The breakout stars of 2021

Abby Mueller, Anna Uzele, Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Brittney Mack and Samantha Pauly in the musical “Six”, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York, September 14, 2021. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, are among the New York Times’ breakout artists of 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)

The cultural world began to sputter back to life this year, and in turn, so did many of us — slipping out of our sweats and into movie theaters, clubs and Broadway shows. Even for those who were less confident rubbing (or bumping) elbows in public, artists brought us plenty of joy in the safety of our home. It may not have been the before times, but in 2021, these artists and creators from across the arts gave us a fresh outlook.




Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo on the cover of her album Sour. (Photo: Flickr)

For those of us older than 30, Olivia Rodrigo seemed to come out of nowhere with her colossal debut single, “Drivers License,” a heartbreak ballad that dropped in January and stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks. But for a younger audience, Rodrigo, 18, was familiar from her time as a Disney child star. Despite that pedigree, she didn’t drag along a squeaky-clean image.


Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic at The New York Times, called “Sour,” her debut album from May, “nuanced and often exceptional,” deploying “sweet pop and tart punk equally well.” He called Rodrigo, a California-raised Filipino American, “an optimal pop star for the era of personalities, subpersonalities and metapersonalities.”


As Rodrigo told GQ magazine in June, “Something that I learned very early on is the importance of separating person versus persona. When people who don’t know me are criticizing me, they’re criticizing my persona, not my person.”


Mickey Guyton


After Mickey Guyton was nominated for three Grammys in November, she told the Times, “I was right.” She was referring to her instinct for the direction of “Remember Her Name,” her debut full-length release. “This whole album came from me and what I thought I should release,” she said, “and that’s something I’ve never done.”


In January, alongside major players like Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton, she will have three chances to win: for best country album, best country song and best country solo performance (for the title track). Last Grammys, she became the first Black woman to be nominated for a solo country performance award for the track “Black Like Me.”




Lee Jung-jae


Lee Jung-jae in Netflix’s “Squid Game”. (Photo: IMDB) 

Blood-drenched, brutally violent entertainment is rarely synonymous with nuanced, complex performances. But in Netflix’s “Squid Game,” a dystopian thriller from South Korea that became a global streaming sensation, Lee Jung-jae, 49, pulled off just that. As protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict who is deeply in debt, he gives a wrenching and surprisingly subtle performance as he battles his way through unspeakable horrors.


But Lee, a model turned actor who has starred in several hit Korean films like last year’s gangster drama “Deliver Us From Evil,” doesn’t play Gi-hun as a hero or a villain, a bumbling fool or a savvy con man. “Gi-hun’s emotions are very complicated,” Lee told the Times in October.


“Squid Game,” he went on, “is not really a show about survival games. It’s about people.”


The Cast of ‘Reservation Dogs’


Reservation Dogs,” a dark comedy about four teenagers living on a Native reservation in Oklahoma, is a game-changer. That’s how one of its stars, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, described it, and he wouldn’t be alone. The series, from FX on Hulu, is the first on TV with an entirely Indigenous writers room and roster of directors. That backbone allows the undeniable synergy among its core cast members — Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis — to flourish.


On previous sets, Jacobs said she was “literally the only Native person for miles.” The industry “should feel embarrassed that 2021 is a year for firsts for Indigenous representation,” she said.


For Alexis, her acting dreams once felt so impossible, she felt embarrassed to tell anyone about them, she told the Times. “There was no representation on TV. I didn’t think I would make it.” Now she has a role in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” and will star in a second season of “Reservation Dogs,” which was renewed in September.




The Authors of ‘Six’


In October, “Six” became the first musical to have its opening night on Broadway since the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. An exuberant and cheeky pop musical about the wives of Henry VIII, it brought much-needed fun and noise to the stage — thanks to Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who wrote the book, music and lyrics. (Moss also directed the show with Jamie Armitage.)


The hit show is “a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past” that “turns Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives into spunky modern-day pop stars,” as Jesse Green, theater critic at the Times, and Maya Phillips, a critic-at-large, put it. Think Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, whom the leading divas were in some ways modeled after.


Marlow came up with the idea for “Six” while daydreaming during a poetry class at Cambridge University, where he and Moss, now both 27, became fast friends. “This,” Moss told the Times in 2019, “is obviously the craziest thing that’s ever happened to us.”




Aunjanue Ellis


In 1995, the Times called Aunjanue Ellis an up-and-comer for her role in the Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” in New York’s Central Park. Ellis “projects nearly as much force offstage as she does in character as Ariel,” the article read. That fire hasn’t wavered in the years since, whether on film — “Ray,” “The Help,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” — or on TV in “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country,” both of which earned her Emmy nominations.


Aunjanue Ellis in “Lovecraft Country” 2020. (Photo: IMDB)

Now, in the movie “King Richard,” Ellis delivers a megawatt performance as Oracene, mother of Venus and Serena Williams (opposite Will Smith as Richard) — turning a supporting role into a talker and generating Oscar buzz.


In an interview this fall, Ellis, now 52, talked about what makes her say yes to a role: “Can I do it and not be embarrassed and stand by the fact that I’ve done it?” she says she asks herself. “Is it fun to play and am I doing a service to Black women?”




Jennifer Packer


Last year, Jennifer Packer, 37, a painter who depicts contemporary Black life through atmospheric portraits and still lifes, told the Times that she’s driven by thoughts of “emotional and moral buoyancy in the face of various kinds of impoverishment and de facto captivity.”


Now, that perspective is on display in her biggest solo exhibition, “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show includes about 30 of her works from the past decade, including the painting “A Lesson in Longing,” which was featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial — as well as works that speak to Black lives lost to police brutality. Her largest painting, “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!),” referring to Breonna Taylor, was created during the 2020 pandemic lockdown.


In reviewing Packer’s Whitney exhibition for the Times, Aruna D’Souza wrote that no other artist right now is doing as much as Packer “to make those who have been rendered invisible — on museum walls, in public culture, in political discourse — visible.”


Precious Okoyomon


Precious Okoyomon, 28, a multidisciplinary artist and poet who has only been exhibiting for a few years, creates massive site-specific installations using organic materials. “I make worlds,” Okoyomon, who won the Artist Award at Frieze New York this year, told The New York Times Style Magazine. “Everything, every portal I make, is its own ecosystem.”


Okoyomon, who lived in Lagos, Nigeria, as a child before moving to Texas and then Ohio, added: “I attach myself to materials such as earth, rocks, water and fire because these are things I can’t control on my own.”




LaTasha Barnes


LaTasha Barnes — a leader in the dance forms of house, hip-hop and the Lindy Hop — bridged worlds this year. Barnes is “a connector, or a rather a re-connector,” Brian Seibert wrote in the Times. In particular, she works to reconnect Black audiences and Black dancers (like herself) to their jazz heritage. To watch her dance, Seibert said, “is to watch historical distance collapse.”


Barnes, 41, has been admired in dance for years, but it was her showing in “The Jazz Continuum” (the show she presented at Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in May and later at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts) and her appearance in “Sw!ng Out” (the contemporary swing-dance show that debuted at the Joyce Theater in New York in October) that caught the attention of many. In November, she won a Bessie Award for outstanding performer.


Kayla Farrish


In September, dancer and choreographer Kayla Farrish — teaming up with jazz, soul and experimental musician Melanie Charles — transported Maria Hernandez Park in New York to a vivid scene of grace and power.


The performance — as part of the platform four/four presents, which commissions collaborations among artists — was “sweeping and robust work braiding music and spoken word with choreography” that encompassed the best of technical dance and athletic drills, said Gia Kourlas, dance critic at the Times.


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The result turned its five dancers — Farrish, 30, was joined by Mikaila Ware, Kerime Konur, Gabrielle Loren and Anya Clarke-Verdery — “into a vibrant union of musicality, tenderness and power,” Kourlas wrote.


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