On Broadway, diversity takes a step into the spotlight | TSWT News

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In A strange loopwhich won Best Musical at the Tony Awards in June, the lead character sings which might as well explain 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 choir full of Black queer voices”, sings the character Usher, a queer , black man in a show focusing on his doubts about writing a musical about himself.

This year’s Tonys marked a milestone: Broadway’s first season back since the pandemic forced a historic shutdown that lasted a year and a half. It was far from a complete season, with some shows opening half way through, others shutting down early, and routine cancellations due to COVID-19. By May, ticket sales were down 54 percent from record highs before the pandemic.

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But while the recovery was not prosperous, there was something to celebrate: a diverse lineup of new productions.

It’s part of a transformation driven by actors, producers and industry leaders demanding greater representation in an industry that has traditionally been predominantly white.

VIEW | Broadway’s comeback is all about new voices:

Broadway’s comeback led by various casts

Broadway’s stages have shown greater diversity since reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic, giving favorites like Death of a Salesman a new perspective and new stories to tell.

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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 heads-up, no lead time. We had a diverse audience. We had different stories in one season. Mind-blowing.”

“Stunning” is also how Simons describes what it felt like to have three shows open after the pandemic – Thoughts of a colored man, For colored girls and Not too proud.

“It occurred to me that it was possible that all three of my shows, all about black and brown people, could be on Broadway at the same time,” he said. “Nothing like this has ever happened in the first place. So that says a lot about what’s happening on Broadway right now.”

A portrait of a man looking at the camera
One of Broadway’s few Black producers, Tony Award winner Ron Simons, is photographed in New York City. He had three shows open after the pandemic: Thoughts of a Colored Man, For Colored Girls and Ain’t Too Proud. (Jason Burles/TSWT)

A lack of diversity

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has been producing visibility reports for more than a decade.

According to their latest research, which looked at the 2018-2019 season, nearly 60 percent of the roles on New York City stages were played by white actors. Broadway producers are predominantly white, as are theater owners. Those findings are consistent with previous studies.

Actor and playwright Christine Toy Johnson, co-founder of AAPAC, said she’s happy with the progress in diversity the industry has made with its comeback, but that change for her community was slow to happen.

“There are new considerations about whose stories are being told, and by whom, and how,” she said, but added, “We’d really like to see more Asian-American representation on Broadway, which hasn’t increased that much.”

VIEW | Broadway producer Ron Simons says he hopes diversity isn’t a one-off:

Tony Award winner Ron Simons says Broadway’s future is diverse

Ron Simons, one of the few black producers on Broadway, had three shows about black and brown people at the same time after the pandemic. He says this is the future of Broadway.

Last summer, Black Theater United – formed by Broadway’s leading Black performers – unveiled a blueprint for greater equality and diversity in the industry. Called A New Deal For Broadway, and signed by the industry’s leading power brokers, it outlines reforms including the naming of theaters for black performers, pledges to hire people from underrepresented groups, and a pledge for producers to “never all-white creative team is back on a production regardless of the show’s subject matter.”

One of the founders of Black Theater United, Broadway veteran Allyson Tucker, said the New Deal has impressed, but the work is only just beginning.

“I think everyone who signed the deal understands, 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 play by Arthur Miller Dead 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 Andre De Shields stars as Ben Loman.

Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Andre De Shields is photographed in New York City. He stars in an updated version of the iconic play Death of a Salesman. (Jason Burles/TSWT)

“We know the public will react because what’s missing from the American dream right now is the idea of ​​accessibility,” said De Shields. “Putting the idea of ​​the American dream at the center of an African-American family means anyone 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 will be seen,” he said.

Also opening in the fall is KPOP, which is all about the Korean pop music phenomenon. The cast is almost entirely Asian, with an original story and score.

“I’m more excited than ever to share this story with the world,” said the show’s composer, Helen Park.

Park says much of her excitement is expanding the very limited roles Asian people have had on Broadway. The AAPAC survey found that Asian actors account for less than 10 percent of the roles on the New York Stage.

“I think it’s hard to find stories that aren’t centered around trauma or war or something depressing or old. I think it’s really special that we have original material,” she said.

A woman smiles at the camera
Helen Park, the composer of the Broadway show KPOP, is photographed in New York City. She says she’s excited to expand the roles Asian people have had on Broadway. (Jason Burles/TSWT)

Attracting a diverse audience

The Broadway League, which collects audience statistics, has found that theater audiences are traditionally middle-aged white women. Simons said he believes there is an untapped audience hungry for diverse stories that can expand that demographic.

“If we really want to make sure we’re here in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, that diversity has to come about because there’s money on the table by not bringing that demographic into this theater,” he said.

Outside the Lyceum Theater where A strange loop plays, fan Elizabeth Adams said she is motivated to go to shows that reflect her story. Until now, she said, that was rare.

“It’s a huge deal,” she said of seeing more diversity on stage, “I’m a woman of color and I’m also of Asian descent. So to see so much diversity is very important.”

Robert Bennett, another theater fan, said he’s looking forward to watching kite runnera play based on the book by the Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hoseini.

“You get to see who you are,” he said, “it’s really important to see yourself on stage and get kids to see that there’s a chance they can do that too.”

‘Give us the chance to speak our hearts’

Simons said he is hopeful about the changes on 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 the Tony Award for Excellence awarded to AAPAC this year, there are signs that a leadership change is taking place on Broadway. But those in charge warn against complacency in celebrating one season’s victories.

“I think the conversation about diversity often revolves around black and white, and there are so many other groups who also yearn and long to be represented as well,” said Nandiata Shenoy, a member of the AAPAC steering committee.

VIEW | “We are the ones who hunger for the dream,” says Andre De Shields:

Broadway legend Andre De Shields on the industry’s revival

Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Andre De Shields says those most “dream hungry” can help revive Broadway after the pandemic.

Black Theater United’s Tucker said she hopes for a similar expansion. She adds that one of the most valuable conversations to emerge from the pandemic has been thinking out-of-the-box to grow the industry beyond Broadway, allowing emerging players to expand to other parts of New York City.

“We’re looking at it with the grace of yes, we’ve taken a step forward, and we’ve linked arms, and we’ll continue to expand those links,” she said.

De Shields said he believes Broadway’s resurrection hinges on several voices expanding the stage.

“If those of us who are already in charge, who are already at the top, can’t prevent this Broadway moratorium, who can? dream,” he said.

“Give us a chance to speak to our hearts. Give us a chance to share what is important to our souls.”

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