On Broadway, diversity takes a step into the spotlight

In A Strange Loop, which won Best Musical at the Tony Awards in June, the lead character belts out what might as well be a declaration of the transformation happening 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 centered 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 in the midway point, others shutting down early and routine cancellations due to COVID-19. By May, ticket sales were down 54 per cent compared to the record highs before the pandemic.

But while the recovery hasn’t been smooth, 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 more representation in an industry that has traditionally been predominantly white.

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

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Broadway’s stages are showcasing more diversity since reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing fresh perspectives to favourites such as Death of a Salesman and new stories to tell.

One of Broadway’s few Black producers, Tony award winner Ron Simons, calls the pandemic a catalyst for long overdue change. 

“This shifted in a year,” he said, “Like no heads up, no lead time. We had diverse audiences. We had diverse stories in one season. Mind blowing.”

“Mind blowing” 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 Ain’t 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 remotely like that has ever happened. So, that speaks a lot to what is going on on Broadway 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/CBC)

A lack of diversity

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

According to their latest study, which looked at the 2018-2019 season, almost 60 per cent of roles on New York City stages were played by white actors. Broadway’s producers are overwhelmingly 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 pleased with the strides in diversity the industry has made with its comeback, but that change for her community has been slow to materialize. 

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

WATCH | 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 Broadway’s few Black producers, had three shows about Black and brown people open at the same time after the pandemic. He says this is the future of Broadway.

Last summer, Black Theatre United — formed by Broadway’s leading Black artists — unveiled a blueprint for more equity and diversity in the industry. Called A New Deal For Broadway, and signed by the industry’s leading power brokers, it outlines reforms that include the naming of theaters for Black artists, commitments to hire from underrepresented groups, and a pledge for producers to “never assemble an all-white creative team on a production again, regardless of the subject matter of the show.”

One of the founding members of Black Theatre United, Broadway veteran Allyson Tucker, said the New Deal has made an impact but the work is only beginning. 

“I think everybody who was signing the deal understands, it is the long game, this is a journey and not immediate results.” 

A new chapter in Broadway’s history

A new show is coming this Fall — the iconic Arthur Miller play Death of A Salesman, 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 plays the lead character, Ben Loman. 

Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Andre De Shields is photographed in New York City. He’s playing the lead character in a reimagined version of the iconic play Death of a Salesman. (Jason Burles/CBC)

“We know that the audience is going to respond because what is missing from the American dream right now is the idea of accessibility,” De Shields said. “By putting the idea of the American dream at the center of an African American family means that everybody can claim it.” 

He said he sees this new chapter in Broadway history as an opportunity to deliver powerful messages through the voices of artists who haven’t had access to the spotlight. 

“We’re all in this together. If one of us is chained, none of us are seen,” he said. 

Also opening in the fall is KPOP, which is all about the Korean pop music phenomenon. The cast is almost all-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 a big part of her excitement is expanding the very limited roles Asian people have had on Broadway. The AAPAC study showed that Asian actors make up less than 10 per cent of roles on the New York Stage. 

“I think it has been hard to find stories that are not centered around trauma or war or something that’s 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 for 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/CBC)

Attracting a diverse audience

The Broadway League, which compiles audience statistics, has found that theater audiences have been traditionally middle-aged, white women. Simons said he’s convinced there’s an untapped audience hungry for diverse stories that can expand that demographic. 

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

Outside the Lyceum Theatre where A Strange Loop is playing, fan Elizabeth Adams said she’s motivated to go to shows that reflect her story. Until now, she said, that’s been rare.

“It’s a huge deal,” she said about seeing more diversity on stage, “I am a woman of colour 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 Runner, a play based on the book written by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hoseini. 

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

‘Give us an opportunity to speak our hearts’

Simons said he’s hopeful about the changes on stage, but adds that more needs to be done throughout the industry to bring diversity at all levels, from theater owners to show promoters. 

From Black Theatre United’s New Deal to the Tony award for excellence given to AAPAC this year, there are signs that leadership change is happening on Broadway. But those leading the charge caution against complacency when celebrating one season’s wins. 

“I think the conversation around diversity often centres on Black and white, and there are so many other groups that are also longing for and yearning to be represented as well,” said Nandiata Shenoy, a member of AAPAC’s steering committee.

WATCH | ‘We’re the ones who are hungry 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 it’s those who are most ‘hungry for the dream’ who can help revive Broadway after the pandemic.

Black Theatre United’s Tucker said she’s hoping for the same kind of expansion. She adds that one of the most valuable conversations to come out of the pandemic has been out-of-the box thinking of growing the industry beyond Broadway, allowing emerging players to expand to other parts of New York City. 

“We look at it with the grace of yes, we took a step forward, and we’ve linked arms, and we’re going to continue growing those links,” she said.

De Shields said he believes Broadway’s resurrection depends on diverse voices expanding the stage. 

“If those of us who are already in charge, who are already at the top, cannot prevent this moratorium on Broadway, who can? Well, obviously, the people who have been denied it because we’re the ones who are hungry for the dream,” he said. 

“Give us an opportunity to speak our hearts. Give us an opportunity to share what is important to our souls.”

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