Busy Tomé Cousin Is Part of a Team Representing CMU at the 2023 Tony Awards, and That’s the Short of It …

Plus: How to watch this year’s unscripted ceremony honoring the best of Broadway


Keeping up with Tomé Cousin’s schedule is a feat of endurance. We have been trying to catch up for weeks, and finally meet via Zoom on the eve of his leaving for the Tony Awards in New York City.

The multi-hyphenate theatermaker and educator is part of a Carnegie Mellon University contingent that picks the national Excellence in Theatre Education Award, a unique collaboration of the Tonys and CMU. 

With the ceremony going forward tonight, after a threatened shutdown by the striking Writers Guild of America, it seems like a good time to talk about what a Pittsburgh artist with strong Broadway ties is up to. 

Cousin, who many of us first saw as a child, dancing up a storm on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, went on to the company of Contact, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2000. From there, he became director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s right hand in revivals of the dance musical, while striking out on his own. 

“Stro,” as he and her friends call the Tony-winning Stroman (The Producers, among others) sent Cousin to mount Contact at Asolo Rep of Sarasota, Fla., in 2009. The success of that production was recalled when the company was looking for new work for a commission series of three plays by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) playwrights and directors.

Monteze Freeland presents City Theatre’s 2023 Robert M. Frankell Award to his Dancing in the Blue Light collaborator, Tomé Cousin, on May 20.

That commission program brought Cousin back to Asolo Rep in May, this time with City Theatre co-artistic director Monteze Freeland, for a well-received staged reading of their new work, Dancing in the Blue Light, based on experiences in their mutual hometown of Baltimore.

Cousin’s day job is as a professor of dance at Carnegie Mellon. He has taught dance at all levels, including for many years as an associate professor at his alma mater, Point Park University. Besides educating future generations, he has been a guest director and choreographer at local theater companies while continually generating his own work.

While you get ready to watch the Tonys tonight and cheer on the nominees with Pittsburgh ties – such as CMU acting alums Christian Borle (Some Like It Hot), Josh Groban (Sweeney Todd) and Nikki Crawford (Fat Ham), and producer Jamie deRoy (Leopoldstadt; New York, New York, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Parade) – here’s a glimpse into Cousin’s work, and where he’s headed next.

Keep up if you can. 

Question: Let’s start with Dancing in the Blue Light in Florida. How’d that come about?

Cousin: The artistic director Michael Edwards came to me with the project for a new musical on Buck O’Neil, the baseball player in the Negro Leagues. I said, ‘Sure.’ And he asked, ‘Do you have a writing partner?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. There’s two of them.’ Ty Greenwood, who has recently graduated from CMU, and Monteze. … And so they interviewed both of them and they decided they wanted to use both of them. They just split it, and gave Ty a project, and they said Monteze and I should get together on the Buck O’Neil project.

Almost a year of researching the Hall of Fame player and writing most of a new musical, it was time to sign on the dotted line for permissions from, among others, O’Neil’s family.

All these people were in one meeting, everyone was gung-ho, and then the family, out of nowhere just said, ‘We don’t want to do it.’ … They said, ‘Well maybe there’s a film that we should be waiting for.’ And so everyone just went, ‘A film? Where’d that come from? …. And so we all just kind of like deflated right there in the meeting.

Question: But you got another commission …

Cousin: Yes. They said, ‘Go away, take some time, and see what you kind of come up with.’ And so we did. Monteze and I both grew up in Baltimore, in different generations, but Baltimore has a history  – like in the play Hairspray – a very strong history of social dance. My sisters were actually on The Buddy Dean Show on Negro Day. … I was on Brothers and Sisters Negro Day, but it was on an offshoot called The Kirby Scott Show. That’s a very long, fascinating story in itself. But anyway, our basement at home became this refuge, where my parents would have basement parties for their adult friends, because they wouldn’t accept Blacks in clubs. So literally they would come to people’s basements. And I mean the would come in gowns and gloves, men in suits, the whole thing. And my sisters, every day, had dance parties. Kids would come over after school and watch The Buddy Dean Show. And so our basement became this thing. And then later I learned, I did not know this, but a great deal of my parents’ friends were gay. And so that was a place that they could come socialize. 

Question: And was it the same for Monteze?

Cousin: He had something similar. His mother held basement parties. So we got together and said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what this is.’ You know, maybe there’s some kind of social piece that we deal with, taking place in the basement, about transgender youth, gay youth, where they could feel safe in the 1960s, while outside, they were dealing with the political terminal that’s about to come. .. So we came up with this play called Dancing in the Blue Light. And I don’t know if you know anything about a house party, but when the blue light comes on, that’s when it’s at its most sensual. Red light is hot, but blue is like, when it’s really, really sensual, and there was a certain kind of slow dancing that was appropriate for that blue light. And so we wrote this play, and then Asolo said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s bring you down here for a week.’

Question: You directed, so I imagine that there is a lot of dancing in it.

Cousin: It’s got a lot of movement in it, and I can put it up pretty quickly. They allowed us to bring in two actors, so we brought in Ivy Fox, who I worked with on The Scottsboro Boys, and Taran Carter, and both of them happened to be from Baltimore. So the four of us came in and gave them a lesson on Baltimore. … It was pretty phenomenal, what we accomplished there. And so now we have this material that they’re interested in, and Monteze and I are going to take what we saw from that first workshop and just kind of rewrite.

Question: Have you had any thoughts about next steps, or the possibility of a Pittsburgh development?

Cousin: I should say, it has a full musical score, of a ‘60s soundtrack. There’s some performances, like, a little drag, a little lip sync-y, in the basement for entertainment that they do. There’s just some tweaking before we pitch the next version.

Question: So, among your many projects, you were supposed to be in the Berkshires with Contact this summer. What happened?

Cousin: The whole thing was cast. It was going to be so fantastic because it was the first time we had a diverse cast with it, and the casting was sooo good. The designs were there and everything was in place and then, at the last second, whoever their major, major funder was, pulled out. … I think they’re going to try for it next season. That’s my feeling.

Question: Well, something good came out of losing the Buck O’Neil musical, so maybe that will happen here. In the meantime, what is happening with your biomusical Van Der Zee [based on the life of the famed Black portrait photographer, James Van Der Zee]? The staged reading you did at CMU was amazing.

Cousin: We’re waiting until October because we were asked to submit again for the National Endowment of the Arts. So we’ll know in October how much money is coming in for the next step, which would be for spring of 2024 in New York. It is going to happen either way, that there’ll be a showcase of the entire piece, and then we invite the world to come see a couple of studio performances. 

Question: And this weekend in New York for the Tonys, who is joining you from CMU?

Cousin: It’s a team of myself, Robert Ramirez, the head of the School of Drama; Rick Edinger, Claudia [Benack] … we are all part of the voting team for the Education Award. [The 2023 Excellence In Theatre Education Award winner is Jason Zembuch Young, of Plantation, Florida.]

Question: I know you are in the midst of working with the cast of Pittsburgh CLO’s Anything Goes in your role as an intimacy coordinator, and what else is happening now?

Cousin: I’m doing all the intimacy work for the upcoming season, everywhere. And I’m going to finish the next edition of my book, The Franklin Project. [Named for the Peanuts cartoon’s Black character, the book includes Interviews, essays and articles on diversity and non-traditional casting for theater.] However, the book now is over 10,000 pages! [Laughs]. I think I am just going to give it its own website, and make the book free access for any researcher who needs it. It’s just massive.


The 76th annual Tony Awards will be broadcast from the  United Palace theater in New York City’s Washington Heights for the first time, with Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose returning as host. There will be plenty of performances by the Best Musical and Best Musical Revival nominees, but there will be no new scripted presentations. The ceremony airs on CBS starting at 8 p.m., with a live stream on Paramount+. The live 90-minute pre-show, hosted by Julianne Hough and Skylar Astin, “will be available for free on Pluto TV via smart TVs, streaming devices, mobile apps and online by going to Pluto TV and clicking on the Pluto TV Celebrity channel,” according to Deadline.com.

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