How to get more diversity on Broadway.

On Tuesday, the Broadway League held its annual meeting for its members (if you noticed an inordinate amount of Broadway producers and touring presenters roaming Times Square over the past couple of days, it’s because this is Broadway’s week of annual meetings, holiday parties, and more – perhaps it’s a good time for a reading, if you’re pitching a show?).

At the meeting, all of us members get reports from the various committees that are hard at work trying to better Broadway for all of us.  We’ve got a government relations committee (busting their bills to get us some tax assistance), a labor committee (there are over a dozen unions on Broadway and their contracts require renegotiation every few years), a business development (aka marketing) committee, an international committee, a membership committee, and more.

One of the comments that was greeted with the most head nods and affirmations from the crowd was a quote from the head of the diversity committee, the forward thinking Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, who is Executive Director of ASU Gammage.  As she wrapped up her summary of the committees activities she said, “Broadway is the longest street in America, and we need to strive to make it reflective of America.”

True that.  True that.

The good news is that this year is one of the most diverse years ever on Broadway, as reported in this NY Times article.  We’ve got On Your Feet, Hamilton, The Color Purple, Spring Awakening, Eclipsed, and more.

The times they are a changin’, and it’s good.

But there is more work to do.  A lot more work.  Especially with some of the attitudes of the “politicians” currently trumping, I mean, stumping, to be President.

So what can we do?

I’ve read a lot of articles and attended many a roundtable discussion about non-traditional casting.  I’ve been to Actors’ Equity sponsored meetings with Producers to encourage color blind casting.  And all of these initiatives have been inspiring and educational.

But for me, it goes deeper than that.

If we want more diversity on our stages, then we need more diverse people writing for our stages.  It’s literally the root of the issue.

Here’s my gardening metaphor, you ready?  If you want a different color rose, do you figure out how you can pull off the petals and replace it with other petals?  I guess that would work.  But it’s a short term solution.  It’ll give you what you want, but it doesn’t have a long lasting effect on your garden.

If you want a different color flower, and you want that flower to bloom every year . . . you plant a different bulb.  You put something in the ground that will produce the outcome that you’re looking for.

Writers, more often than not, write what they know.  Writers of color will therefore write more stories about color.  And audiences are attracted to stories they can relate to.  So audiences of color will naturally gravitate to stories that are about their experiences.

It’s a diversity domino effect.  And the first domino is the playwrights, composers and lyricists.

That’s why I’d put the bulk of our time and dollar resources into encouraging more diverse artists to get into our game.  It may not change the look of our stages tomorrow, but ten or twenty years from now, I’d guarantee we’d have the most beautiful and colorful garden on the block.

 

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Comments
  • Karmela says:

    I would be extremely interested in seeing Broadway take a cue from the gaming industry and see if anyone would be brave enough to create characters that can be played by any gender in any race. So many video games (Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age etc) allow you to play as either male or female, and the character creation options let you choose how they appear. The plot transcends the main character’s appearance, and some of the richest and most interesting stories emerge from those games.

    I think it would be an incredibly wonderful day when a woman (or man) stars in a show and their understudy appears as a different gender. The interpretations you’d get on each character would be so fascinating to watch. Seriously, let’s make Mass Effect the musical and have Commander Shepard be played by anyone. We already know the game devs like Gilbert and Sullivan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJj1WjUPit0

  • Ken Wydro says:

    There are three young Black flowers growing in Harlem right now at the Dempsey Theater, 127 West 127 St, written and produced by one of the most seasoned and experienced creators currently working, Vy Higginsen. ALIVE! 55 and Kickin, which was featured twice on CBS 60 MINUTES, is now its its 3 rd year of performances, drawing a widely diverse audience from across the USA, Europe and Asia. The teenage counterpart to ALIVE! is called YES, WE ARE, has had several public readings and will open in April. If anybody wants to see several vibrant, commercially viable new Black productions, you don’t have to go very far. 20 minutes on the 2 or 3 train to 125 St. http://www.alive55themusical.com

  • Seth Williams says:

    Ken,
    There are tons of women and people of color who are playwrights, composers, lyricists, etc. Yes, it’s nowhere need where we need it to be, but they’re out there. (Let’s take the Pulitzer list from the last few years to start.) The problem is our producers and theatre owners are primarily white men. They’re the people who built the garden and choose which bulbs are put in the ground. Your blog and assistant producer programs have been great opportunities to change the make up of producers, and I applaud you for that. Yes, the money behind Broadway is held by white men, and it’s going to take more than just the theatre industry to change systemic racism. But in addition to having more diverse content creators, we especially need more diverse content choosers.

    • RICK says:

      Ken, the garden example was great….I especially liked this part…..

      Writers, more often than not, write what they know. Writers of color will therefore write more stories about color. And audiences are attracted to stories they can relate to. So audiences of color will naturally gravitate to stories that are about their experiences.

      It’s a diversity domino effect. And the first domino is the playwrights, composers and lyricists.

      Thanks, Rick

  • Eugene Barry-Hill says:

    I agree with most of the comments. There’s a more diverse Broadway, right now. But Color Purple, Eclipsed, On Your Feet, Allegiance, King & I are all race specific. Without these shows it would be business as usual. More writers are needed for sure, but there are many writers already out there who can’t seem to interest the producers with the deep pockets. Even before we get to the producers, we still have to address a couple of other things like tokenism. Still, over & over you look at Broadway productions and they are completely “whitewashed”. Except for the token black or brown person stuck in the back, hopefully light-skinned enough to not pull focus. “Ethnics encouraged to audition” is a huge eye rolling moment for most actors of color. We audition, see the show, and are faux “shocked” to not see ourselves onstage. Casting directors, AND directors are a problem to overcome too. If a role is not race specific, that should be their first clue to start looking “outside the box”. But, that’s not their first instinct. They go with what they know. What they are comfortable with. Hence, we need casting directors who are non-white, and then we need directors open to the choices those CDs bring to the table.

  • Bruce says:

    Ken, I’d love to know where that photo was taken. It looks like Keukenhof in The Netherlands. One of the most amazing places that I’ve ever been.

  • Daryl Sledge says:

    Ken,
    I appreciate your awareness and “do something” attitude. This is why I am Producing, not because I am black, but because I have lots that I am interested in sharing with the WORLD.
    Thank You!

  • Jason E. Bernard says:

    I disagree with a lot in this article. I think the reason why there isn’t more diversity is because of the producers. I can literally name 100 incredible playwrights with varying diverse qualities and skill levels with and without degrees that could smack down many of the stage work that has been produced this year alone. A producer needs to say to him/herself “Hmmmm….. The fact that there is only one actor of ( fill In the blank ) in this show….. this is weird and wrong and I say NO!! When a producer sees that on stage, she/he should say ” that looks as though we are trying to throw them a bone a shut them up! I get Star Power……, but with a cast of 30 and 1 one actor diversity……. Really???? Do You agree or Disagree?

  • Rich Mc says:

    I strongly reject the premise. As Ken can attest, Producers align themselves with only those shows they believe will (and can make a case for) recouping investors’ capitol & turning a profit. (Have you carved out any exceptions, Ken, i.e., any shows you’d knowingly take a loss on, i.e., for Diversity?) All races and genders (trans gender included) should be given equal opportunity to compete to: act-in, write and/or produce b-Way shows, and other mass-media entertainment offerings. But equal does mean equal. Documented discrimination on any of the above, in any way should be scrutinized, and punished severely thru lawsuits, boycotts, ostracism and the like. Then, let the marketplace decide which shows are staged, which actors are cast, and of these, which make it to the top. Block-buster successes of myriad multiracial shows such as Dream Girls, The Whiz, , most recently Hamilton, and many, many others attest to the wisdom and fairness of the marketplace. IMOP, coerced or quota-imposed diversity for its own sake is PURE CLAPTRAP – we’re WAY beyond that as a theater going public with a track record of appreciating & supporting DIVERSE TALENT!. [And no, thank-you, I’m not a racist!]

  • Jim McGrath says:

    Of the shows you mentioned only Hamilton is SRO. The original Color Purple had the “Oprah” stamp of approval and marketing push. The current production is not so fortunate. Most of the shows mentioned and not mentioned are going to lose money. Diversity is the wonderful reality of our world. Broadway is “Show Business” and the goal is profit. Attending Broadway theater is a pricey outing for most people. There is no magic formula but timing and that elusive “hook” seems needed regardless of the “diversity” factor.

  • Kristi R-C says:

    The fact is the racial mix of the USA is rapidly changing. This year there are more non-white children in our elementary schools than white. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cge.asp Increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of Broadway shows is a sound business decision as well as an ethically and morally right decision. Right now, today, white men rule the game. That is changing.

    Bronzeville Arts Ensemble in Milwaukee is a great example of performers of color joining together to serve the artist desires of the their community. MKE Rep (wisely) is partnering with them. There will be more works featuring people of color written, work-shopped and produced by the regional/non-profit theatres which means those shows will be ripe for B’way producers to guide to NYC.

    The times… they are a changing!

  • Nelli D says:

    Just curious – does the Broadway League also have a committee that encourages producers to hire long time union paying members who, unfortunately, may not have had a paying gig in over say one, two or three years? Maybe the “Labor committee” can pursue such an endeavor that would help so many of Equity’s diverse membership?

  • Kevin Davis says:

    Ken,

    People create art from a very personal space. The more people of color that gain access to every aspect of the theatre industry will “naturally” produce more work that reflects their experience. What mainstream producers need to understand is they are missing a significant $$$ opportunity by NOT tapping into this huge market. All of the niche markets (which are huge) will support AUTHENTIC works that speaks to their world view.

  • Marshall says:

    Not sure I agree that there’s not enough diversity. Sure, the war horses often have tokenism. But with Passing Strange, In The Heights, The Color Purple, Sarafina!, Dream Girls, Ain’t Misbehavin’-even NBC choosing to produce The Wiz (the best so far to my mind) shows diversity in proportion to the U.S. population.

    If you’re suggesting adding diversity for the sake of “being fair,” isn’t that discrimination against perhaps a superior show by a better writer? If you believe in the adage, “the cream always rises,’ it shouldn’t matter who wrote it; it’s up to the producers (and eventually audiences) to decide if they’re moved by the story and the music.

    If diversity becomes a benchmark for whether a show gets produced or not, might not the Eskimos have the right to march on Broadway demanding Igloos! The Musical? 😉

  • Janet Gramza says:

    A domino that’s rarely mentioned — except by USITT — is backstage. If you think Broadway is getting more diverse, check how many of the designers, technicians, & stage crew are people of color. We are trying to get the word out that there are tremendous opportunities for artists from underrepresented groups in stage tech, and a great need for diversity in this area!!!

  • I am a Black playwright from Connecticut. I have an original full length gospel musical, “All God’s Children Got Shoes”, that has been touring since 2005. We performed off Broadway at St. Luke’s Theater in 2007 then went to Atlanta in 2008 and won first place at the “Agape Theater and Film Awards”. We also received honors for most inspiring play. The cast is predominately Black but the play can be cast with any race and mixed races because the theme and messages in the play are universal and transcends race and gender. I would love to showcase it to producers in NYC. The testimonials on my website are just a few of MANY we have received. I believe that Broadway would welcome a fresh, original gospel musical.
    http://www.naerocproductions.com coreanstrong@gmail.com

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