College honors 5 alumni with honorary degrees

Chester Gregory is one of the five alumni to receive an honorary degree from the college at the 2015 Commencement ceremonies. 

By Campus Reporter

After graduating seniors cross the stage at the 2015 Commencement ceremonies, they will have something in common with the recently announced honorary degree recipients: they are all alumni. 

This year’s honorary degree recipients, announced in an April 22 collegewide email from President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, include alumni Josefina López, a playwright, screenwriter and theater producer; Anna Shapiro, the Tony award-winning artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Nan Warshaw, co-founder of Bloodshot Records; Len Amato, President of HBO Films; and Chester Gregory, an award-winning actor, singer and songwriter. The degrees will be presented during the May 16 and 17 commencement ceremonies. 

Kim said the college wanted to recognize the achievements of Columbia alumni with this year’s honorary degrees. After their time at Columbia, each recipient went on to build extraordinary careers in his or her industry, Kim said. Recipients were chosen through a faculty committee recommendation, he said. 

“When I saw the kinds of people who were considered, I was particularly excited because I think this is a remarkable cross section [of Columbia alumni], even to the point of people who are earlier in their years and people who are later in their careers,” Kim said. “Hopefully our students will look at this list and feel really proud that these are all people who graduated from Columbia.” 

López, who is best known for authoring the play “Real Women Have Curves” and co-writing its 2002 Sundance award-winning film adaptation, graduated in 1993. She has had more than 80 plays produced nationwide and is now the founding artistic director of the CASA 0101 theater in Los Angeles. López also received a formal recognition from U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s “Women Making History in Hollywood” organization in 1998, the Humanities Prize for Screenwriting in 2002 and The Gabriel Garcia Marquez Award in 2003. 

López said she is grateful for her honorary degree from Columbia, especially because she initially struggled to receive an education. Previously an undocumented citizen, López said she was unable to enroll in college for 13 years because of her status. When she was finally able to attend, she was forced to drop out multiple times due to lack of financial aid. 

Reflecting on her experiences at Columbia, López said she remembers a place that was both inspiring and accommodating to her situation. 

“At Columbia I felt like I really belonged because it was a place that honors artists and understood how [they] think and feel,” she said. “Having someone say, ‘Hey, we care about your education, we’re not here for the money,’ was one of my most memorable moments.”

Shapiro, who graduated in 1990 is an award-winning Broadway director and new artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. In 2008, she received the 2008 Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Direction of a Play for Steppenwolf’s production of “August: Osage County.” Shapiro was nominated again for a 2011 Tony for her production of “The Motherf–ker with the Hat.” Shapiro could not be reached for comment as of press time. 

Warshaw graduated in 1993 and  is the co-founder of Bloodshot Records, an independent Chicago-based record label that specializes in roots and country music. She sits on the advisory boards of The Future of Music Coalition, The Chicago Music Coalition, and the honorary board of Foundations of Music. 

Warshaw said the business and finance classes she took while earning her master’s degree at Columbia have helped her effectively manage Bloodshot Records. She said her professors found a way to make otherwise dry subjects engaging.

“I used my education experience at Columbia to develop basic and important business skills,” Warshaw said. “It’s certainly benefited me in running my own business, and I think it would be relevant in running any small business, whether it’s arts-related or not.”

Amato, who graduated in 1975 became president of HBO Films in 2008, and the company has since received numerous awards and accolades, including 39 Emmy Awards and 12 Golden Globe Awards in the 2009–2014 award seasons. 

Prior to joining HBO, Amato served as president of Spring Creek Productions, garnering producer and executive producer credits on multiple films, including the Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated “Blood Diamond” (2006). Amato could not be reached for comment as of press time. 

Gregory, an award-winning actor, singer and songwriter, rose to fame after starring as Jackie Wilson in the national tour of “The Jackie Wilson Story.” Graduating in 1995, he made his Broadway debut in the Tony award-winning musical “Hairspray” and has appeared in the original Broadway casts of “Tarzan,” “Cry-Baby” and “Sister Act.”

Gregory appeared as Sterling in “Two Trains Running” at the Goodman Theatre from March 7–April 19. He has received numerous awards for his work, including an NAACP Theater Award, a Black Theater Alliance Award and a Joseph Jefferson Award. 

“Columbia not only gave me tools that I use to this day and helped me build [valuable relationships],” Gregory said. “It also gave me the training and confidence to walk into a room and feel prepared and feel that my craft is developed in a way where I know that I can walk into a room and bring something special.”