JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Most performing arts awards, like the Oscars and the Emmys, feature gendered performance categories. Recently, some theater ceremonies have done away with male and female distinctions, but not the Tony Awards, which are Broadway's highest honors. Yet Jeff Lunden reports that this June, for the first time ever, a couple of nonbinary performers may take home statues.
ALEX NEWELL: We don't gender other people's professions. You say, I'm going to my doctor. I'm going to my dentist. I need to hire a plumber.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Alex Newell is playing the female character Lulu in "Shucked." They're up for best featured actor in a musical, the category in which they chose to be recognized.
NEWELL: And so I looked at the word actor because it is a genderless word. The word itself is not gendered. That is my profession. That is my vocation. I am an actor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDEPENDENTLY OWNED")
NEWELL: (As Lulu, singing) I won't change who I've always been - a W-O-M-A-N, W-O-M-A-N.
LUNDEN: The issue of gendered acting categories came to the fore in February, when Justin David Sullivan, who made their Broadway debut in the musical "& Juliet," declined to be considered for a Tony.
JUSTIN DAVID SULLIVAN: I am a nonbinary human, and I am playing a nonbinary principal role in a Broadway musical, which - we really don't see a lot of that. So I think for them to ask whether I would rather be seen more as, you know, male or female - I just felt like I couldn't rightfully make that call.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT A GIRL, NOT YET A WOMAN")
SULLIVAN: (As May, singing) Feels like I'm caught in the middle. That's when I realize I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.
LUNDEN: Sullivan made a public statement, saying, quote, "I hope that award shows across the industry will expand their reach to be able to honor and award people of all gender identities," which created a lot of chatter.
SULLIVAN: In that moment, it felt like all eyes were on me, and I don't know if I was really prepared for that. I am just, you know, one human at the end of the day.
LUNDEN: Sullivan says some people twisted their words, but...
SULLIVAN: The majority of the response that I saw was just a complete, vast ocean of support and love and care from both the Broadway community and other fellow nonbinary performers.
LUNDEN: Representatives for the Tony Awards declined to speak for this story. David Barbour is co-president of the Drama Desk Awards. He says for years, performance categories were nongendered. But more men than women were taking home honors, so they switched to gendered categories. But this year they switched back.
DAVID BARBOUR: It became evident to us that there were a number of performances by nonbinary performers who were very likely going to be in the mix when the nominations came out, and it's not our business to be telling actors who they are. We're not in the business of defining them.
J HARRISON GHEE: Change is incremental. It's not going to necessarily happen immediately for everyone. Theater is returning. And we're finding our footing again, and people are choosing to operate how they operate.
LUNDEN: J. Harrison Ghee stars in "Some Like It Hot" as a male jazz bass player named Jerry, who, when hiding from the mob, dresses as a woman named Daphne and discovers they really like it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GHEE: (As Jerry/Daphne) I don't have the word for what I feel. I just feel more like myself than I have in all my life.
LUNDEN: Ghee is up for best actor in a musical.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU COULDA KNOCKED ME OVER WITH A FEATHER")
GHEE: (As Jerry/Daphne, singing) And you could have knocked me over with a feather.
It's fun to have the opportunity to show the humanity of Jerry/Daphne, the fullness of an experience just removing the labels, the limits, the filters that were always placed on it.
LUNDEN: Now Justin David Sullivan says labels are changing.
SULLIVAN: We're starting to see a shift in what kind of stories are being told and making sure that, you know, these characters exist because just like in real life, we as people exist.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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