The 2016 Lilly Awards Honor Achievements of Women in the Theater

05/25/2016 04:37 pm ET Updated May 26, 2017

In the 1960s a cigarette manufacturer tried to woo women customers with the somewhat condescending slogan: "You've come a long way, baby." Decades later, in many industries--including the American theater--women still have a very long way to go. Currently only 22% of the plays and musicals produced in America are written by women. That's why playwrights Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman, and Theresa Rebeck founded the Lilly Awards in 2010. The organization honors the contributions made to the American theater by women and also works to publicize and correct the issues that confront women artists, from the lack of childcare to the need for mentors and champions.

The 7th annual Lilly Awards celebration took place on May 23, 2016 at the Signature Theatre Center in New York. Ten women were honored, taking their places on stage among previous winners. The presenters were as illustrious as the honorees, including writer, activist, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, along with Academy Award winner and 2016 Tony Award nominee Lupita Nyong'o and her costars from Broadway's Eclipsed, and Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus.

Honorees included:
Irish activist group Waking the Feminists (First International Award)
Danai Gurira (Playwrighting)
Jessie Mueller (Acting)
Kate Whoriskey (Directing)
Genne Murphy (Leah Ryan Prize)
Martha Plimpton (Speaking Truth to Power)
Candis Jones (NY Women's Foundation Directing Apprenticeship Award)
Rehana Lew Mirza (The Stacey Mindich "Go Write a Play" Award)
Kathy Najimy (Activism)
Mia Katigbak (Trailblazing)

According to the Lilly's website, the Awards are named for Lillian Hellman, a pioneering American playwright who famously said, "You need to write like the devil and act like one too when necessary." They are "part of the movement to change the way decisions are made about production, by spreading the facts, like for example, that plays by women are as profitable as plays by men."

The ceremony at Signature Theatre Center began and ended with musical numbers: in the opening, Amanda Green, Georgia Stitt, Zoe Sarnak, and Rebecca Naomi Jones performed a rousing parody of the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind," singing: "How many great plays must one woman write, before she's the same as a man? That's why it's Lilly time again." The closing number, an audience sing-along, to the tune of Pete Seeger's "This Land is Your Land," affirmed: "This Stage Belongs to You and Me."

The theme of the evening was "activism." In accepting the first award of the evening, the First International Lilly Award (presented by Julia Jordan), Sarah Durcan of Waking the Feminists set the tone, vowing: "We will not wait. Our audiences will not wait. The time for action, the time for equality, is now."

Danai Gurira received her Lilly Award for Playwrighting from the women actors in her Tony-nominated play Eclipsed, including Tony-nominated (and Oscar-winning) star Lupita Nyong'o. In accepting her honor, Gurira explained her personal motivation: "I am filled with outrage, which is a good thing. So I need to write." She spoke emotionally of attending the first Lilly Awards, as a "plus one," where she met playwright Sarah Ruhl, who told her that she had read and admired Eclipsed. As an example of paying it forward, Gurira brought two young women to the 2016 awards from the organization "Girls Be Heard," a group that encourages young girls to tell their stories. She urged them on, saying, "You're the reason I do what I do" and, "Stick to your vision. Be a finisher. Get it done!"

Howard McGillin presented actress Martha Plimpton with the Lilly Award for Speaking Truth to Power, praising her activism and perseverance: "She will keep protesting for as long as it takes," said McGillin. "She is "An artist of singular quality, ridiculously funny, and a role model for us all." Plimpton, celebrated, Emmy Awarding-winning and Tony-nominated actress, is well known for her political activism, is a board member of the abortion rights group A is For..., and an advocate for LGBT rights. Plimpton spoke passionately to the Lilly audience, telling them to remember the power of their voices: "Every heart and mind is capable of reaching into other hearts and minds. All each of us has is one voice and this moment...The audience is hungry for more!"

Two-time Tony Award-winning actor Norbert Leo Butz's words on behalf of The Angel Band Project were heartbreaking and personal. The Project, which uses music to promote healing, raise awareness, and create positive social change for survivors of sexual violence, was founded in memory of his sister Teresa, who was brutally murdered in a bias crime. Before sharing Teresa's tragic story, he told the audience, "My name is Norbert and I am a feminist." He introduced Rachel Ebeling, Teresa's childhood friend and Angel Band Project founder, who stressed how critical it is for men to speak out against violence, saying, "We cannot end violence against women unless men like Norbert step up."

One of the evening's highlights was the presence of feminist/activist icon Gloria Steinem. Still politically active, articulate, and as dedicated to equal rights as ever, Steinem was a warm and galvanizing addition to an uplifting and joyous celebration of women's voices and achievements. She greeted the audience warmly, saying, "I'm kvelling. I'm sitting here so happy and so knocked out. Do you think I could give an award to the Lilly Awards?"

Steinem presented the Lilly Award in Activism to her longtime friend, actor/comedian Kathy Najimy, whom she cited as "the mother of so many deep and important projects" and for "her fierce presence in our lives." She also emphasized the importance of laughter, telling the audience: "Laughter is the only free emotion. You can't compel laughter. It's an orgasm of the mind, a moment of freedom. It is the path into the unknown. It's been said that you can't pray unless you have laughed."

In accepting her award, Najimy said, "What is an activist? Activism is a way to temporarily mute the hideous voices in your gut raging at the state of things." She hilariously described receiving her Lilly from Gloria Steinem as "A jolt right down my entire body and straight out my vagina." She also praised fellow Lilly winner Martha Plimpton for "Speaking out and saying the 'A' word" and expressed her delight in receiving an award from "such a kick-ass organization that shines a light on women's voices."

Other Lilly Award presenters included Russell G. Jones, Cusi Cram, Rachel Chavkin, Neena Beeber, and Lloyd Suh. Producer Daryl Roth announced the creation of The Daryl Roth Creative Spirit Award dedicated to Apprenticeship for Women in Tech or Design, which will begin next year. Emily Simoness spoke on behalf of the Space Camp at Ryder Farm, which provides family retreats for working mothers in the arts.

The Lilly Awards event was produced by Tessa LaNeve and Chelsea Marcantel and co-produced by Amanda Green.

For more information: www.thelillyawards.org