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Broadway Is Brimming With Black Playwrights. But for How Long?

By |2021-09-16T06:25:11-04:00September 16th, 2021|Breonna Taylor|

Broadway’s prepandemic theater season featured two plays by Black writers, and one of them had been kicking around since 1981. The previous season, there was one such play, and the season before that, zero.This season, if all goes as planned, there will be at least seven.The sudden abundance, after decades of scarcity, is a response to criticism the theater industry, like so many others, has confronted since the widespread protests over police brutality that followed last year’s killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Facing scrutiny over what kinds of stories are told onstage, and who makes decisions offstage, Broadway’s gatekeepers have opened their doors to more Black writers, at least for the moment.“I did not expect it, to be honest with you,” said Douglas Lyons, who turned to writing while performing in the ensemble of “Beautiful.”Lyons was nothing if not determined. He met Norm Lewis, the much-laureled musical theater performer, when a onetime Elphaba introduced them at a party (Broadway is a very small community). Fandom turned into friendship, and now Lewis is starring in Lyons’s Broadway-bound comedy, “Chicken & Biscuits.”“He’s a young African American male who said he’s admired my work, and that was an honor to hear,” Lewis said. “He could be my son, and knowing that he’s creating this new frontier, I’m excited to represent that.”The path to Broadway for “Chicken & Biscuits” was fast and unexpected. The show, about a funeral upended by a family secret, was running at the Queens Theater, which has never before transferred a play to Broadway, when the pandemic forced live theater venues to close. But then Hunter Arnold, a producer who had neither seen the play nor met Lyons, offered to bring the show to Broadway, where it’s scheduled to start previews on Sept. 23 at Circle in the Square Theater.Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the author of “Pass Over,” with two of the play’s actors, Jon Michael Hill, left, and Namir Smallwood. The play is the first production to begin performances on Broadway since the shutdown.Ike Edeani for The New York Times“I don’t know if I still believe it yet,” Lyons said. “I didn’t know I had a place here.”The quick transfer reflects not only this unusual moment, but also Lyons’s persistence. “He probably sent me 20 to 50 emails, submissions to the office, Instagram direct messages,” Arnold said. “I admire a hustler.”Lyons said years as an actor had taught him to persevere. “I understand, having worked on Broadway as an actor — sometimes you got to go get the thing.”In addition to “Chicken & Biscuits,” this season’s plays by Black writers include a long-slighted classic (“Trouble in Mind”), an autobiographical reminiscence (“Lackawanna Blues”), two naturalistic dramas (“Clyde’s” and “Skeleton Crew”) and two more formally adventuresome works (“Pass Over” and “Thoughts of a Colored Man”).“They are seven different plays that examine fundamentally different aspects of the Black experience,” said Lynn Nottage, whose “Clyde’s,” about a truck stop sandwich shop owner managing a staff of formerly incarcerated people, begins previews Nov. 3 at the Hayes Theater.Nottage is the most celebrated of this season’s playwrights: she is a two-time Pulitzer winner, for “Ruined,” which infamously never made it to Broadway despite a repeatedly extended Off Broadway run in 2009, and “Sweat,” which played on Broadway in 2017.For most shows, the Broadway audience is — or at least was, before the pandemic — predominantly white. And theater owners have long pointed to that to justify their programming choices.“I still grapple with why Broadway matters, and why we are so deeply invested in presenting our work in these commercial realms that traditionally have rejected our stories,” Nottage said. “But it’s a really big platform. On Broadway, you’re speaking to the world.”Like Lyons, most of the writers have never been produced on Broadway.Keenan Scott II is the author of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which is about a day in the life of seven Black men in Brooklyn, and which begins previews Oct. 1 at the Golden Theater. Scott was a slam poet before turning to theater; for years he produced his own work, with money borrowed from family and friends, at locales including the Frigid Festival and Frostburg State University, his alma mater.“When I got to college and started reading plays, I wasn’t seeing myself,” he said. “I wasn’t seeing my essence as a young Black man captured onstage.”Is he worried about how his play will fare? “I worried through my whole 20s, but now in my 30s I’m being confident in the artist I am,” he said.“This can’t be a measuring stick for how to move forward — this has to be the first step on a journey,” Dominique Morisseau said. It’s taken years to bring her play “Skeleton Crew” to Broadway.Erik Carter for The New York Times‘First step on a journey’The plays are arriving at an existentially challenging moment for Broadway, when theaters have been closed for a year and a half, when the Delta variant has set back the nation’s recovery from Covid, when tourism is way down, New York’s office workers are not yet back, and consumer readiness is, at best, uncertain.“We have these seven plays coming when we don’t even have audiences yet, so this can’t be a measuring stick for how to move forward — this has to be the first step on a journey,” said Dominique Morisseau, whose “Skeleton Crew,” which starts performances Dec. 21 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is about workers at a floundering automotive plant in her beloved hometown, Detroit. “You don’t get to one-and-done us.”Morisseau’s plays are widely produced around the United States but have not previously been staged on Broadway; instead she made it there first as the writer of the book for “Ain’t Too Proud,” a musical about the Temptations. She was one of numerous Black artists who said they were simultaneously delighted that so many Black writers are having their works staged on Broadway this season, and worried about the precarious climate in which they are arriving.“None of us wants to be set up like bait, or test dummies, for coming back from Covid,” she said.In 1923, “The Chip Woman’s Fortune,” by Willis Richardson, had a brief run at the Frazee Theater, and that one-act play is generally considered the first serious drama by a Black writer to appear on Broadway. In the century since, the industry has grappled with diversity off and on.Many Black artists have found a creative home on Broadway, but the number of plays by Black writers produced there has remained stubbornly low. Almost immediately after the George Floyd protests began last year, new and existing organizations representing Black theater artists set about demanding change in the industry. Many of them have been particularly focused on employment issues, pressing for greater diversity on creative teams and backstage, and for more respectful working conditions. But these groups have also called attention to long-simmering questions of whose stories are told, and by whom, on the nation’s most prominent stages.“What we are seeing is the impact of grass-roots activism, as it relates to the movement for Black lives around the country, and the fruits of that labor coming to bear in the professional theater,” said Eric M. Glover, who teaches dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale.From left, the actor Tristan “Mack” Wilds, the playwright Keenan Scott II, the director Steve H. Broadnax III (seated) and the producer Brian Moreland of “Thoughts of a Colored Man.”Ike Edeani for The New York TimesSeizing an opportunityThe casts of these plays feature some well-known actors: Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones (“Clyde’s”); Phylicia Rashad (“Skeleton Crew”); LaChanze (“Trouble in Mind”); and Keith David (“Thoughts of a Colored Man”). Four of the seven plays are being produced by nonprofits, and the commercial productions are backed by a combination of emerging producers and Black influencers promising to use their celebrity to help, including the actors Blair Underwood and Samira Wiley, the retired basketball star Renee Montgomery and the singer and reality television star Kandi Burruss.Aduba, an Emmy winner for “Orange Is the New Black” and “Mrs. America,” last appeared on Broadway a decade ago, singing in the cast of a “Godspell” revival.The actress cites several reasons for coming back. She is a fan of Nottage’s work, describing “Ruined” as one of her favorite plays. She wants to help Broadway recover from the pandemic. But she is also eager to be part of theater’s response to demands for greater diversity on Broadway and beyond.“I’m really glad to see that the call to action has been responded to by some producers and theaters, by really stepping up and making sure that the Great White Way has some color added to it,” Aduba said. “And my action now is to make sure that I can be a part of that, and add my voice and my art to the conversation.”Several of those acting in the plays have demanded changed over the last year. LaChanze and Lewis are founding members of Black Theater United, a group formed in response to police brutality that has negotiated a series of promised changes with industry leaders, including not only diversity training and mentorship programs but also a pledge to forgo all-white creative teams and to rename some theaters for Black artists.LaChanze and Lewis are also both known as musical theater performers; this season, they are seizing the opportunity to star in plays.“It’s very important to tell authentic stories of Black drama, and not necessarily Black trauma,” LaChanze said. She will play a stage actress confronting racism in “Trouble in Mind,” a 1955 drama by Alice Childress that is scheduled to begin previews Oct. 29 at the American Airlines Theater. “From the beginning of my career, in most cases, my characters were subjugated or experienced trauma. Today I have more options. And now folks get to see me sink my teeth into a text, and not just my vocal cords.”The actor Blair Underwood is a producer of “Pass Over.” He is among the Black influencers using their celebrity (and money) to help stage plays by Black writers on Broadway.Lelanie Foster for The New York TimesThe long road to BroadwayManhattan Theater Club has wanted to bring “Skeleton Crew” to Broadway with Ruben Santiago-Hudson as director since he oversaw a well-received Off Broadway run of the play at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, but the project was impeded because the powerful producer Scott Rudin had the rights. Rudin did not stage a production, and then his rights lapsed, and then he stepped back from producing over bullying allegations. Now the nonprofit has its chance.“Trouble in Mind” has taken even longer. Commercial producers talked about bringing it to Broadway in the 1950s, but dropped the idea when Childress refused to rewrite the ending. Years later, long after Childress had died, the director Charles Randolph-Wright, who had become obsessed with Childress’s work in college, shared his interest in the play with the Roundabout Theater Company, which held several readings, and began imagining a Broadway production.Randolph-Wright, who also directs television, said the project was delayed by his schedule, but that the timing now feels fortuitous. “It’s as if Alice is orchestrating it, and saying, ‘We’ll come in now, as people are hopefully listening in a different way,’” he said.Zhailon Levingston is the director of “Chicken & Biscuits.” He made his Broadway debut as assistant director of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”Lelanie Foster for The New York TimesAmong the benefits of the long gestation: LaChanze is now ready for the starring role. The actress had participated in a benefit reading, also directed by Randolph-Wright, in 2011, but was considered too young for the part. She, like Randolph-Wright, had encountered Childress’s work at college, and finds herself drawn to her character, a veteran Black stage actress.“I have had conversations a couple of times where a white male director tells me, a 50-year-old Black woman, how a 50-year-old Black woman would speak, and I would have to acquiesce,” she said. “In this play, I don’t.”For commercial producers, it was a little easier getting a theater for plays with Black writers this season. “The door used to be closed, because the belief was there’s not a market here,” Arnold said. “Now there’s this little crack in the door, where you call a theater and instead of them being like, ‘Oh, shows with a Black audience are challenging’ instead they’re like, ‘Tell me about it.’”In addition to the seven plays with Black writers already announced, there is likely to be at least one more this season: a revival of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which is aiming to open in the spring.“On Broadway, you’re speaking to the world,” said the playwright Lynn Nottage, center, with Kara Young and Reza Salazar, two of the actors appearing in her new play, “Clyde’s.”Ike Edeani for The New York Times‘A very risky, tricky time’Regardless of who writes them, plays have long been an especially tough sell on Broadway, and most lose money. But Black artists worry that context will be forgotten when this season is assessed.“Plays don’t do well on Broadway, normally, and now we’re coming out of Covid, so now you want to give these seven playwrights a chance?” said Britton Smith, who, as president of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, works with Zhailon Levingston, the group’s director of industry initiatives and the director of “Chicken & Biscuits.”The coalition, formed in 2016, is receiving a special Tony Award this year for its work to combat racism. (The long-delayed ceremony, honoring work from the 2019-20 season, is taking place Sept. 26; among the nominees are that season’s two plays by Black writers, “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris and “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller.)Smith said he worries about how the box-office performance of the plays will be assessed. “It’s a very risky, tricky time, for everybody,” he said.Already there are reasons for concern: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” an existential play about two Black men trapped under a streetlamp, has been struggling at the box office despite strong reviews, since becoming the new season’s first production to start performances last month.“Broadway is a moneymaking venture,” said Underwood, a “Pass Over” producer. “None of us want these plays to get all this attention and then close because the audiences aren’t coming yet.”The nonprofit productions start with a built-in base — they can count on subscribers to help fill seats — and, even if the plays don’t sell out, those companies can justify the productions as part of their mission, and make up any deficits through fund-raising.For commercial productions, millions of dollars are at stake. According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” is costing up to $5 million to mount; “Chicken & Biscuits,” up to $3.5 million; and “Pass Over,” up to $2.8 million.But even plays that don’t make their money back can succeed in other ways: paying a good wage to those who work on the productions; bolstering the reputation, and future earning power, of the artists involved; and making it more likely that the works will be produced elsewhere.“I don’t care if we recoup; I don’t care if we get awards; I don’t care about any of those benchmarks of success,” said Nwandu, whose play draws on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the Book of Exodus. “Success will be when every single audience member who is meant to see this play has seen this play and has been touched by this play.”Charles Randolph-Wright will direct LaChanze in Alice Childress’s 1955 play “Trouble in Mind,” about a stage actress confronting racism on Broadway.Lelanie Foster for The New York TimesAssessing the demographicsThe numbers are stark: In 2018-19, 74 percent of theatergoers were white, and 4 percent were Black, according to a demographic report by the Broadway League, a trade association representing producers and theater owners.“To say Broadway is a white space is kind of like saying there are clouds in the sky,” said Tristan Wilds, an actor who makes music as Mack Wilds, and who will be making his Broadway debut in “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” “You have to break down why. And I think that this season of plays will crack the usual mind-set.”Wilds, who landed a recurring role on “The Wire” when he was a teenager, grew up on Staten Island, and discovered a love for theater early. “When I was 13 or 14, instead of taking a girl to the movie theater, we went to ‘The Lion King,’” he said, “and I was hooked from there.”Producers are redoubling their efforts to attract Black theatergoers, aided in part by a cottage industry of consultants. They are sending out emissaries (Santiago-Hudson created a band that he brought to Grant’s Tomb and the Apollo Theater to promote “Lackawanna Blues,” an autobiographical solo play about his childhood); buying ads in publications that focus on Black readers (“Pass Over” advertised in the Harlem News and Amsterdam News); and seeking coverage in media with large Black audiences.Ruben Santiago-Hudson will have two projects on Broadway this year: “Lackawanna Blues,” his autobiographical play, and “Skeleton Crew,” which he is directing.Lelanie Foster for The New York TimesThere are other efforts as well. Second Stage, the nonprofit presenting “Clyde’s,” hired a full-time staffer to conduct community outreach. Manhattan Theater Club, which is presenting “Lackawanna Blues” and “Skeleton Crew,” joined the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. And the producers of “Pass Over” offered deep discounts on great seats via access codes posted at community centers.“There’s a fallacy that Black plays don’t sell, and it’s totally wrong,” Santiago-Hudson said.Regardless of what happens this season, the artists involved said they will keep seeking more opportunities for Black writers on Broadway.“I know from experience it’s all sunshine one day and the next day everything can be swept away by a rainstorm,” Nottage said, “so I think it’s wonderful, but I know unless we continue to apply pressure, next year can be very different.”

Broadway Power Brokers Pledge Diversity Changes as Theaters Reopen

By |2021-08-23T15:21:53-04:00August 23rd, 2021|Breonna Taylor|

To address Black artists’ concerns, the pact calls for forgoing all-white creative teams, renaming theaters for Black artists and establishing diversity rules for the Tonys.Fifteen months after the George Floyd protests called renewed attention to racism in many areas of society, some of the most powerful players on Broadway have signed a pact pledging to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices as theaters reopen following the lengthy shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.The agreement commits Broadway and its touring productions not only to the types of diversity training and mentorship programs that have become common in many industries, but also to a variety of sector-specific changes: the industry is pledging to forgo all-white creative teams, hire “racial sensitivity coaches” for some shows, rename theaters for Black artists and establish diversity rules for the Tony Awards.The document, called “A New Deal for Broadway,” was developed under the auspices of Black Theater United, one of several organizations established last year as an outgrowth of the anger Black theater artists felt over the police killings of Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Black Theater United’s founding members include some of the most celebrated performers working in the American theater, including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Wendell Pierce, Norm Lewis and LaChanze.The signatories include the owners and operators of all 41 Broadway theaters — commercial and nonprofit — as well as the Broadway League, which is a trade organization representing producers, and Actors’ Equity Association, which is a labor union representing actors and stage mangers. Their pledges are not legally enforceable, but they agreed to “hold ourselves and each other accountable for implementing these commitments.”The document was negotiated at a series of virtual meetings that began while theaters were closed because of the pandemic; the changes are being announced as two Broadway shows have begun performances this summer, with 15 more planning to start, or restart, in September.“We convened all of the power players in our industry — the unions, the theater owners, producers and creatives — and had conversations about changing habits, structures and creating accountability,” said the director Schele Williams. “We knew that before our theaters robustly started opening in the fall, everyone deserved to know who they were in the space, and how they would be treated, and that’s something none of us have known in our careers.”One of the key changes being called for is that creative teams — which include directors, writers, composers, choreographers and designers — should be diverse. A section signed by directors and writers vows to “never assemble an all-white creative team on a production again, regardless of the subject matter of the show,” while a section signed by producers says, “We will make best efforts to ensure true racial diversity on all future productions.”The meetings, which started in March, were funded by the Ford Foundation and facilitated by Kenji Yoshino, director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at New York University School of Law. “Everyone came in ready to make change,” the producer David Stone said.Among the changes that will be most visible to the general public: The three big commercial landlords on Broadway — the Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn organizations — each pledged that at least one theater they operate would be named for a Black artist. Jujamcyn already operates the August Wilson Theater, the only Broadway house named for a Black artist.“This is a movement that is going to make change, and we’re happy to be part of it,” said Robert E. Wankel, chairman and chief executive of the Shubert Organization.The document’s signatories are committing to changes that would affect many aspects of the theater business, from casting to hair care. But Broadway is a highly unionized work force, and the only labor unions that signed the agreement are those representing actors, stage managers, makeup artists and hairstylists.That leaves some conspicuous gaps — there is pervasive concern about low levels of diversity among Broadway stagehands, musicians and design teams, for example — and the leadership of Black Theater United said that although the group has endorsements from individuals working in those areas, it will continue to work to win more organizational support for the document.The actor NaTasha Yvette Williams said that she expected more groups to embrace the calls for change. “It’s only a matter of time before they come around,” she said.The director Kenny Leon acknowledged frustration that his own union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, was not a signatory. “I am disappointed that my directing union hasn’t signed on yet,” he said. “But as a Black member of that union, I’m going to keep fighting for that.”The executive director of the union, Laura Penn, said the organization was “deeply committed to the principles” of the agreement, but opted not to sign because much of it is “beyond the scope of the union’s purview.”Jeanine Tesori, a composer, said she is hopeful that the variety of professions represented in a show’s music department will jointly commit to creating more opportunity in what can be a tough area to break into. “We have to invite newcomers in,” she said.The signatories pledged to create a new, mandatory, industrywide training program for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility and Belonging. And, with an eye toward further diversifying the industry, they also committed to “mentoring and sponsoring Black talent in our respective fields on an ongoing basis.”“Everybody has a Black Lives Matter statement out,” said the actress Allyson Tucker. “The words are no longer enough. What is the action?”Among the other commitments: remove “biased or stereotypical language” from casting notices; insist on diversity riders prioritizing inclusivity as part of director and author contracts; search more widely for music contractors, who are the gatekeepers to orchestra staffing; and abolish unpaid internships. “Internships had a reputation of being for people who could afford to not be paid any money,” said the actor Darius de Haas.The signatories also commit to “sensitivity” steps for shows dealing with race. “For shows that raise racial sensitivities, we will appoint a racial sensitivity coach whose role is akin to an intimacy coach,” the document says. And separately, it says, “While acknowledging that creatives can write about any subject that captures their interest or imagination, we will, when writing scripts that raise identity issues (such as race), make best efforts to commission sensitivity reads during the drafting process to assist in flagging issues and providing suggestions for improvement. Playwrights and/or those individuals or entities with contractual approval rights will retain creative control to accept or reject the sensitivity reader’s recommendations.”“We have to tell difficult stories,” Schele Williams said. “But we also must take great care.”The document does not detail what kinds of diversity rules the group is seeking for the Tony Awards. But the actor Vanessa Williams said the document’s call for diversity “requirements for Tony Award eligibility” was inspired by new rules for the Academy Awards that will require films to meet specified inclusion standards to qualify for a best picture nomination.

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