NEW YORK – Broadway is living up to its old nickname of the Great White Way in more ways than one.
Despite an historic diverse class of Tony nominees this season, Black entertainers and advocates say Broadway is still far too white when it comes to who’s making the key decisions – and who’s sitting in the audience.
Working to push for more diversity and inclusion behind the scenes of the theater industry through community outreach, mentorship and internships, they are hoping for change across the curtained stage – from the actors to the audience, from the producers to the ushers.
“There were plenty of Black and Brown bodies on stages, but not in position to actually write checks, not in positions to say this is what’s going to be produced and not in positions to put their creative work to use featuring other Black and Brown bodies,” Black Theatre Coalition co-founder T. Oliver Reid told the Daily News.
“When you look at lighting and sound and set design, there were only a few people who had actually been given the keys to the kingdom. We realized that we needed to expand and help build those relationships and make sure that there were Black professionals who have been given the opportunity to work on the scale of Broadway,” added Reid, an award-winning concert and theater artist who has appeared in shows such as “Hadestown,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Chicago.”
Multiple Black actors were nominated this year in every single performance category for the 2022 Tony Awards on Sunday, including veterans such as Chuck Cooper, LaChanze (“Trouble in Mind”), Ruben Santiago Hudson (“Lackawanna Blues”) and Ron Cephas Jones (“Clydes”), alongside newcomers (“MJ”), Jesse Williams (“Take Me Out”), Adrian Lester (“The Lehman Trilogy”) and L Morgan Lee (“A Strange Loop”).
It’s a vast improvement from how things used to be. According to data provided by the Black Theater Coalition, of the more than 11,000 plays and musicals produced on Broadway pre-pandemic since its inception more than 150 years ago, only 21 directors, 17 choreographers and a handful of lead producers were Black. It’s this lack of representation that led to six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald co-founding the Black Theatre United (BTU) which, according to its mission statement, strives to “make theater equitable and accessible for a more diverse population.”
The goal of the New York City-based nonprofit advocacy group, which was formed after the racial reckoning America underwent after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, is to make sure doors are open to a more diverse group of people.
“You know, we wish we lived in a world where we didn’t have to establish organizations like this to take care of our fellow Black people, but unfortunately we do,” McDonald, who holds the record for having more performance Tony wins than any other actor, told the News.
After its formation, BTU outlined a historic “New Deal For Broadway,” establishing a comprehensive industry-wide agreement with the community’s predominately white leadership relating to equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging standards.
Some of the commitments that came out of a five-month long summit with labor unions chiefs, theater owners, directors, casting agents and producers were mandatory standards for digital and in-person training, the hiring of racial sensitivity coaches, staff and board audits, and the promise to never assemble all-white creative teams again.
There was also a call for each of the three major theater owners – Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn – to name one of its venues after a Black artist. Jujamcyn, which owns and operates five of the 41 theaters in New York City, had already named the former Virginia Theatre to the August Wilson Theatre in 2005 after the late playwright.
An example of the organization’s efforts is the March announcement of its Broadway Marketing Internship Program, a first-of-its-kind initiative for eight paid internships for CUNY undergraduate education students.
The outreach has gone for behind the scenes, as well. Theatrical stage manager Cody Renard Richard works with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC) to establish a scholarship program in his name for aspiring Black, indigenous and people of color who want careers working behind the curtain as stage managers, designers and technicians.
The Houston native said, “Now we’re giving folks access to this world and I think just that alone is helping set up the students for success. They’ll already have mentors working, have resources when they move here.”
Founded in 2016 by a group of young performers including Britton Smith, Adrienne Warren, Amber Iman and Cameron J. Ross, the BAC’s mission is to “dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism through the power of storytelling and the leadership of people directly affected.” The nonprofit rose to prominence after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests for its own activism efforts, including forums, workshops, fellowships and storyteller labs.
Whether these early efforts have worked is too soon to tell, as theater groups are unable to provide concrete demographic attendance figures with a racial breakdown due to the coronavirus pandemic resulting in an uneven Broadway season.
Marcia Pendleton, an audience development expert with close to 25 years’ experience of exposing people of color to Broadway and live theater, said that the percentage of Black audience attendance fluctuates, depending on the number of shows offering Black narratives.
But her own observations were that there was “a robust attendance” at the productions she worked at the start of this season, which were Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s one-man show “Lackawanna Blues.” “Skeleton Crew” about working-class Detroit, and the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, “MJ.”
Through her Walk Tall Girl Productions firm, Pendleton specializes in grassroots marketing to “make the performing artist accessible to the widest possible audience.”
Some of Walk Tall Girl’s recent programming efforts included cultivation events where community leaders and industry stakeholders were invited to Minton’s restaurant in Harlem to promote “Lackawanna Blues.”
For “Thought of a Colored Man,” she designed a “Brotherhood on Broadway” program featuring a post-show discussion with playwright Keena Scott II and best-selling author and cultural critic Dr. Michael Eric Dyson.
“My greatest joy this season has been booking Black multigenerational groups to performances,” she told The News. “The number of people who have brought their children and grandchildren to the production as their first Broadway show has been incredibly moving.”
Recently, the New York City Children’s Theater announced it was allowing patrons to “pay what they want” for its production of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” when it was produced off-Broadway.
The company’s executive director Andrew Frank hopes other theaters follow suit. “There is a wide swath of income levels that make up New York City. Family income should not be a barrier to participation in that landscape,” he said.
Helping to attract Black audiences, a record number of productions helmed by Black creatives debuted on Broadway last fall after an 18-month shutdown due to COVID-19.
Nine productions written by Black playwrights were produced: “Lackawanna Blues;” Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play;” Douglas Lyons’ “Chicken & Biscuits;” Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over;” Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew;” Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” the late Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” Lynn Nottage’s “Clydes” and “MJ.”
Although some shows closed before their scheduled runs and only three opened in the spring of 2022, it was still seen as a win by some.
“The best way to talk about last fall is that it was historic,” Richard said. “It’s what brought us back to the theater. People were hungry for the art that we were doing and we were welcomed with open arms for the art that we were doing. So that, to me, was beautiful.”
Pendleton, the veteran grassroots marketing expert, believes the industry’s “newish” relationship with Black theatergoers from outside of metro New York must be cultivated. Many of these audience members were attracted to last fall’s record number of Black-centered productions.
“Investments must be made to reach audiences in markets such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago,” she told The News. “Producers need to know that the largest concentrations of Black wealth are in Prince George’s County, Maryland and DeKalb County, Georgia.”
She also pointed to off-Broadway theaters and the city’s smaller productions as future possibilities.
“My hope is that upcoming Broadway seasons will feature voices from the broader African diaspora and offer narratives from Latino and AAPI artists – which I experience off-Broadway,” Pendleton said.
“Off-Broadway institutions have been producing diverse artists on an ongoing basis for a better part of a decade. Culturally Black institutions such as The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn, New Federal Theatre, Negro Ensemble Company and Black Spectrum Theatre in Queens have been producing Black stories for over 50 years.
“Broadway has some catching up to do.”
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