By Michela Arlia and John Schilling
The 74th Annual Tony Awards returned for the first time in over two years on Sunday as Broadway shows officially made their comeback to the great white way. The much anticipated night took flight with part one on the Paramount+ streaming platform and continued later on CBS with a night of performances and more awards.
Among all the wins of the night was Brooklyn College Theater Professor Justin Townsend, who took home the Tony for Best Lighting Design for “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Townsend, who was nominated twice in the same category for his work on “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Jagged Little Pill,” had the odds in his favor but was grateful for the honor all the same. He thanked multiple people in his acceptance speech, from the company of “Moulin Rouge” and his family to his children’s teachers, for inspiring the next generation.
“The whole company, on and off stage. I’m in awe of your talents,” said Townsend. “When I first saw ‘Moulin Rouge’ the movie, I thought, ‘Wow, it could be like that!’”
“This is for my mother. Thank you for sharing your love of music, painting, and that Tommy record, when I discovered that music could tell a story,” Townsend continued. “Thank you to my teachers but especially my children’s teachers, especially Mr. O’Connor and Ms. Kathy, and all the teachers who strive, even in these times, to keep our children vibrant and curious, our future artists.”
Townsend, who is the head of the BFA Lighting Program in the Theater Department, is no stranger to Broadway as his professional lighting design has been previously showcased in shows, such as “American Psycho,” “The Humans,” “Fool For Love,” “Present Laughter,” “Casa Valentina,” “A Night with Janis Joplin,” “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
While Townsend celebrated in the Winter Garden Theater, many BC students, staff, and administrators cheered him on from their living room couches.
“Justin is one of the most inspiring professors I’ve had in my time at Brooklyn College,” Amanda Kettell, a BC alum and former student of Townsend’s, told The Vanguard. “I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to take two classes with such an incredible lighting designer, artist, and teacher.”
“We are so excited for Justin,” said Michael Page, the head of the MFA Program in Performing Arts Management. “This was such a great night for the theater community and Brooklyn College.”
Acknowledgement of the momentous occasion even came in a department-wide email sent n in the early hours of the morning by Laura Tesman, the department’s Undergraduate Chairperson.
“We are so fortunate to have Professor Townsend on faculty teaching Lighting Design, Stagecraft, Stage Design Concepts, and Collaboration in Theater,” Tesman released in the statement. Tesman also spoke on the thrill of Townsend’s win and the feeling of Broadway being back that has touched the hearts of many.
“We are honored to count Professor Justin Townsend among our faculty. He has been busy remounting the production, which just celebrated its reopening on Friday night,” Tesman told The Vanguard. “Watching the performance, live from the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theater (and all the performances tonight), you could feel the heartbeat (the lifeblood) of Broadway pulsing again, reanimating its artists and theaters and streets. It was a good night.”
Townsend, however, was not the only winner and nominee hailing from Brooklyn College on Sunday night. Two alumni also received high honors and nominations at the awards.
Brooklyn College alum Jiyoun Chang, who graduated with his MFA in Design in 2001, was nominated for Best Lighting Design of a Play for “Slave Play,” and alum Woody King Jr. received an honorary Tony Award for Excellence in Theater.
King Jr., who graduated in 1999 with an MFA in Theater with a Concentration in Directing, received the award for founding the New Federal Theatre, a company that prides itself on highlighting people of color and women in theater.
“The mission of New Federal Theatre, founded by Woodie King Jr. in 1970, is to integrate artists of color and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession, and by presenting plays by writers of color and women to integrated, multicultural audiences — plays that evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re–creations of ourselves,” noted the Tony Award citation for King Jr.
The culmination of Townsend, Chang, King Jr., and their contributions to theater are embraced not only by the Broadway community but also at Brooklyn College.
“We are so fortunate to have such incredible artistic talent contributing to our social conscious among our faculty, students, and alumni who have made Brooklyn College’s Theater Department one of the best in New York City,” Maria Conelli, the dean of the School of Visual, Media and Performing Arts, released in a statement. “These Tony Awards and nominations are a testament to that talent, and on behalf of Brooklyn College, I offer my heartfelt congratulations.”
On the win, Townsend is thrilled to be able to use this to help students at BC and CUNY succeed further in their careers.
“It’s been really exciting to involve my students in the process. It’s not just something I can bring back to them but something I was able to involve them in,” Townsend told The Vanguard.
An important takeaway for him is to use this honor for good by improving the quality of education for CUNY students.
“It’s so exciting to win this award, but it’s so important to me as a CUNY professor to continue in the tradition of providing affordable and quality education to all students,” Townsend added.