We might have to hand over some pun-ny, new nicknames for Broadway’s main-stay tagline of “The Great White Way”, considering the growing embrace of Black actors and actresses in some of its most celebrated productions! In 2014 alone, two barriers were broken as Norm Lewis became the first Black male to play the manipulative yet seductive Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, while Keke Palmer made history as Rodger and Hammerstein’s first Black Cinderella on the stage. This year, Brandy scored another career milestone as the third notable Black actress to play femme fatale Roxie Hart in Chicago and the exciting news of Broadway vet Taye Diggs preparing to be Hedwig & The Angry Inch’s first Black male superstar lead was recently announced!
These inspiring moves are monumental for the actors on a personal level, but also professionally for the Broadway world and its audience. Amongst the more visible platforms of television and film (which are routinely criticized for their lack of diversity) Broadway’s history of integrating its casts not just racially, but also in lending a hand (and script) to the LGBT and disabled communities, have been underrated and in actuality, extremely impressive. Entertainment could learn a lot from the Great White Way’s recent prevailing and effortless means to culturally harmonize its grand stage.
Black actors standing under those bright white lights began in 1920 when Charles Giplin became the first Black actor on Broadway to play lead for his turn in The Emperor Jones. Seven years later, Ethel Waters became the first Black woman, when she was in Africana. And Show Boat was the first to feature an integrated cast and an interracial marriage. The Roaring Twenties gave us our “Black firsts” on Broadway, but racism and segregation still directly marred the elegant art scene through wither song lyrics or the occasional piece of dialogue that in later 20th century and 21st century eyes are viewed as racist. A lot of Broadway’s first actually occurred at the same time the orchestrated evil of the minstrel show again became popular in America. Minstrels shows weren’t “Broadway” productions, but the racist stage events attempted to be Broadway-esque and were still disturbingly created up until the 1960s when the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement knocked it back into the antiquated box that it belonged in. Black actors and actresses however carried on and sang, danced and acted on Broadway from the 1920s onward. And they did so not for the amusement of the White man, but because of their talent and genuine passion for the field.
In 1950, Juanita Hill became the first Black woman to win a Tony Award for a Supporting Role as Bloody Mary in South Pacific. Another Rodgers and Hammerstein production, this story was far from the duo’s most famous of fairy tales and instead dealt with the harmful effects of racism head-on (a somewhat unprecedented move back then on Broadway). In 1959, one of most acclaimed plays arrived as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun made her the first Black woman to have her own show produced.
Post-Raisin, more landmark moments from Black artists and talent ruled the stage and inspired. Diahann Carroll was the first Black woman to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for No Strings. In 1972, Vinnette Justine Carroll broke another ceiling as the first Black woman to direct a production (Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope). Further on, Black voices of the 1970s and ’80s for Broadway included Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and then we were blessed with the epic performance of Jennifer Holliday as Effie White for Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s Dreamgirls (you know she won a Tony for that one).
As implied, Broadway has had its bouts of questionable moments. (The play Miss Saigon, for years has been plagued for its suggested perpetuation of Asian women as submissive. And the first word uttered in Show Boat was originally the N-word). In 2014, theater buff Warren Hoffman did intensified research for his book The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, published by Rutgers University Press. Via the Philly Mag, he disclosed that A Chorus Line originally contained two racially insensitive songs (that were thankfully omitted before its official premiere) and that for a show about people living in an “Indian territory”, for years, no Native Americans were actually featured, or seen, in the production of Oklahoma!
Hoffman generally pondered that while Broadway has touched on the topics of discrimination and prejudice (from the racial sense to sexuality), it still seemed afraid or weary of challenging its own self-imposed chipper reputation: “The musical is considered to be an all-American art form, but what does it mean that all Americans are not represented in it? Race is a concept that is always in the musical. It’s there, but the shows simply weren’t talking about it.”
In 2004, Cosby Show alum Phylicia Rashad scored as the first Black woman to win the Tony for Best Actress In A Play (different from Musical) for her role in A Raisin in the Sun. And also in the mid-2000s, there were the critical and audience successes of Fela! and The Color Purple. By 2010, two years after Barack Obama won his first presidency, David Finkle for the Huffington Post created a listicle of shows, including Hair, Ragtime and Memphis, that he felt were all impacted by Obama’s historic election. He noted that because of America’s first Black president, there was a change of heart towards those long-standing plays and their discussions of race. Their born again successes were a reflection of a post-racial outlook, at least on Broadway.
Finke additionally hinted it was a sign of a times for more diversity on the Great White Way. And the game changers did continue. In 2013, Patina Miller fulfilled the role as the lead in Pippin, a character originally written as male and in return, she won the Tony for Best Actress In A Musical. The concept of gender roles were definitely feeling the movement of Broadway’s growing diversification. That same year, Phylicia Rashad’s daughter Condola played Juliet opposite Orlando Bloom‘s Romeo for the Shakespeare classic. The interracial pairing was a hit that re-introduced theater to the millennial and tween market.
Per the Huffington Post last year: “This Broadway season has been rich with roles for African-Americans and audiences are responding, from the packed Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the musical “After Midnight” celebrates Duke Ellington’s years at the Cotton Club, to the overfilled Circle in the Square, where Audra McDonald is channeling Billie Holiday.” Around this time, Denzel Washington was beasting as the tough as nails dad in August Wilson’s other opus Fences, as The Trip to Bountiful and Motown the Musical greatly connected with Broadway fans. Black actors like James Monroe Iglehart earned raves through more non-traditional casting (he played the Genie in the first run of Aladdin). And the Cyndi Lauper backed Kinky Boots, with its lead of a Black drag queen, certified its already unshakable cult following.
Norm Lewis was asked by The Daily Beast if he observed or believed racism existed in the Broadway industry. It’s an industry he knows well, as he’s starred in plays like Sweeney Todd and The Little Mermaid, and in roles that were historically offered to his White male counterparts. He said: “I wouldn’t say that about an entire industry. I would say that there is a certain image shows are used to portraying, a certain image in their minds when they are creating a show. I don’t think there’s a blatant ‘We will not cast a black man in this role’ operating. But sometimes it takes a different creative mind to conceive of something else.” He added: “There [needs] to be more opportunities for Asian, Latino, and African-American actors. If there is an opportunity to cast them in roles, producers should give them the chance to show their wares.” Though Lewis gave Broadway some tough love, the field has gotten better for Black actors in theatre.
In 2011, The Grio compiled a profile of Black actors and crew members who expressed hope for progress after The Scottsboro Boys, a re-telling of the true story about 9 Black teenagers accused of rape in 1931 Alabama, experienced a disappointing run. It was cut short due to low ticket sales. A similar fate also surprisingly attacked the Tupac Shakur based drama Holler If You Hear Me that closed after just 55 shows. Holler‘s cast and crew acknowledged that money was “short”, PR could’ve been better and sometimes heartbroken material that’s not already a classic, like Les Miserables, could be a hard sell when Broadyway-goers often prefer escapist elements (think: Mary Poppins). The Broadway adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway also got ripped by Black writers that found it disrespectful that a play taking place during the 1920s Cotton Club era, only had one Black woman casted, and she was in the chorus. It was reported that Allen didn’t find a Black actor playing a “gangster” role in the play “fit”, and the filmmaker issued a lame statement about his reasonings for an all-White cast. If Les Miserables was able people of color in show that takes place in the 19th century, Bullets certainly could’ve done better.
Since the days of Gilpin and Waters, against Broadway’s occasional bumps in the road of white-washed casts and crew or controversial material (Avenue Q), maybe because it is not as recognized and respected in being as globally influential as TV, film and music, one major fact that is great about theater’s decision to be “color brave”, “colorblind” or diversified is that it has always come at their own accord. Often times, integration in entertainment has come after an uproar was made. There would be no Sasheer Zamata on SNL right now if Black women hadn’t asked more loudly and continuously why Kenan Thompson always had to be the one to play Oprah. The same goes for when Donald Glover and Jessica Williams appeared on seasons 2 and 3 of GIRLS, after Lena Dunham’s show was berated for its lack of Black or of color actors (despite taking place in Manhattan and Brooklyn). Broadway, evidently, has always made the effort at its own will, and with no pressure, to change the assumption that a lead character, and any character for that matter, should always have to be White. They have said more “yeses” to stories by Black artists than most TV and film execs. Right now, some of Black popular culture’s faves that have since crossed over to TV and film were already acclaimed actors from the stage such as Anika Noni Rose and Viola Davis.
So what’s to explain for Broadway’s proclamation of talent and diversity over the status quo? There’s no definite answer or reason aside from more Black actors and actors of various circumstances and cultures aspiring to perform and audiences eager to see integrated casts. It’s been exciting to watch and shows no signs of halting anytime soon. As Brandy’s role as Roxie has been extended due to public demand and in an age in which FOX’s Empire has TV re-thinking exactly what audiences what on their screens (more diversity!), it’s time to recognize that Broadway, for years, has tried and shown bravery in letting the stories and talents of Black people be seen. It can do more, but we know for sure that the Black story is capable and worthy of succeeding, hence even the regular revivals of works by Wilson and Hansberry.
New York University Associate Professor Michael Dinwiddie was ecstatic to comment on the rise of the Black story and actor in Broadway’s future, after the 2014 Tony Awards gave top honors to Patina Miller, Billy Porter and the legend Cicely Tyson. He was quoted by the New York Daily News in saying: “This is an amazing time to be part of the African-American theater. The walls have been breached, and stories that reflect on our lives are reaching a broad public. At last, we’re beginning to accept theater that allows for many visions and many voices. Both as consumers and creators of American culture, we have truly arrived.”
To that, we say “Encore!”