Keeping #TonysSoDiverse Beyond the 2015-2016 Season
Much has been written about the diversity reflected in the 2015-2016 Broadway season. A recent Playbill.com article states “Of the 40 acting nominations in eight categories, 14 went to actors of color, and there’s a strong possibility that all four acting categories on the musical side could be won by a nonwhite actor.”
The diversity represented on Broadway and the recognition of these performances by the award granting institutions which concludes with the prestigious Tony Awards—to be handed out on Sunday, June 12—is in stark contrast to the absence of inclusion at the 2016 Academy Awards. The backlash to the lack of diversity at the Oscars caused an uproar which went viral on social media thanks to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Despite the fact that many are celebrating the record number of Tony nominations for artists of different ethnicities this season, others have asked will the #TonysSoDiverse change Broadway for good and ensure that there is parity on stage and behind the scenes.
As it is too soon to tell if the 2016-2017 Broadway season will boast the same number of projects that star Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, deaf and disabled artists that it did in 2015-2016, some of the details about the upcoming season have been released. So far the season will include revivals, debuts of new work as well as productions that premiered Off-Broadway that will finally be presented on Broadway. Here’s a look at upcoming projects that are scheduled to open soon.
The only play in August Wilson’s 10 play cycle that has yet to reach Broadway is his 1970s set drama Jitney. This will be remedied because it was announced that the Broadway production of Jitney will be directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who is known as one of the top interpreters of August Wilson’s work. Santiago-Hudson won a Tony Award for his performance in Seven Guitars and he also starred in Gem of the Ocean. Santiago-Hudson will be making his Broadway debut as a director on Jitney which begins performances in December 2016.
Ken Davenport—the producer behind Kinky Boots, Allegiance, Godspell, It’s Only A Play—is planning a revival of the award winning 1960s play The Great White Hope, which is loosely based on the life of African American boxer Jack Johnson. It originally starred James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, both of whom won Tonys for this production; so did playwright Howard Sackler.
The revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats, which was one of the longest running shows on Broadway, is set to open during the summer of 2016 starring the British recording artist Leona Lewis and also Quentin Earl Darrington. A multicultural cast of other performers will be also featured in Cats.
The immersive new musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which was inspired by the novel War and Peace, is finally bowing on Broadway beginning in October after several successful off-Broadway runs (which co-starred Philipa Soo who is currently in Hamilton). Recording artist Josh Groban is making his Broadway debut as is the African American actress Denee Benton. Rachel Chavkin is directing and the creative team includes set designer Mimi Lien and costume designer Paloma Young.
Seasoned veterans Andre De Shields (The Wiz), Lillias White (The Life), Lori Tan Chinn (Orange is the New Black), and Georgia Engel (who recently won an Obie Award for her role in Annie Baker’s Off-Broadway play John, and is best remembered for her role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and countless other film and TV series) are scheduled to headline the musical Gotta Dance.
Also, the 1990s Vietnam set mega-musical Miss Saigon, which was recently revived in London, is expected to return to Broadway in 2017.
The above mentioned shows will be featuring multicultural or non-traditional casting, but as of yet information is scant about which shows written by women, Latinos, African-Americans, or Asian Americans, if any, are scheduled to play on the Great White Way. Producers can look to Off-Broadway for shows that may fit the bill.
The Public Theater’s upcoming season includes the New York City premiere of Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, a winner of the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. There was talk that another of Nottage’s work, her Pulitzer Prize winning play Ruined should’ve immediately transferred to Broadway when it broke box office records and received numerous extensions and accolades during its Off-Broadway run in 2009. Besides Ruined, fans of Nottage also hoped that her hit 2004 Off-Broadway play Intimate Apparel, which starred Viola Davis would premiere on Broadway with Tony Award winning Davis reprising her role as Esther, a New York City seamstress who lived in the early 1900s. Nottage’s Sweat, which stars a multicultural cast of characters and is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the decline of that town’s manufacturing base in the early 2000s, could be a contender for a Broadway transfer.
John Leguizamo, who has written and performed a series of solo shows for decades both on and Broadway (including Spic-O-Rama, Freak, Sexaholix...A Love Story, and most recently Ghetto Klown), is returning to the stage at The Public Theater with a new work called Latin History for Morons. Leguizamo’s fans who have supported him on stage and on film would most likely follow him back to Broadway if his show earns a transfer.
Tony Award winning performer Sarah Jones, who like Leguizamo, Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin has found success playing a variety of unforgettable and hilarious characters of various ethnicities in solo shows including Surface Transit and Women Can’t Wait (the latter of which was commissioned by the women’s rights organization Equality Now and was performed at the United Nations). Jones is premiering a new one woman show called Sell/Buy/Date during the upcoming season. If audiences respond to Sell/Buy/Date the way they did her earlier work Bridge & Tunnel, which was originally produced Off-Broadway by Meryl Streep and later received a Broadway production, then Jones’ return to Broadway would be imminent.
Broadway producers hoping to source new and exciting work by women and artists of color should consider what is being produced regionally or turn to the local organizations that develop and produce new works by national and international artists of color (such as Ma-Yi Theater Company, NAATCO, New Black Festival, Noor Theater, and the online theater commons platform Howlround, which has a Latino/a Theater Commons). Multi-talented artist Christine Toy Johnson shared her thoughts about how to achieve diversity in the theater in an article on leeandlow.com, and she mentions the names of artists who should be on theater producer’s radars.
NYPL plays a starring role in documenting all things performing arts: research libraries including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Library of the Performing Arts are the perfect place for producers to do their homework. These libraries have a wealth of materials (including published and unpublished play manuscripts) in their collections that are waiting to be tapped or revisited. Commercial theater producers out there, stop by the libraries the day after the Tonys are presented to find your next projects that will sweep the awards season for a long time to come.