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Audra McDonald receives MIT’s Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts

Actress Audra McDonaldAutumn de Wilde

Attending MIT with some of the best and brightest is great for your resume, but a tutorial from a six-time Tony Award-winning actress? That’s a whole other thing.

Audra McDonald is this year’s recipient of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, and as such she joined students and staff for a short residency. In a discussion at Killian Hall — Thursday’s talk was titled “The Show Business I Know” — McDonald and musical theater professor Martin Marks chatted about the actress’s impressive resume, which includes a bevy of Broadway shows, as well as film and TV work. (She’s perhaps best known for her performances in the musicals “Carousel,” “Master Class,” and “Ragtime,” and in the Shonda Rhimes drama “Private Practice.”)


Speaking to 30 or so students who were predominantly engineering majors, McDonald kept it straightforward, stressing the importance of passion, self-discovery, and perseverance.

“It’s so easy to diminish yourself and think ‘I am nothing and everybody else is everything,’ ” she said. “Realize you have value and you have worth and what you maybe don’t have is experience but that is what you are here to get.”

When she was told about the MIT award, McDonald confessed she didn’t know what to think.

“I was confused when I found out,” she said. “Especially coming from MIT, there was immediately a part of me that thought ‘Oh, but I’m not smart, I got a horrible score on the SATs, they’re gonna find all this out and change their mind!’ ”

That’s nonsense, of course. McDonald is a very fitting addition to the roster of Eugene McDermott Award recipients, which has included playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, author Junot Diaz, and architect I.M. Pei, among others. In addition to the residency, the prestigious award comes with a $100,000 cash prize, which McDonald will be sharing.


“I am deeply involved with the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth all over the country and in Canada and Latin America,” she said. “They are more than just a homeless shelter. . . . They get them back on their feet so they can thrive.”

McDonald will be in Boston again soon, performing at Symphony Hall April 13 as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, and again at Tanglewood, the Berkshires abode of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, this summer.

McDonald was a little coy when asked about what else she has in the works.

“Maybe they’ll see something in the fall. . . . That’s all I’ll say,” she said with a smile.