On Broadway, more visibility, yes, but also an invisible threat

By MARK KENNEDY AP Entertainment Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — At a luncheon for Tony Award nominees last month, veteran theater producer Ron Simons looked around and smiled. It seemed appropriate that the gathering took place at The Rainbow Room.
“I can guarantee you that I haven’t seen so many people of color represented in every category of the Tony Awards,” he recalled. “It was a multipurpose room. I was so uplifted and impressed by this.
For the first full season since the death of George Floyd reignited a conversation about race and representation in America, Broadway responded with one of its most diverse Tony slates yet.
Several black performers were nominated in each performance category, including three of five lead actors in a musical, four of six lead actresses in a play, two of seven lead actors in a play, and three of five lead actresses in a play. room. There are 16 black performance nods across 33 slots – a very good 48%.
By comparison, during the 2016 Tonys — the breakout season that included the diverse revival of “Hamilton,” “Eclipsed” and “The Color Purple” — 14 of the 40 acting nominees for plays and musicals or 35 % were actors of color.
“Let’s hope that the diversity we’ve seen over the course of the season continues to be the norm for Broadway, that it’s not just an anomaly or a blip in reaction to what we’ve been through, but just a reset,” said Lynn Nottage. , the first writer to be nominated for both a play (“Clyde’s”) and a musical (“MJ”) in a single season.
The new generation of nominees also has more women and people of color in design categories, such as new nominees Palmer Hefferan for Sound Design of One Piece (“The Skin of Our Teeth”), Yi Zhao for Design of One-Piece Lighting (“The Skin of Our Teeth”) and Sarafina Bush for One-Piece Costume Design (“For Colored Girls Who’ve Thought About Suicide/When the Rainbow is insufficient”).
Among other firsts this season, L Morgan Lee of “A Strange Loop” became the first trans performer to be nominated for a Tony. Adam Rigg, set designer of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” became the first nominated designer of agender and Toby Marlow, co-creator of “Six,” is the first non-binary composer-lyricist nominated.
Eleven artists – including Jaquel Spivey of ‘A Strange Loop’, Myles Frost of ‘MJ’ and Kara Young of ‘Clyde’s’ – received nods for their Broadway debuts and 10 designers received nominations for their Broadway debuts. Broadway, as did creators like “A Strange Loop,” playwright Michael R. Jackson and “Paradise Square” co-writer Christina Anderson.
“I’m very, very excited about all the new voices we’re hearing, all the new new writers being represented on Broadway for the first time,” said AJ Shively, an actor nominated for “Paradise Square.” “I really hope this trend continues.”
Perhaps nowhere is the diversity more apparent than in the oldest play currently on Broadway. “Macbeth,” directed by Sam Gold, has a Black Lady Macbeth as Ruth Negga, a woman in a traditional male role (Amber Gray plays Banquo), a non-binary actor (Asia Kate Dillon), and a portrayal of disability (Michael Patrick Thornton ).
“If everyone is a stage, our stage is certainly the world. I’m really proud to be up there with all the cast,” says Thornton, who uses his wheelchair as a nifty asset to play shrewd nobleman Lennox.
But as the performance was seen across Broadway this season, so was an invisible virus that didn’t care. The various mutations of COVID-19 have sickened actors in waves and robbed many box offices of critical funds. Nervous returning theater-goers often only had an appetite for the established comfort shows.
Several of the black-led productions flopped, including “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” “Chicken and Biscuits,” and “Pass Over.” They debuted in the fall, just when Broadway was slowly restarting and audiences were most apprehensive. “Thoughts of a Colored Man” closed early because there weren’t enough healthy actors, at one point, enlisting the playwright himself to take the stage and play a part.
One of the most painful blows was the cover of “For Colored Girls” by Ntozake Shange, which struggled to find an audience. The cast of seven black women included deaf actress Alexandria Wailes and, until recently, pregnant Kenita R. Miller. It received strong reviews and seven Tony nominations. But it will close this week.
“In previous seasons, if there had been a play with seven Tony nominations and this slew of rave reviews, the show would have gone on for quite a while,” says Simons, the lead producer. “There is an audience for this show. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting the audience into the theater to see the show.
Despite a glut of inventory and not enough consumers, there were some clear shifts, like “A Strange Loop,” a musical about a gay black playwright, which garnered 11 nominations, surpassing establishment options like Hugh Jackman. Music man. Broadway veterans agree that extraordinary storytelling was available to hardy souls who bought tickets.
“I’m so proud to be part of one of the voices of Broadway this year,” said Anna D. Shapiro, who directed Tracy Letts’ Tony-nominated play “The Minutes,” which exposes the illusions in the heart. dark of America. the story. “I am so impressed by the vitality and dynamism.
Broadway data often suggests improvements one year and then a decline the next. Take the 2013-14 season, rich in roles for African Americans, including “A Raisin in the Sun” with 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 non-traditional roles, like James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie in “Aladdin,” Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe in “Les Miserables,” and Norm Lewis becoming the first Black Phantom on Broadway. in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
That season, black actors accounted for 21% of all roles. But the following season, the number fell to 9%.
Camille A. Brown, who this season with Lileana Blain-Cruz became only the second and third black woman to be nominated for best direction in a play, has been through ups and downs.
“My thing is to see what next year will look like, the year after and the year after?” she says. “I think the landscape was definitely a challenge, especially after George Floyd and the events that happened after that. But this is only the first season after all that has happened. So let’s see if it continues, continues to evolve and continues to progress.
Simons is optimistic that this year’s gains will last and celebrates that, at the very least, a diverse group of actors got their Broadway credits this season. It predicts more Tony winners of color than ever before.
“Even though the box office hurt all of our feelings, it’s definitely a celebration because we’ve never seen this kind of diversity happen on Broadway,” he says. “It’s a rare year and it’s a rare year for the good and the bad.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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