Bonnie Milligan on winning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical

Bonnie Milligan won her first Tony Award for her performance as Aunt Debra in Kimberly Akimbo, and she shared her winning experience with the show.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

Bonnie Milligan’s crowd-pleasing turn as a conniving con artist in Kimberly Akimbo earned her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The quirky tuner, which won Best Musical, was the top winner of the 2023 Tony Awards with five victories, and Milligan’s first-time win was a boon for the show’s celebratory evening.

Milligan plays Aunt Debra, who is bold and crass and willing to do anything to make her “shitty life better,” including swindling jewelry from an old woman with dementia and convincing a group of teens to wash checks. It was important for Milligan to understand the character’s underlying motives to bring the scheming character's fullness to life on stage.

Milligan originated the role in the musical’s Off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater Company and worked to find sympathy for Aunt Debra. For that check-washing scene, she rationalized that the kids would get off scot-free or, at most, go to juvie. Milligan’s improvised comment about this during rehearsal made its way into the show.

“I think there's an act of love in looking at someone's very complicated circumstances and the why of what they do,” explained Milligan. “Genuinely, her last connection to humanity is Kimberly, and so it’s a conflict of real love, but a real means of survival is higher. She chooses herself, and she has to.”

Milligan brings that authenticity to Aunt Debra’s no-holds-barred attitude in the show to great effect. And while Milligan was instrumental in shaping Aunt Debra, the character has taught her key lessons too.

“Don't ever judge anybody straightaway by their actions,” said Milligan in the press room. “You can always look deeper, you can always find humanity and kindness where others may not see it.”

In her acceptance speech, Milligan said she was grateful to the show and the character for coming into her life after her father’s death. The creative team gave her an extension on her Off-Broadway audition. In many ways, the process of diving into the show, and living in Aunt Debra’s brassiness, helped to carry her through her grief.

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Milligan shares the award with her late grandmother, who encouraged her wild imagination as a child and sent her to musical theatre camp. “She just really always encouraged every bit of that imagination for as long as I can remember,” said Milligan in the press room.

The Tony Award comes to Milligan after decades of working in theatre on readings, workshops, concerts, and Broadway productions — she first appeared on Broadway in Head Over Heels in 2018.

The recognition of her performance in Kimberly Akimbo, though, has helped her work through a long bout of imposter syndrome.

“I grew up in a double-wide trailer in the Midwest with not much and no connections, and it took a while to get here,” Milligan recalled. “And for some years, I had shame about how long it took me and that I didn’t just get off the bus and immediately book a show… So it’s been a roller coaster.”

The long ride has made the win all the more rewarding. “I have felt a part of this community for such a while now that to feel this recognition, it's like, the imposter syndrome can go away. Like, ‘No, no, you belong here, it's okay.’ Because that little girl with the frizzy, curly hair who didn't have much money and didn't quite believe it… now we’re believing it.”

Milligan's win was for people everywhere looking for a sense of belonging. "I want to tell everybody that doesn't look like what the world is telling you you should look like, whether you're not pretty enough, you're not fit enough, your identity is not right, who you love isn't right — that doesn't matter," she said on stage, holding up her Tony Award. "Because guess what, it's right."

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Top photo credit: Bonnie Milligan at the 76th Annual Tony Awards. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
Inline photo credit: Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway.(Photo by Joan Marcus)

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