In a strange loopwhich won Best Musical at the Tony Awards in June, the title character sings what may well be a statement of the transformation taking place on Broadway.
“Blackness, queerness, Fighting back to fill this cis-het, all-white space, with a portrait of a portrait of a portrait of a black queer face and a chorus full of black queer voices,” sings character Usher, a queer , Black man in a show focused on his doubts about writing a musical about himself.
This year’s Tonys marked a milestone: Broadway’s first season since the pandemic forced a historic year-and-a-half shutdown. It was far from a full season, with some shows opening halfway through, others closing early, and routine cancellations due to COVID-19. By May, ticket sales were down 54 percent compared to all-time highs before the pandemic.
But although the recovery has not been easy, there was something to celebrate: a diverse line-up of new productions.
It is part of a transformation driven by actors, producers and industry leaders demanding more representation in an industry that has traditionally been predominantly white.
CLOCK | Broadway’s return is all about new voices:
One of Broadway’s few black producers, Tony Award-winner Ron Simons, calls the pandemic a catalyst for long-awaited change.
“This changed in a year,” he said, “like no ads, no wait time. We had diverse audiences. We had diverse stories in one season. Amazing.”
“Amazing” is also how Simons describes how it felt to have three shows open after the pandemic: Thoughts of a colored man, For Girls of Color Y not too proud.
“It occurred to me that it was possible that my three shows, all about black and brown people, could be on Broadway at the same time,” he said. “Nothing remotely like that has ever happened. So that speaks volumes about what’s going on on Broadway right now.”
lack of diversity
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has been collecting visibility reports for over a decade.
According to their latest study, which looked at the 2018-2019 season, nearly 60 percent of roles on New York City stages were played by white actors. Broadway producers are overwhelmingly white, as are theater owners. These findings are consistent with previous studies.
Actress and playwright Christine Toy Johnson, co-founder of AAPAC, said she is pleased with the diversity gains the industry has made with her comeback, but that change for her community has been slow to materialize.
“There are new considerations about what stories are being told, by whom and how,” he said, but added, “We’d really like to see more Asian-American representation on Broadway, which hasn’t really increased that much yet.”
CLOCK | Broadway producer Ron Simons says he hopes diversity is no exception:
Last summer, Black Theater United, made up of Broadway’s leading black performers, unveiled a plan for greater equity and diversity in the industry. Called A New Deal for Broadway, and signed by the industry’s top power brokers, it outlines reforms that include naming theaters for Black performers, commitments to hire underrepresented groups and a promise that producers “never put together a creative group exclusively white. team in a production again, regardless of the theme of the program”.
One of the founding members of Black Theater United, Broadway veteran Allyson Tucker, said the New Deal has made an impact, but the work is just beginning.
“I think everyone who signed the agreement understands it, it’s a long game, this is a journey and not immediate results.”
A new chapter in Broadway history
A new show is coming this fall: the iconic work of Arthur Miller Death from a seller, but reimagined to examine the American dream through the lens of a Black Loman family living in a white world.
Broadway legend and Tony Award winner André De Shields stars as the title character, Ben Loman.
“We know the audience is going to respond because what’s missing from the American dream right now is the idea of accessibility,” De Shields said. “Putting the idea of the American dream at the center of an African-American family means everyone can claim it.”
He said he sees this new chapter in Broadway history as an opportunity to deliver powerful messages through the voices of performers who haven’t had access to the spotlight.
“We’re all in this together. If one of us is chained up, none of us are seen,” he said.
Also open in the fall kpop, which is about the phenomenon of Korean pop music. The cast is almost all Asian, with an original story and score.
“I am more excited than ever to share this story with the world,” said the show’s composer, Helen Park.
Park says a big part of his excitement is expanding the very limited roles Asians have had on Broadway. The AAPAC study showed that Asian actors account for less than 10 percent of roles on the New York stage.
“I think it’s been hard to find stories that don’t focus on trauma or war or something depressing or old. I think it’s really special that we have original material,” he said.
Attract a diverse audience
The Broadway League, which compiles audience statistics, found that the theater’s audience has traditionally been middle-aged white women. Simons said he is convinced there is an untapped audience hungry for diverse stories that can expand that demographic.
“If we really want to make sure that we’re here in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, that diversity needs to come up because there’s money left on the table by not bringing that demographic into this theater,” he said.
Outside the Lyceum Theater where a strange loop is playing, fan Elizabeth Adams said she’s motivated to go to shows that reflect her story. So far, she said, that’s been weird.
“It’s a big deal,” she said of seeing more diversity on stage, “I’m a woman of color and I’m also of Asian descent. So seeing so much diversity is very important.”
Robert Bennett, another theatergoer, said he is looking forward to seeing kite runnera play based on the book by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hoseini.
“You can see who you are,” he said, “it’s really important to see yourself on stage and kids can see that there’s a chance that they can do that too.”
‘Give us the opportunity to speak from the heart’
Simons said he’s hopeful about the changes to the stage, but adds that more needs to be done across the industry to bring diversity at all levels, from theater owners to show promoters.
From Black Theater United’s New Deal to AAPAC’s Tony Award for Excellence this year, there are signs that a change in leadership is underway on Broadway. But those leading the charge caution against complacency when celebrating a season’s wins.
“I think the conversation about diversity is often centered around black people and white people, and there are so many other groups that yearn and yearn to be represented as well,” said AAPAC steering committee member Nandita Shenoy.
CLOCK | ‘It is we who are hungry for sleep,’ says André From Shields:
Black Theater United’s Tucker said he expects the same kind of expansion. He adds that one of the most valuable conversations to come out of the pandemic has been thinking innovatively about growing the industry beyond Broadway, allowing emerging actors to expand to other parts of New York City.
“We look at it with the grace that yes, we took a step forward, and we have joined hands, and we are going to continue to grow those ties,” he said.
De Shields said he believes the revival of Broadway depends on diverse voices broadening the stage.
“If those of us who are already in charge, who are already at the top, cannot avoid this moratorium on Broadway, who can? Well, obviously the people who have been denied because we are the ones who are hungry for the dream,” she said.
“Give us the opportunity to speak from the heart. Give us the opportunity to share what is important to our souls.”
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