Justin Cooley, a 19-year-old actor from Overland Park, Kansas, has been nominated for a prestigious Tony Award in the category of “Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical.” Cooley’s Tony nomination comes as recognition for his captivating portrayal of Seth in the Broadway musical “Kimberly Akimbo.”

Born and raised in Overland Park, Cooley’s passion for performing arts blossomed in the theater program at his high school. Cooley was a choir kid who joined the production of “Hairspray” as a freshman and quickly discovered his love for the stage. 

Throughout his highschool career at Olathe East, Cooley received larger and larger roles and soon the word of his talent got around. Cooley won a Blue Star Award and participated in the Jimmy Awards, a national competition showcasing the talent of high school musical theater performers, and casting directors took notice.

The bright lights of Broadway literally came calling when he received a life-changing phone call while preparing to start his freshman year at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. Cooley was offered a role in an Off Broadway musical, “Kimberly Akimbo.” Cooley then took the gamble of putting off college to move to New York and seize the opportunity.

“Kimberly Akimbo,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori, tells the story of a teenage girl living with a life-shortening genetic condition that makes her appear much older, and her unlikely friendship with Seth, played by Cooley, a high school student with a passion for anagrams and Elvish language.

Cooley’s performance has enthralled audiences and critics alike. As a Black actor playing a character who embraces his nerdy and unconventional interests, Cooley challenges stereotypes and offers representation for individuals who have often felt marginalized in popular culture.

“To play the role of Seth as a Black person is just so emotional for me,” Cooley told the New York Times. “To see a Black kid who is weird and loves Dungeons & Dragons and all this nerdy stuff and is highly academic… he’s just himself — that’s exactly how I felt growing up.”

“Kimberly Akimbo,” initially premiered Off Broadway before transferring to Broadway due to its immense success. Cooley’s captivating performance has garnered rave reviews, and the musical’s move to Broadway further solidifies his status as a rising star in the industry. Cooley is currently considering his next steps, which may include a return to college or exploring new creative avenues.

The Tony Awards recognize excellence in live Broadway theater and are considered the highest award in the field. The Tony Awards will be live streamed June 11 on Paramount+ at 7 p.m.