Sky Lakota-Lynch on Being the Rare Native American Actor to Be Nominated for a Tony Award | Playbill

Tony Awards Sky Lakota-Lynch on Being the Rare Native American Actor to Be Nominated for a Tony Award

The actor is currently recognized for his performance in The Outsiders.

Sky Lakota-Lynch Vi Dang

Sky Lakota-Lynch is sitting in his dressing room at the Jacobs Theatre on 45th Street, shortly after returning from the Tony Awards press day May 2. Before The Outsiders’ evening performance, Lakota-Lynch is relaxed, leaning back contently in his chair. That’s because just two days earlier, he was nominated for his first Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical. One of the parts of this honor that brings Sky the most joy is getting to bring his Native American heritage to Broadway. "It feels surreal," he remarks of the honor. "It's so bizarre because it feels like it's happened overnight. But obviously, it took six years [of working on The Outsiders]." 

Two other well-known past Tony nominees are James Earl Jones, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee descent and Lou Diamond Phillips, who has Cherokee heritage. But it's a rarefied club. Other Broadway alums with Indigenous backgrounds include Cherokees Will Rogers, who made his mark in vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies, and Lynn Riggs, whose play Green Grow the Lilacs inspired Oklahoma!. Much more recently, the ranks have included Larissa FastHorse of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, who became the first known Native female playwright on Broadway; Ojibwe and Oneida performer Ty Defoe, who appeared in Straight White Men; and fellow Haliwa-Saponi Tribe member Brooke Simpson, who starred in the 2022 revival of 1776.

Lakota-Lynch is currently playing Johnny Cade, a member of the “tuff” Greasers living in the working-class part of Tulsa in the late 1960s, in The Outsiders. Like Lakota-Lynch, who is half Ethiopian and half Indigenous, the Johnny Cade of the musical is also Indigenous. In the six years he has been with the project—despite the director, songwriter, and venue changes—Johnny’s Indigenous heritage has continued to be part of the story of The Outsiders musical. 

“I'm just grateful that it is something that has stayed in the fabric of the show,” remarks Lakota-Lynch. This is true down to the literal fabric of his costume, which is embroidered with the colors of the Haliwa-Saponi nation. Additionally, Johnny’s identity extends to the understudies for the role. Both men come from Indigenous backgrounds; Josh Strobl is Mexican-American and Darryl Tofa is Pacific Islander.

When visiting Tulsa with the cast earlier this year, Lakota-Lynch had the opportunity to sit down with the author of The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton, to talk about her inspiration for Johnny. “She just saw some kid in her high school who looked like a Johnny and just wrote this whole narrative about him,” says Lakota-Lynch. In the novel, Johnny Cade is described as a kid with “big black eyes in a dark tanned face; his hair was jet-black and heavily greased and combed to the side.” Recalls Lakota-Lynch, “In my head, I was thinking he probably was Mexican or Indigenous, especially in Tulsa. There's such a hodgepodge of people that come through there.”

According to Lakota-Lynch, crafting the character of Johnny was quite different from his previous role as Jared Kleinman in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, which he took over from Will Roland. “As beautiful of a story as Dear Evan Hansen was," Lakota-Lynch explains, “I sort of had to put on someone else's shoes. Whereas in The Outsiders, I built it from the ground up. I hope that when I leave, someone Native American can step into the role. If not, someone who could build it on their own, on their own blocks—Asian or non-binary, or deaf—to be a window to the true outsiders of the world.”

Sky Lakota-Lynch Michaelah Reynolds

Storytelling and performance are a prodigious part of passing down Native American culture through generations. While growing up in Philadelphia, Lakota-Lynch's family took him to see a traveling show called Spirit: The Seventh Fire, which became a source of inspiration, he says. “The show was about this Native American guy who was disbanded from his tribe and grew up in New York City. Then he went back to his roots. I remember seeing that show and being like, ‘I want to do something like that.’”

That is why being a source of representation for young Native American kids with dreams of being on Broadway is “the best part about it all,” says Lakota-Lynch. When he was doing a play in Colorado, he recalls a conversation he had with a group of young Native American students. “They were looking at me like I was an alien. They said, ‘You really did it, man. You're really out there acting; you're in New York. I want to do that too.’ I said, ‘You can. There's no difference between you and me; I'm mixed and you're pure, but at the same time, we're in the same boat.’”

When going on stage every night, Lakota-Lynch not only remembers his lines and blocking but also his ancestors who helped him get there. “I bring the spirit of my grandparents. My grandfather ran the Native American Cultural Center in Center City, Philadelphia, for a decade,” Lakota-Lynch explains. In conjunction with remembering the past, he looks to the future at the young Native Americans, including the acting students he taught in Colorado. “It's a lot of responsibility, but at the same time, I feel like I'm being put here for a reason. I just hope that I'm embraced by all communities of Native American culture,” says Sky. “I hope that we can all band together and create art and just be proud of our culture.”

*A previous version of this story claimed that Lakota-Lynch was the first known Native American actor to be nominated for a Tony Award. We have corrected the story to include other Tony-nominated actors with Indigenous heritage. 

Photos: The 2024 Tony Nominees Meet the Press

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