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‘Moulin Rouge!’ and ‘The Inheritance’ Take Top Honors at Tony Awards

By |2021-09-26T23:34:49-04:00September 26th, 2021|Breonna Taylor|

The ceremony, held for the first time in more than two years, honored shows that opened before the pandemic and tried to lure crowds back to Broadway.It was the first Tony Awards in 27 months. It followed the longest Broadway closing in history. It arrived during a pandemic that has already killed 687,000 Americans, and as the theater industry, like many other sectors of society, is wrestling with intensifying demands for racial equity.The Tony Awards ceremony Sunday night was unlike any that came before — still a mix of prizes and performances, but now with a mission to lure audiences back as the imperiled industry and the enduring art form seek to rebound.The ceremony’s biggest prize, for best musical, went to “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a sumptuously eye-popping stage adaptation of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film about a love triangle in fin-de-siècle Paris. The musical, jam-packed with present-day pop songs, swept the musical categories, picking up 10 prizes,“I feel that every show of last season deserves to be thought of as the best musical,” said the “Moulin Rouge!” lead producer, Carmen Pavlovic, “The shows that opened, the shows that closed — not to return — the shows that nearly opened, and of course the shows that paused and are fortunate enough to be reborn.”The best play award went to “The Inheritance,” a two-part drama, written by Matthew López and inspired by “Howards End,” about two generations of gay men in New York City. The win was an upset; “The Inheritance” had received, at best, mixed reviews in the U.S., and many observers had expected Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” to pick up the prize. López, whose father is from Puerto Rico, described himself as the first Latino writer to win the best play Tony, which he said was a point of pride but also suggested the industry needs to do better.“We constitute 19 percent of the United States population, and we represent about two percent of the playwrights having plays on Broadway in the last decade,” López said. “This must change.”Right from the start, there were reminders of the extraordinary difficulties theater artists have faced. Danny Burstein, a much-loved Broadway veteran who had a life-threatening bout of Covid-19 and then lost his wife, the actress Rebecca Luker, to a neurodegenerative disease, won his first Tony. It was the seventh time he was nominated, for his performance as a cabaret impresario in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a show in which at least 25 company members fell ill.In his speech Burstein thanked the Broadway community for its support. “You were there for us whether you just sent a note or sent your love, sent your prayers, sent bagels,” he said. “It meant the world to us, and it’s something I’ll never forget. I love being an actor on Broadway.”The ceremony was held at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater, which holds 1,500 people, far fewer than the 6,000 who can fit into Radio City Music Hall, where the event was often held in previous years. Attendees were subjected to the same restrictions as patrons at Broadway shows: they were required to demonstrate proof of vaccination, and they were asked to wear masks that cover their mouths and noses.The bifurcated four-hour show relegated most of the awards to an all-business first half, which was viewable only on the Paramount+ streaming service. That freed up the second half, which was telecast on CBS and hosted by Leslie Odom Jr., to emphasize artistry over awards, as a parade of musical theater stars, including “Wicked” alumnae Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, as well as “Rent” alumni Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp and “Ragtime” original cast members Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, sought to remind viewers and potential ticket buyers of the joys of theatergoing.Early in the streamed portion of the show, the appeal to nostalgia began: Marissa Jaret Winokur and Matthew Morrison opened by leading alumni of the original cast of “Hairspray” in a rendition of that 2002 musical’s ode to irrepressibility, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” And, just in case anyone missed the message, the awards ceremony’s host, McDonald, a six-time Tony winner, spelled it out, saying, “You can’t stop the beat of Broadway, the heart of New York City.”The awards ceremony began with members of the original cast of the 2002 musical “Hairspray” singing “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Sara Krulwich/The New York Times“We’re a little late, but we are here,” McDonald added. Then she urged the industry to “commit to the change that will bring more awareness, action and accountability to make our theatrical industry more inclusive and equitable for all.”“Broadway is back,” she said, “and it must, and it will, be better.”An early emotional highlight came when Jennifer Holliday, whose performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” at the 1982 Tony Awards has been described as the best Tonys performance of all time, returned to sing the song again. The audience leapt to its feet midway through the song, and stayed there through her final, wrenching, hand-thrust-in-the-air, wail.The road to this 74th Tony Awards — honoring a set of plays and musicals from the pandemic-truncated 2019-2020 season, which abruptly ended when Broadway was forced to shut down on March 12, 2020 — was long.Only 18 shows were deemed eligible to compete for awards, which is about half the normal number., and only 15 shows scored nominations.The nominees, chosen by 41 theater experts who saw every eligible show, were announced last October. Electronic voting, by 778 producers, performers and other industry insiders, took place in March.The long-delayed ceremony — originally scheduled to take place in June of 2020 — was ultimately scheduled by the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing, which present the awards, to coincide with the reopening of Broadway. Those reopening plans were complicated by the spread of the Delta variant, which drove caseloads up over the summer and added new uncertainty to the question of when tourism, which typically accounts for roughly two-thirds of the Broadway audience, will return to prepandemic levels.But there are already 15 shows running on Broadway — which is home to 41 theaters — and each week more arrive.Among the shows returning are all three nominees for best musical. “Moulin Rouge!” began performances on Friday; “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical,” a biographical musical about the life and career of Tina Turner, returns Oct. 8; and “Jagged Little Pill,” a contemporary family drama inspired by the Alanis Morissette album, returns Oct. 21.All three musicals scored some wins.The star of “Tina,” Adrienne Warren, won for her jaw-dropping performance as the title character. Warren, who is one of the founders of the antiracism Broadway Advocacy Coalition, is leaving the role at the end of October; she too urged the industry to transform. “The world has been screaming for us to change,” she said.“Jagged” won for best book, by Diablo Cody, and for best featured actress, Lauren Patten, who electrifies audiences with her showstopping rendition of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” Patten’s performance is the subject of some controversy, because some fans had perceived the character as nonbinary in a pre-Broadway production and were unhappy with how the role evolved; the show’s producers said that the character was “on a gender expansive journey without a known outcome.” In her acceptance speech, Patten thanked “my trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues who have engaged with me in difficult conversations and joined me in dialogue about my character.”Lauren Patten won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical for her performance in “Jagged Little Pill.”Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesAmong the multiple awards won by “Moulin Rouge” were a first Tony for the director, Alex Timbers, and a record-breaking eighth for the costume designer, Catherine Zuber. The show’s leading man, Aaron Tveit won for the first time, in an unusual way — he was the only nominee in his category, but needed support from 60 percent of those who cast ballots in the category to win, which he got. He teared up as he thanked the nominators and the voters.“Let’s continue to strive to tell the stories that represent the many and not the few, by the many and not the few, for the many and not the few,” he said. “Because what we do changes people’s lives.”None of the nominees for best musical had an original score, so for the first time that award went to a play — Jack Thorne’s new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” which featured music composed by Christopher Nightingale. That sparkly production, from the Old Vic in London, also won for scenic design, costume design, lighting design and sound design.There was no best musical revival category this year, because the only one that opened before the pandemic, “West Side Story,” also was not seen by enough voters. It also wasn’t seen by many theatergoers: Its producers have decided not to reopen it.A production of “A Soldier’s Play,” directed by Kenny Leon and produced by the nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company, won the Tony for best play revival. The play, a 1981 drama by Charles Fuller, is about the murder of a Black sergeant in the U.S. Army; it won the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published and was later adapted into a Hollywood film, but it didn’t make it to Broadway until 2020.The production starred Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier. Grier picked up the first award of the night, for best featured actor in a play.Leon gave a fiery acceptance speech, repeating the names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — both of whom were killed by police last year — as he began, saying “We will never ever forget you.” And then, he exhorted the audience, “Let’s do better.”“No diss to Shakespeare, no diss to Ibsen, to Chekhov, to Shaw; they’re all at the table,” he said. “But the table’s got to be bigger.”With the majority of the awards given out earlier, most of the CBS telecast, which featured Leslie Odom Jr. as host, was devoted to musical numbers aimed at enticing potential ticket buyers as Broadway reopens after the longest shutdown in its history. Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe outcome in the best play category was startling enough that gasps could be heard in the theater when the winner was announced. “Slave Play,” with 12 nominations, had been the most nominated play in history, and a win would have made it the first play by a Black writer to claim the Tony since 1987, but the play won no prizes. “The Inheritance,” which had been hailed in London but then greeted tepidly in New York, won four, including for Stephen Daldry as director, Andrew Burnap as an actor, and for 90-year-old Lois Smith as a featured actress. Smith is now the oldest person ever to win a Tony Award for acting, a record previously held by Cicely Tyson, who won at 88.The best leading actress in a play award went to Mary-Louise Parker for her spellbinding performance as a writing professor with cancer in Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside.”The Tonys also bestowed a number of noncompetitive awards. Special Tony Awards were given to “American Utopia,” David Byrne’s concert show; “Freestyle Love Supreme,” an improv troupe co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, a group pushing for racial justice.“I want to acknowledge that I’m only standing here because George Floyd and a global pandemic stopped all of us, brought us to our knees and reminded us that beyond costume, beyond glamour, beyond design was pain that we weren’t yet seeing,” said the coalition’s president, Britton Smith. “It created this beautiful opening that allowed us to say ‘Enough.’”Sarah Bahr, Nancy Coleman, Julia Jacobs and Matt Stevens contributed reporting.

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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