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October 09, 2013

An Emmy Gala Like No Other

A happy, humble Kerry Washington is an honored guest at a special nominees' reception.

Libby Slate

Dynamic and diverse. So said the invitation for a first-of-its-kind event, a diversity-themed evening celebrating Primetime Emmy nominees and other performers — and inspired by Kerry Washington's historic Emmy nomination as outstanding lead actress in a drama series for her role as Washington, D.C., crisis manager Olivia Pope in ABC's Scandal. It was the first nomination for an African American in that category since Cicely Tyson's nod for Sweet Justice in 1995.

Nearly 300 people turned out for the party, held in the Television Academy's Hall of Fame Plaza and the lobby of the adjoining Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in the NoHo Arts District. One of twenty-two receptions honoring nominees for the 65th Primetime Emmys, the September 17 event was cohosted by SAG-AFTRA.

Washington, resplendent in a bright pink Halston dress, was joined by Scandal castmates Katie Lowes, Bellamy Young and Dan Bucatinsky; two nights earlier, at the Creative Arts Awards, Bucatinsky had won a statuette as outstanding guest actor in a drama series for his role as gay journalist James Novack. Other performers on hand included Daniella Alonso (NBC's Revolution), Amy Aquino, David Dean Bottrell, Anna Maria Horsford, Eric Lange (FX's The Bridge), Sharon Lawrence, Navid Negahban (Showtime's Homeland), Lisa Vidal, Chris Williams and Danny Woodburn. Writers and network executives also attended.

The idea for a diversity-themed reception was proposed by Sharon Liggins, a governor of the Academy's public relations peer group, at the July meeting of the Academy's board of governors. Academy treasurer Susan Nessanbaum-Goldberg immediately emailed SAG-AFTRA's Los Angeles executive director, Ilyanne Morden Kichaven, about partnering, and forty-eight hours later — after collaboration with the Academy's diversity committee, chaired by Daniel Evans, and leadership approvals — the event was set.

"Diversity is one of my passions," Nessanbaum-Goldberg noted at the reception. "We need it before and behind the camera, and we're working very hard to make it happen."

Kichaven agreed. "We'd been speaking with the Academy in the past," she said, "and had partnered with them on other events, such as one about performers with disabilities. Susan said we'd never done anything with the Emmys. I immediately embraced the idea. It was the melding of two missions — inclusion and diversity are part of SAG-AFTRA's very long history, and the Television Academy wants to further its mission to increase its membership with greater diversity."

Added Liggins, who cochaired the Academy's diversity committee in 2011: "We'd always talked about doing an event honoring diversity. Kerry's historic nomination was the spark. This year's nominations may have been the strongest in terms of diversity: Don Cheadle, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Alfre Woodard." (Cannavale went on to win for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series as gangster Gyp Rosetti in HBO's Boardwalk Empire.)

For Washington, the attention that night was almost nonstop; she was greeted by press on arriving, then graciously posed for photos with enthusiastic guests. "I'm in the middle of it right now — it's hard to think about it," she said of the nominations whirlwind. "I'm grateful for the work. The show is so challenging to me.

"I'm excited," she added. "I'm honored by the nomination. But no matter what happens Sunday, I'm thankful that I have this incredible job to go to on Monday." (At the Primetime Emmys telecast five days later, Claire Danes took the category with her second consecutive Emmy as Homeland's troubled CIA agent Carrie Mathison.)

Washington had recently seen Cicely Tyson starring in the Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful and the two had lunch. "I'm very aware that I would not have this career — I absolutely wouldn't — without women like Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson, who paved the way," Washington said. "I'm very grateful."

For his part, Scandal guest star Bucatinsky was glad to attend an event embracing diversity, and said he looks forward to a time when TV's stories are told "colorblind, without a closet." His exuberant Emmy acceptance speech, in which he thanked both his TV husband and his real-life husband, was an emotional high point of the ceremony.

"I wrote a speech," he explained. "Everyone told me, 'Just be prepared.' I didn't expect to win, and when I realized I had just thirty seconds [to accept], I just took pieces of it and spoke from the heart. It was better than reading it."

The reception was significant to other performers as well. "It's nice to see people here from behind the camera," noted actor Chris Williams, whose credits include Showtime's Californication and TV Land's Hot in Cleveland.

Danny Woodburn, a little person, hoped that the evening's recognition of diversity might lead to a greater, more accurate percentage of people with disabilities on network television, because currently, he said, "That equates to six characters."

Navid Negahban, recently dispatched as terrorist Abu Nazir on Showtime's Homeland, remarked, "It's time these artists get the recognition they deserve. I think it's our responsibility to educate the audience, to show who's out there. It's not just black and white. There are other colors. It's a rainbow."

In fact, observed Jason George (ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Mistresses), chair of the SAG-AFTRA diversity advisory committee, if a viewer doesn't see himself or herself reflected among characters on television, "You start asking yourself: Am I invisible? Do I matter? Is that all I can be?"

In prepared remarks to the crowd, George put forth the possibility — likely shared by all in attendance — that, "In years to come, we all look back and say, 'Wasn't it quaint that we had to celebrate diversity?' — because it would be the natural thing."

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