Damson Chola Jr. and Gretchen Shope React to Winning the 2024 Jimmy Awards | Playbill

Education News Damson Chola Jr. and Gretchen Shope React to Winning the 2024 Jimmy Awards

"I get to be someone's inspiration to keep going and pursue their dreams."

Gretchen Shope, Damson Chola Jr., Van Kaplan, and Jimmy L. Nederlander Tricia Baron

As anyone who watched the 2024 Jimmy Awards can attest, the future of theatre is bright! This year's ceremony was held at the Minskoff Theatre June 24, with Tony nominee Josh Groban hosting. Groban and others have referred to the Jimmy Awards as the best night on Broadway—after all, where else can you find a seamless transition between solos from SpongeBob SquarePants and Sweeney Todd on a Broadway stage?

The awards, which recognize the best in high school musical theatre performers from across the country, are presented in two acts. The first act is a series of performances with all 102 nominees, including large group numbers and character medleys, where small groups of students each sing a segment as the character they were nominated for portraying back at home. 

For act two, a panel of judges select eight finalists, all of whom receive scholarships. Other awards accompanied by a scholarship are also presented to nominees, such as Best Dancer and Best Performance in an Ensemble. Finalists then advance to perform a solo song that they spent the week perfecting with coaches and mentors. Finally, the judges choose the two winners for Best Performance by an Actor and Actress, with a $25,000 scholarship for both performers. 

This year's winners are Damson Chola Jr. and Gretchen Shope. Playbill caught up with the rising stars the morning after their big night.

Damson Chola Jr. 

Hometown: Cleburne, Texas
Regional Awards: The Broadway Dallas High School Musical Theatre Awards
Chola Jr. charmed the audience right away as a bashful Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors in his character medley. In a change of pace for his solo performance, Chola Jr. brought the house down with "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime

What were you thinking or feeling when they called your name?
Damson Chola Jr.: 
When they called my name, it felt so surreal. It felt like an accomplishment. I have so much gratitude to hear not only my name, but my father's name. And that's a beautiful thing.

Why did you choose "Make Them Hear You"?
I was told by my regional awards program that I was the first African American male to ever make it to the Jimmys from Dallas. So I felt that I should also make a statement about that, with everything that I have, and also through my experience as well. My parents are first-generation immigrants from Zambia, Africa, I've grown up in that household, and we've been treated unfairly by the government many times and felt unseen. So I felt that was the truth in that song. And I felt that it's kind of an anthem, a call to arms for all of those that feel unseen, not just for people of color, but for everyone that feels unseen. And it spoke to me.

What was your favorite memory from the week?
My favorite memory from the week would have to be the Tony Awards. Seeing all of my Broadway idols in one space...I saw Leslie Odom, Jr...Of course, it was from afar, I was in the mezzanine, but I saw! I saw Brian Stokes Mitchell step on stage, Audra McDonald. It was just such an incredible, incredible experience. And one that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It made me realize, "Hey, this thing is real. This dream can happen."

Did you receive any advice that you'll take with you?
Some advice that I received was from Rich + Tone [Talauega] at MJ. It was something that was so inspiring. I think what they said was something along the lines of, "If you're scared before a performance or an audition, do it afraid." And I was scared when I walked up onto that stage, let me tell you. I've never been that nervous in my life. But I just remembered those words, "Just do it afraid." And I was like, "Okay, let's do it."

What's next for you?
I got accepted into Carnegie Mellon University's musical theatre program.

READ: 15 Jimmy Award Alums Who Are Now Theatre Favorites

Gretchen Shope

Hometown: Midland, Michigan
Regional Awards: The Sutton Foster Awards
Shope made a standout first appearance in her character medley as Alice from Alice By Heart. For her solo performance, Shope earned a standing ovation with a heartfelt rendition of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" from Funny Girl

What were you thinking or feeling when they called your name?
Gretchen Shope:
 I've been watching the Jimmys since I was a little girl, and I felt so inspired by all the other female nominees. I was like, "Oh my gosh, there's going to be a little girl that's watching this right now that's going to feel inspired by me." And it's so magical. I get to be someone's inspiration to keep going and pursue their dreams. I'm so grateful for that.

Why did you choose "The Music That Makes Me Dance?"
I chose that song because, first of all, I'm such a music theory nerd. I love the complex jazz chord progressions of it, that's the music that makes me dance. And also because of the text of the song—Fanny is such a non-conventional female character. She is the opposite of a normal and simple ingenue. All of her relationships are so complex, and have a lot of depth. And I thought that if I did this song, I would be able to bring a new light to it that highlights how relationships are not easy and super complicated. But we're humans, and we're just lucky to have them in the first place.

What was your favorite memory from the week?
I have to say the Tony Awards. For, like, the first 10 minutes after they told us that we were going, I was like, "Okay, I'm just waiting for them to tell us it's a prank."...But then we actually went, and I put on the nicest dress that I had, and I had the time my life. Being in the room with all of these people that I've looked up to for so long, and then seeing them talk about and give encouragement to the younger generation of theatregoers was so special to me. I was able to keep their speeches with me from the Tony Awards all the way to the Jimmy Awards as a finalist, so that's just so magical and so special.

Did you receive any advice that you'll take with you?
What I really love that I got from my voice teacher, Katie Travis, is that sometimes the performance doesn't feel special. Sometimes the performance doesn't feel your personal best. But it doesn't really matter what your opinion is on it, because our job as performers of musical theatre isn't to make ourselves feel special, it's to make someone in the audience feel special because you're representing them and making them feel heard. So keeping that with me and allowing that to power my storytelling rather than fear of making mistakes was so powerful.

What's next for you?
I am, as of now, attending Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and double majoring in marketing and musical theatre.

Photos: 2024 Jimmy Award Winners

The Jimmy Awards finalists were James Thibault from the Stephen Sondheim Awards in New Haven, Connecticut; Fabiola Caraballo Quijada from Broadway Dallas High School Musical Theatre Awards in Dallas, Texas; Catherine Dosier from the Spirit of the MACY Awards in La Mirada, California; Luke Martin from the Nevada High School Musical Theater Awards from Las Vegas, Nevada; Samia Posadas from The Monte Awards in Tucson, Arizona; and Peter Dessert from the Blue Star Awards in Kansas City, Missouri. Each finalist received a $5,000 cash scholarship.

See the 2024 Jimmy Awards nominees perform their opening number below.

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