Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity,” joked host James Corden at last month’s Tony awards for Broadway theatre. “It’s so diverse, Donald Trump has threatened to build a wall around this theatre.”
Corden was alluding to the exceptionally large number of black, Latino and Asian-American actors and creatives among this year’s nominees (whereas their lack of representation at February’s Oscars had sparked protests and a boycott of the ceremony). The star of the show, predictably, turned out to be Puerto Rican-born Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the already legendary hip-hop musical about America’s Founding Fathers, created and performed by an almost entirely non-white company, which scooped a record 16 nominations and carried off 11 prizes on the night (one short of the 12 won by The Producers in 2001).
Also prominent among the nominees were three other shows notable for ethnic diversity both on stage and behind the scenes: a revival of a musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, Zimbabwean-American Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed, set during the Liberian civil war and Shuffle Along, an innovative version of the first jazz musical in Broadway history.
At a time when America’s racial politics have taken a particularly toxic turn, this Broadway season’s multi-ethnic profile seemed to offer hope that the US remains a place where, as Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton sings, “even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up”.
Yet broader trends suggest that Hamilton might be the exception that proves the rule in New York’s theatre world.
In a city where two-thirds of residents are non-white, only 30 per cent of theatrical roles went to actors of colour during the 2014-15 theatrical season, according to research carried out by the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition (Aapac), which also concludes that this reflects a “definite upward trend”. Another report by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs found that 70 per cent of theatre company staff are non-Hispanic whites, a higher proportion than in most other cultural sectors surveyed.
As for the work itself, according to a study released last year by the Dramatists Guild, fewer than 10 per cent of plays staged from 2011 to 2014 in 153 theatres across the nation were written by Americans of colour, who account for nearly two-fifths of the total population. The Guild’s survey excluded Broadway itself, where the proportion was undoubtedly even lower.
Such statistics chime with the experiences of individual thespians. During a roundtable discussion organised by The Hollywood Reporter last month, Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Vice-President Aaron Burr in Hamilton, complained that he was receiving no offers of future work — a problem, he said, that a white actor would not face. Soon afterwards Odom won the Tony award for best actor in a musical.
André De Schields, a Broadway stalwart since the 1970s who starred in musicals such as The Wiz and Ain’t Misbehavin’, similarly remarks that it is a “day-to-day chore to make sure I remain employed” and that “if my white counterpart had had the same success as me, he would have more parts”.
By contrast, Tony-winner Tonya Pinkins says she has benefited from what she sardonically describes as “honorary white status”, meaning she receives better deals than other black actors because “all my life, white people have felt I’m not a scary black person” — a concept she derides as “fiction”.
Last December Pinkins walked out on the lead role in an off-Broadway production of Brecht’s Mother Courage shortly before opening night because, as she put it in a statement published by Playbill, “my perspective as a black woman was dismissed”. The ensuing public dispute with the show’s director, while unusual, suggested that racial identity remained a potential source of friction within the world of New York theatre, as did a recent casting call for Hamilton that was criticised by Actors’ Equity for specifically requesting non-white actors.
By all accounts, however, overt racism has long since disappeared. According to Kirsten Childs, a playwright and one-time dancer, the worst she encountered during the 1980s were casting calls featuring mildly offensive racial code words such as “sassy”. Vivian Reed, who starred in the musical revue Bubbling Brown Sugar in the mid-1970s, says she has never encountered racial prejudice in the theatre and notes that there were multiple shows featuring primarily non-white casts running concurrently on Broadway towards the end of that decade.
Diversity on Broadway is in fact nothing new, but it has tended to wax and wane. The original production of Shuffle Along in 1921 featured an all-black cast and ran for more than a year. But while it helped to launch the careers of Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, the creative team soon quarrelled and failed to repeat their success. Eubie Blake, one of the original lyricists, didn’t score another hit until Bubbling Brown Sugar more than 50 years later. Then the 1980s were dominated by British imports such as Cats and Les Misérables, along with nostalgic extravaganzas such as 42nd Street, whose casts and creators were primarily white.
The season that has just concluded was “exceptional” in terms of diversity, says Pinkins, “but there’s no reason why every season couldn’t be like that”. She adds that next season’s Broadway line-up, heavy on musical revivals and stage adaptations of classic films, seems unlikely to offer as many roles to actors of colour.
For most shows continue to be cast with white actors in traditionally white roles (Hamilton being a dazzling and provocative exception). This season only Ivo Van Hove’s production of The Crucible stood out for its noticeably integrated cast (breaking with the play’s historical context). Like New York itself, where neighbourhoods and public schools are usually divided along racial lines, Broadway tends to offer black shows, white shows, Asian shows or Latino shows, rather than works that bring those different groups together on stage. Perhaps Broadway is becoming more diverse, but it does not appear to be a melting pot.
Underlying a general sense of halting and ambivalent progress is the extraordinary financial cost of mounting any Broadway or even off-Broadway show. Capital budgets for modest Broadway productions start in the millions and the majority of shows flop, making many producers extremely risk-averse. As AB Lugo of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (Hola) notes, producers are inclined to cast “big names”, who are usually white, to safeguard their investment.
Donna Trinkoff, artistic producer of Amas, an off-Broadway company devoted to promoting diversity in musical theatre, similarly recalls being told by a producer back in the 1990s that “black theatre doesn’t make money”. And, as Mia Katigbak of the National Asian American Theatre Company laments, when producers do go for ethnically diverse shows, they tend to bet on old reliables such as Miss Saigon or The King and I.
In financial terms, the past year has been a financially mixed bag for Broadway’s most diverse shows. Hamilton looks set to break many box office records and The Color Purple has also been a hit. But Eclipsed proved a commercial disappointment, despite starring Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o among its cast, and closed less than four months into its run in June. Shuffle Along is also set to close this month, at a loss, due to the departure of its best-known star Audra McDonald.
Producers are overwhelmingly white, “almost an aristocracy”, as De Schields puts it. Indeed, Broadway counts only two lead producers of colour: Stephen C Byrd, a former investment banker, and his partner Alia Jones-Harvey, who practise what they call “colour-conscious casting” with a view to promoting diversity both on stage and in the auditorium (average Broadway audiences are about 80 per cent white but Hamilton and The Color Purple seem to have drawn much more diverse crowds).
Although things are far worse in Hollywood, according to Byrd, there are still limits to what can be achieved on Broadway, too. Heavily unionised stagehands, who can earn more than leading actors, are mostly white and resistant to change. Theatre marketing departments also seem closed off to people of colour.
Given the reluctance of commercial producers to take risks on shows with diverse casts and creative teams, such works usually originate off-Broadway. The non-profit Public Theater, created in 1954 by Joseph Papp, has played a particularly crucial role in fostering this season’s successes. Both Hamilton and Eclipsed were first produced at the Public before transferring to Broadway. And it was the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis who persuaded Byrd and Jones-Harvey to take on Eclipsed, after the play had languished for years without a commercial producer. Meanwhile, Eustis’s immediate predecessor George C Wolfe directed and wrote the book for Shuffle Along.
“The Public has been working towards this moment for 60 years,” says Eustis. Diversity was already at the centre of Papp’s vision. Now the Public casts a higher proportion of non-white actors than any other New York theatre company (over 60 per cent in 2014-15, when Hamilton was performed there).
How did they achieve this? According to Eustis, it comes down to “a tremendous degree of ideological self-consciousness”, a formula that hints at the Public’s historically leftish tilt. Since New York City runs on mammon rather than agitprop, Eustis eventually adds that Hamilton shows “the path of multicultural diversity” to be both “rewarding” and “profitable” (something of an understatement in this case).
“This is not a moment, it’s the movement,” sings the young Hamilton at the start of the American Revolution. Many theatre-makers and theatregoers seem to want to join him, but it’s too soon to tell whether Miranda’s revolution will change The Great White Way for good.
Photographs: Joan Marcus; Getty; Julieta Cervantes; Matthew Murphy; Eyevine