show that introduced McDonald to a larger audience than New York’s stage addicts, has become ABC’s best friend with shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” a phenomenon with another black woman at its center. This coming season, Rhimes has been rewarded with the whole of Thursday night to program. The networks aren’t crazy; they usually only take chances on sure things and Rhimes is as close as it gets. Her new show is set to star Viola Davis, an African American actress with two Tonys of her own.

As for Audra McDonald, at six Tonys and counting, she is just getting started.

No doubt there will be more voices getting louder all the time. As another famous stage creation once said, “Attention must be paid.”

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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