The Breakout Stars of 2020

While plenty of us felt trapped this year, wandering through the same spaces and talking to the same people, it was the artists and entertainers who kicked open windows to new sights, sounds and experiences for us. Yes, the pandemic dealt a significant hit to the culture world, but nothing could derail its creativity. So, despite the limitations, stars in a variety of disciplines managed to thrive and shine, and by doing so, made a difficult year more tolerable for most everyone. Here are 12 artists and trends who gave us a fresh perspective in 2020.


Radha Blank

Radha Blank was the hero many of us needed in 2020, when the concept of time got an overdue interrogation. In her autobiographical satire “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” which was on Netflix, she portrays a playwright who — refusing to believe that her dreams have an expiration date — pivots to rap as a grown woman. Like her character, Blank, who grew up Brooklyn, is a 40-something playwright who knows what it’s like to fight to elevate her voice.

And elevate it she did. She wrote, directed and starred in the film, her first feature, a New York Times Critic’s Pick that A.O. Scott called “a catalog of burdens and also a heroic act of unburdening.”


Michaela Coel

Michaela Coel may have created the most important TV show of 2020: “I May Destroy You.” The series, which premiered on HBO in June, is inspired by Coel’s own experience with sexual assault, and in it, she deftly plucks apart ideas around truth, revenge, anxiety, trauma and fear.

Coel, a 33-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and actor, plays a writer who is drugged and raped in a bathroom stall. The assault leaves her traumatized and grappling with hazy, fragmented memories. “Coel brings a superb discipline to the portrayal of distress,” wrote Mike Hale, a TV critic at The Times.

In a critic’s notebook, Salamishah Tillet, a professor and contributing critic at large for The Times, noted that the show could be considered “part of a larger cultural trend in which Black women’s experiences with sexual assault are appearing with greater frequency and treated with more sensitivity.” (She pointed to the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” and TV shows like “Queen Sugar,” “The Chi” and “Lovecraft Country” as examples.)

“By offering multifaceted endings,” Tillet went on, “Coel gives victims of sexual assault, particularly Black women who have survived rape, some of the most radical and cathartic moments of television I have ever witnessed.”


Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper, 43-year-old comedian, made her mark in 2020 by pantomiming the words of President Trump in viral videos that have been viewed tens of millions of times across social media. Jim Poniewozik called her first Trump lip-sync, “How to Medical,” a “49-second tour de force” and said Cooper was helping to develop “a kind of live-action political cartooning.”

“Cooper’s Trumpian drag is partly a caricature of performative masculinity,” Poniewozik wrote.

The success of her videos helped land Cooper a Netflix special, “Everything’s Fine,” directed by Natasha Lyonne. “This special shows that she can do much more than lip-sync,” Jason Zinoman, a comedy columnist at The Times, said of the production. “She has a promising future as an actor in television or movies.” She currently has a show in the works for CBS.


Maria Bakalova

It’s no easy feat to stand out next to the unabashed actor-prankster Sacha Baron Cohen, but Maria Bakalova, a 24-year-old from Bulgaria, was riveting as the teenage daughter of his Borat character in his most recent mockumentary film. As the culture reporter Dave Itzkoff put it in The Times: “Sacha Baron Cohen may be the star of ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,’ but it is Maria Bakalova who has emerged its hero.”

Her performance also grabbed headlines for an edited scene involving President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is seen putting his hands down his pants in a hotel room, where Bakalova, impersonating a TV journalist, is interviewing him. He later denied any wrongdoing.

About the opportunity to star in a major American film, Bakalova said: “I will be really grateful to Sacha for giving this platform to an Eastern European, to play a strong and complicated character who’s not just one thing.”


Adrienne Warren

Adrienne Warren’s starring role in “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” earned her a Tony nomination in October for best actress in a musical. But it was her vocal and steadfast stand on racial injustice, including in the arts world, that brought Warren, 33, more deeply into one of the most urgent conversations of 2020. In an impassioned, impromptu speech this summer — during the Times event Offstage: Opening Night on the subject of being Black on Broadway — she questioned whether she even wanted to continue performing as part of an institution that didn’t stand up for people like her.

“The last thing on my mind right now is me going back to Broadway,” Warren said. But in an interview with The Times after her nomination, she said, “I know this is what I’m supposed to do, but the question is whether I want to do it at the address I’ve been doing it.”

As for what a dream role might look like for her in the future: “I want to make sure that I’m telling stories that represent me as a Black woman and also push the needle forward in ways that resonate with people, both in this nation and abroad,” she said.


Jonathan Majors

Jonathan Majors isn’t afraid of pain, and that may just be his secret to success. “I’m willing to hurt more,” he told Alexis Soloski in The Times over the summer. “It doesn’t bother me.”

The 31-year-old star had a big year doing just that to great effect onscreen, as a Korean War veteran in the supernatural HBO thriller “Lovecraft Country,” set in 1950s Jim Crow America, and the son of a Vietnam War veteran in “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s drama for Netflix that was named a Critic’s Pick in The Times by A.O. Scott.

“Emotions in the men in my family run deep,” Majors told Soloski — who described him as “an actor of precision and intensity.” When asked if acting gave him a place to put those big emotions, he said: “With acting, it was almost like I was in a corridor, and it just appeared to me and said, ‘Go that way, son.’ I didn’t get in trouble once I started acting. I had a place to put the energy, to put my focus.”


Christine Sun Kim

In February, just minutes ahead of the Super Bowl in Miami, the artist Christine Sun Kim stood at the 40-yard line performing in American Sign Language as Yolanda Adams sang “America the Beautiful” and Demi Lovato sang the national anthem.

“As a child of immigrants, a grandchild of refugees, a Deaf woman of color, an artist and a mother, I was proud to perform,” she wrote in an Op-Ed for The Times afterward. But because only a fraction of her performance was aired, she called the experience “a huge disappointment — a missed opportunity in the struggle for media inclusiveness on a large scale.”

“Being deaf in America has always been political,” she wrote.

Kim, 40, who was born in California and is now based in Berlin, has spent years channeling this perspective into her art. At the Whitney Biennial in New York last year, she exhibited hand-drawn charcoal drawings from her “Degrees of Deaf Rage in the Art World,” and in 2013, the Museum of Modern Art selected her for its exhibition “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” dedicated to sound art.

“I want people to start thinking about what deafness means,” she told Vogue this year, “and maybe that will reduce the stigma and society will be more inclusive of people with disabilities.”



You could call it a battle, a face-off, a showdown. But Verzuz is also something else entirely: a pandemic pivot, cutting right to the very core of quarantine entertainment by combining livestreaming and nostalgia while filling a hole left by canceled live shows and shuttered clubs.

Since April, Verzuz, the creation of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, has streamed over 20 battles. Each one has brought together two hip-hop or R&B heavyweights: Gladys Knight vs. Patti LaBelle, Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott, Gucci Mane vs. Jeezy, Babyface vs. Teddy Riley, Snoop Dogg vs. DMX, Ludacris vs. Nelly, to name a few. Millions of people have tuned in.

Initially, Verzuz was streamed on Instagram Live. In July, Verzuz and Apple Music announced they’d struck a partnership which allowed the videos to be viewed live and on-demand on that platform, too.

Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic for The Times, called the events staples of this era and “less battles in the conventional sense than choreographed chest-puffing combined with bows of respect.” To that point, there is no winner winner. As Swizz Beatz told ABC News: “The people won, the culture won, the music won.”


Salman Toor

The painter Salman Toor was about to have his first solo museum show, “How Will I Know,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art early this year when the shutdown thwarted the whole thing. He took it pretty well. “My first reaction was, thank God,” he told The Times in June. “I’m not a social animal.” But disappointment inevitably crept in as he realized the exhibition might never happen.

Thankfully for him and fans of figurative and queer art, the show eventually did go up at the Whitney, where it will appear through April. And that’s only the start for Toor. Over the summer, he joined the gallery Luhring Augustine, which will open an exhibition of his work in the next few years.

Toor, 37 — who was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the United States in 2002 — primarily depicts gay men of South Asian descent. In The Times, the writer Ted Loos described Toor’s contemporary settings: “iPhones appear here and there, the glow emanating from them emphasized with bright lines.” Toor said that he aspired to represent “what this new free space is like,” referring to living an openly queer life. In Pakistan, gay sex is illegal. “People are curious to know what it means to have the freedom of so much choice, and what is the nature of that freedom and what is the cost of that.”


Elizabeth Stanley

Up against Adrienne Warren for that Tony is Elizabeth Stanley, who was nominated for her gutting performance as Mary Jane — “a brittle tiger mom suppressing secret trauma,” as Jesse Green, a theater critic for The Times, put it — in “Jagged Little Pill,” based on Alanis Morissette’s smash album from 1995. When Broadway shut down, Stanley, 42, did not take too long before shifting her energy toward digital performances.

In April, she told Deadline that she’d already been wondering about what else she could do during the pandemic: “How can I twist to this and find something new and exciting out of this time?”

What came of that question epitomized what much of theater looked like in 2020: creating new digital spaces for live performance.

In April, she delivered a jaw-dropping rendition of “The Miller’s Son” from “A Little Night Music,” for the acclaimed event “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration.” In June, she sang her wrenching rendition of “You Learn,” from “Jagged Little Pill,” for an Opening Night Times event on the future of Broadway. On Dec. 13, Stanley and her “Jagged Little Pill” co-stars reunited for “Jagged Live In NYC: A Broadway Reunion Concert.”


Kali Uchis

In 2018, Kali Uchis released a debut album titled “Isolation.” Clearly she was ahead of her time. In November, the Colombian-American artist — with a moody, seductive, dance-inducing style — dropped her second studio album, this time predominantly in Spanish, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios).” (Its lead single, “Aquí Yo Mando,” features the up-and-coming rapper Rico Nasty.) The album “goes genre-hopping and era-hopping, from romantically retro orchestral bolero to brittle reggaeton,” Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic of The Times, wrote this month.

Having grown up between Colombia and the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, Uchis, 26, had many inspirations and influences, she told Interview magazine. “The last thing I ever want to do is be a predictable artist. I love that my fans never know what to expect when I drop a song.”


The Year of the Solo

It wasn’t just that the coronavirus put an end to live performance in March. The need for social isolation uprooted every part of what gets a dance onto a stage: Suddenly, there were no more classes, no more rehearsals. How to fill that void? The solo.

This solitary form has provided an outlet for frustration, for sadness and even for euphoria as dance artists continue to find meaning through movement. It’s true that some attempts have been sentimental and aimless, but much good has emerged from it, too. Instagram, from the start, illuminated these explorations in a steady stream of posts; choreographers worked with dancers remotely to create films in which the body could be fearless and free. “State of Darkness,” Molissa Fenley’s 1988 solo revived for seven dancers, was a glittering, harrowing reminder of the achievement that comes from strength, both internal and external.

One of its interpreters, the dancer Sara Mearns, said that she saw herself as “someone that has gone through really, really hard times, but then in the end has come out stronger and on top.” Yes, dance and dancers are suffering right now. But the solo has given it — and them — a powerful voice. — Gia Kourlas, dance critic for The New York Times

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