This season, the theater community is celebrating how Broadway has finally become the Great un-White Way.
Black actors have taken center stage in The Color Purple, The Gin Game, Eclipsed and Shuffle Along. A Latin cast shines in On Your Feet! and Asian-Americans told a bitter story from America’s past in Allegiance. The season’s megahit Hamilton, of course, has multi-racial leads in its DNA.
At Sunday’s Tony Awards, which will be televised at 7 p.m. on KTVT/Channel 11, 14 of the 40 nominees for acting in plays and musicals — 35 percent — are actors of color. And more non-whites are nominated on the other side of the stage, including choreographer Savion Glover, director George C. Wolfe and playwright Danai Gurira.
But this season’s diversity may be more a coincidence of timing than Broadway stages consistently providing an accurate reflection of America’s melting pot.
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“The aligning of the stars has occurred this year where a lot of really spectacular work featuring multi-racial casts and a true photograph of what the world and America really looks like is performing on Broadway night after night after night,” said The Color Purple producer Scott Sanders. “Will we see this being the norm moving forward? I’m not so sure.”
Neither is Pun Bandhu, an Asian-American actor and a member of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s steering committee. The group collects data on Broadway’s diversity — starting nine years ago — and the numbers offer a sober outlook.
According to its latest report, non-white actors have not represented more than 26 percent of all Broadway roles for the past nine years. Though numbers for the current season aren’t ready, the numbers for minority roles last season dipped to 22 percent, down from the previous season’s 25 percent.
“What last year’s numbers prove is that while we may be having an extra diverse year this year … that’s not usually the case,” said Bandhu. “It hasn’t changed that much actually on Broadway.”
The numbers suggest improvements one year, then a drop off the next. The 2013-14 season was rich with roles for African-Americans, including A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington, Audra McDonald channeling Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and the dance show After Midnight.
There were also African-Americans in nontraditional roles, like James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie in Aladdin, Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe in Les Misérables, and Norm Lewis becoming the first black Phantom on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera.
That season, black actors represented 21 percent of all roles. But the next season, the number fell to 9 percent.
This ebb and flow is nothing new to Stephen C. Byrd, a veteran Broadway producer behind this season’s Eclipsed. He recalls a diverse Broadway when he produced an all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2008.
Back then, Morgan Freeman was starring in The Country Girl, Laurence Fishburne was in Thurgood and such shows as Passing Strange, In the Heights and the original The Color Purple were playing.
“That was a time of great diversity on Broadway,” said Byrd, who produces minority-driven works with Alia Jones-Harvey. “We’ve been at this for 10 years and it’s taken from that time to come to where we are today to see that same diversity on Broadway.”
This season, Byrd is watching as Broadway is cheered for its inclusiveness at a time when the film industry has come under heavy criticism for a lack of diversity in the Academy Awards. There’s even been the bragging (hashtag)BroadwaySoDiverse to rival (hashtag)OscarsSoWhite.
Back to business as usual?
But next season isn’t shaping up to be as diverse as this one.
While black actresses will lead Cats and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and African-American actors will be represented in Motown and August Wilson’s Jitney, the lead actors are so far all white for the upcoming The Cherry Orchard, Heisenberg, The Glass Menagerie, The Master Builder, The Present, The Bandstand, Hello, Dolly!, The Little Foxes, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Falsettos.
Of the six leading parts in Holiday Inn, only one will be played by an actor of color. All six leading roles in a revival of The Front Page will be played by white actors.
“As a producer, you have to be aware that audiences are demanding diversity. They want to see themselves reflected on the stage,” said Bandhu. “I think it has been proven that diversity is good for Broadway.”
The American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards
- 7 p.m. Sunday
- KTVT/Channel 11