“Burn it all down.” That’s what Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris said when I reached him in London recently to talk about the racial reckoning taking place in American theater, spurred by the creation of a high-profile group, #WeSeeYouWAT (We See You, White American Theater).
“I think that until we get rid of all of our memories of these spaces, our ties to these spaces, our relationships with the people that are inside of these spaces, we can’t get anything done,” Harris said. “So let’s just burn it all down and start over.”
Harris, 31, may seem like an unlikely advocate for radically upending the way theater operates. After all, Slave Play became the talk of the town when it premiered off-Broadway in 2018, and then was transferred to Broadway a year later, all while Harris was still a student at Yale School of Drama. He’s had two other works debut at off-Broadway theaters, and was working on bringing one of them, Daddy, to London before its theaters were shut because of the coronavirus.
But Harris, who co-created the site Black Work Broadway, a catalog of every show by a Black artist on Broadway, recognizes what a rarity he is. He knows that his success does not mean Broadway is a great place for Black creatives. According to another new group, the Black Theatre Coalition, there have been more than 11,000 plays and musicals since Broadway began in 1866, but in all that time, just 10 directors of musicals, 11 play directors and 17 choreographers have been Black.
“Obviously, I’m invested in these systems and certain aspects of these systems have benefited me a lot,” Harris said. “But generally, I have given more to the theater that I’ve gotten from the theater. … Because the theater doesn’t have any marketing acumen at getting Black people, brown people or young people to the theater. So basically, I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ ”
Like many other parts of American society, Black and brown theatermakers are fed up with the way systemic racism manifests in their professional world. In the past few months, with theaters across the country shut down because of the pandemic, they’ve been able to reflect, organize and re-imagine how theater should work. The Black Theatre Coalition announced a three-part action plan. #WeSeeYouWAT released a 31-page list of demands to those who hold power in the theater world, including producers, casting agents, press, stage unions and the trade groups that control Broadway and the Tony Awards.
Overall, they argue that American theater is too white, too myopic, too clubbish, too risk-averse and, above all, too inhospitable to theatermakers and audiences who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Among the 300 people who signed #WeSeeYouWAT’s letter are luminaries such as Harris, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, choreographer Camille A. Brown and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Their demands are specific and exhaustive. What they add up to is that BIPOC theatermakers are burdened with diversity, equity and inclusion work that isn’t part of their jobs, and that this haphazard approach has been ineffective at creating a welcoming environment for people who are not white.
“It’s a long-overdue reckoning,” said David Mendizábal, one of the producing artistic leaders of The Movement Theatre Company in Harlem, New York. “If we think of the American theater as a microcosm of the rest of the world, the ways in which we uphold culture and stories on our stages and representation and the power that we have as artists to shift the world through the stories that we decide to tell, it just feels like a really profound moment. As artists, we’re also grappling with, ‘OK, now that we’ve been in some ways stripped of the ability and the privilege of having our stages to tell our stories … it feels even more important to really be ourselves.’ ”
America’s professional theater ecosystem is vast. And while off-Broadway and regional theaters have issues with inclusion, equity and diversity, those deficiencies burn all the more brightly under the lights of Broadway. Upending Broadway means considering ideas that may sound zany, like geographically expanding what counts as a Broadway theater to Harlem and beyond. It means injecting Black people and people of color in positions from the stagehands to the executive suite. It means expanding outreach to Black audiences beyond occasional “Blackout” nights for the few works by Black people that get produced. It means recognizing that what sounds like destruction — ”burn it all down” — is actually a cry for overdue renovation and repair.
Conversations with people about theater’s shortcomings reveal those repairs can be divided into four areas: the art that’s produced, the leadership that determines what gets produced, the developmental process and the audience itself.
A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller, debuted off-Broadway in 1981 and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama the next year. It didn’t debut on Broadway until 2019. A Black woman, Katori Hall, co-wrote the book for The Tina Turner Musical. But a Black woman playwright has a better shot of snagging a Telfar handbag than she does of getting her play produced on Broadway. Nottage won the first of her two Pulitzer Prizes for Ruined, and even she couldn’t get a theater for it on the Great White Way.
These absences are long-standing. In the 73 years the awards have existed, no Black woman has won a Tony for playwriting, book writing, costume design, orchestrations or directing.
The numbers are only slightly better for Black men. Two Black men have won for playwriting: Joseph A. Walker for The River Niger in 1974 and August Wilson for Fences in 1987. The numbers for direction (four), costume design (two) and choreography (seven) are similarly dismal. Bill T. Jones, George C. Wolfe, Ron Simons and Geoffrey Holder are the only Black people who hold multiple Tonys in nonperformance categories.
Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin told The New York Times the theaters “have done a good job onstage … but in a lot of our backstage areas, we haven’t done as good a job, and if people are frustrated, they have the right to be.”
Asked to comment for this story, a spokeswoman for St. Martin sent the following statement: “The members of the Broadway League are committed to taking meaningful action to address the concerns of our friends and colleagues throughout the Broadway community and beyond who are calling for change at this crucial time. We have been meeting with leaders in the community and the emerging groups that have formed as a result of the uprisings. Moreover, our members and our institutional leadership have been fully exploring every path to equity.”
Among the issues that #WeSeeYouWAT addressed in its demands to artistic directors and producers is the way BIPOC theatermakers are pigeonholed compared with their white counterparts.
“We see theaters nurturing white artists, singling out their contributions, extolling their virtues and employing them again and again while BIPOC artists are hired once to fulfill the exigencies of a ‘diversity’ project and are somehow never able to cultivate the same relationships,” the group wrote. “The unstated messaging is clear: this is not your artistic home, and it never will be. … Stop using the excuse that you don’t know any BIPOC artists — step outside of your professional circle to find them.”
The gaps can be jaw-dropping. James Baldwin is one of the most trenchant writers in American history, but none of his plays have been mounted on Broadway in more than 35 years. Think how absurd it would be if Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill hadn’t been produced on Broadway since 1983.
“The fact that Glass Menagerie is done everywhere, and Amen Corner is not, is a testimony to white supremacy and the suppression of Black voices,” said Whitney White, who recently won an Obie award for her direction of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord and directed Baldwin’s The Amen Corner for the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In the wake of global protests over the killings of Black people, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, June and July were marked with leaders across industries of all sorts publicly signaling shake-ups with announcements of Black people ascending to leadership positions. But on Broadway, announcements of future productions seem to portend an overwhelmingly white status quo. Bartlett Sher will be directing a 2021 revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, starring Dustin Hoffman and produced by Scott Rudin. Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, which was interrupted by the pandemic, will return to Broadway in March 2021, along with David Mamet’s American Buffalo.
Some recent developments are more encouraging, albeit still baby steps. The nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company announced on June 26 that it was adding Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind to its Broadway season, scheduled to debut in winter 2021. Roundabout’s production will be the first of Childress’ 13 plays to be performed on Broadway. Childress died in 1994 at age 81.
I had the luxury of attending a staged reading of Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White in February at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York. It was part of a series called CLASSIX, aimed at “expanding the classical canon through an exploration of dramatic works by Black writers.”
I found Childress’ writing spiky and modern, though the words of The Wedding were crafted in 1973. Her characters were layered and wholly divorced from a need to be liked. Instead, they were interesting. It was then that I realized what a disservice producers had committed in demanding that Childress, in the words of New York Magazine theater critic Helen Shaw, “defang” her plays in order to see them mounted. I left marveling at Childress’ brilliance, and furious at the dunderheadedness of the producers she encountered while alive.
Second Stage Theater, another nonprofit company with a Broadway theater, announced this summer that it is mounting a play by Nottage in the fall of 2021. The play, which opened with the title Floyd’s last summer in Minneapolis, is set in a sandwich shop that employs formerly incarcerated people. (A new title is in the works so the play will not be confused with George Floyd.) Nottage also wrote the book for the upcoming Michael Jackson jukebox show, MJ: The Musical, which is slated to start once Broadway, which remains closed through the end of 2020, reopens.
Still, there is more to Black and brown life than historical stories about racism and jukebox musicals.
“What are stories that we’re not seeing? I mean the first thing that came to my mind was joy,” Mendizábal said. “Black joy, brown joy. Why are we always so battered and oppressed onstage? And I recognize that oppression and trauma are such a part of our narrative, but that’s not where our narratives end nor begin necessarily.”
Playwright Dominique Morisseau, who wrote the book for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, name-checked Obie winner Marcus Gardley (playwright for …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, The House That Will Not Stand and black odyssey) as an obvious choice who is absent from Broadway.
“I think he’s an epic writer for us,” Morisseau said. “Somebody that can think that big and large, with an imagination for centering Black narratives, that should be invested in.”
Other plays that deserve a closer look include Donja R. Love’s one in two, a play about being diagnosed with HIV in the midst of an HIV epidemic that is largely unnoticed because those most affected are Black and brown queer people. Jillian Walker’s SKiNFoLK: An American Show, which opened this spring in Bushwick, New York, is a warm exploration of identity and the unspoken familial ties between Black and white people. There is, of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and much-buzzed-about A Strange Loop, by Michael R. Jackson, and Jordan E. Cooper’s raucous satire Ain’t No Mo’, which debuted at the Public Theater in 2019. But film director Lee Daniels told The New York Times that when he broached transferring Ain’t No Mo’ to Broadway, producers “looked at me like I had four heads.”
Opportunities need to be created for directors, as well. I’ve seen several shows White has directed, including Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, What To Send Up When It Goes Down and for all the women who thought they were Mad. Her stagings are consistently imaginative and unconventional. I remember how disoriented I felt attending What To Send Up, which took place with the lights on in the performance space and which required the audience to engage with the performers and each other in ways I’d never encountered. The show was full of revelations about what is possible in theater. White is aware that she is overlooked in ways her white male counterparts are not.
“I want to have that Broadway show,” she said. “I’ve certainly trained for it. I certainly have the accolades that my non-Black colleagues have. I have the MFA, I did the acting thing, I have two New York Times Critics’ Picks and it’s like, you get on the phone with a producer, and you feel the moment at which they stop taking you seriously.”
Risk, on Broadway, is tied to race in ways that are fundamentally illogical. The Inheritance, written by Matthew Lopez, who is Latino, remixed E.M. Forster’s Howards End and relocated its setting to New York. But the epic, with a run time of close to seven hours, was almost entirely focused on the experiences of gay white men.
The Inheritance closed on Broadway three months early. So what’s stopping Broadway producers from programming a double feature of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord and Erica Schmidt’s William Shakespeare adaptation MAC BETH, shows that feature one of theater’s most obvious set of devotees: teen girls? Both shows involve themes centered on bullying and groupthink that could rival Dear Evan Hansen. Both were written and directed by women and starred majority Black and brown female casts off-Broadway. Such a proposition shouldn’t seem like a pipe dream, but to White, it sounds like one.
“To get this far, I’ve been practicing this kind of willing amnesia, because I get going in my world working with my collaborators, putting up my productions. And when you’re in the rehearsal room, anything feels possible,” White said. “And then the show goes up, and you look at the season you’re in, often you’re the only Black show, and you start to look at these things. … How many actors of color are on Broadway? How many writers of color are on Broadway? How many Black women have been able to do this? How many Black designers have been able to do this? And when you really start to look at the numbers and the numbers being near zero, it’s like all the possibility, and success, and excitement that you generate on the production just dies.
“My heart gets broken over and over again when I’m reminded that no Black women are writing their own music for musicals on Broadway. No Black women are directing shows on Broadway. Lighting designers, set designers, sound designers, producers, casting directors. And then all the way up to the people that own those buildings. When you look at the totality of that, it can feel extremely supremacist. And in order to keep going, I have to have amnesia, and just be like, ‘We are soldiering on.’ ”
Staffing and Leadership
Broadway is the most visible, revenue-generating part of American theater. It’s where tourists go when they visit New York, and its awards ceremony, the Tonys, is broadcast live on national television. Broadway is where artists can earn a salary that allows them to support themselves in New York. (Off-Broadway and regional theater pay quite a bit less, creating an economic hurdle for artists who don’t have family members to subsidize their living expenses. For example, Leslie Odom Jr. was making just $ 400 a week to play Aaron Burr in Hamilton during its wildly successful run at the off-Broadway Public Theater.)
Yet a small group of theater owners and commercial producers decide what plays in Broadway’s 41 theaters. Six of those 41 theaters are nonprofit and the rest are owned by just three groups: the Shubert, Jujamcyn and Nederlander organizations. The trade group representing the theaters has a 50-member board. Currently, just two are Black.
Shifting the status quo on Broadway will take more than just increasing the number of plays and musicals written by BIPOC artists and the number of BIPOC producers. One of #WeSeeYouWAT’s demands is to designate the Apollo Theater as a Broadway house, which would make productions there eligible for the Tonys and also aid in their marketing. White suggested doing the same for St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
“The spaces are a large part of it, because first of all, there’s no Black people that own Broadway spaces,” White said. “There’s a very small group of people that own spaces, and you have to get their permission to do the show there. But let’s say you can raise all the money [to put on a show], you can do what you need to do and you still can’t get your show there. So the only other option is to have more spaces.”
Shows make it to Broadway in different ways. Sometimes, well-known playwrights and composers, such as Letts or Stephen Sondheim, get commissions from commercial producers who have long-standing connections with theater owners. In other instances, such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or Matilda, shows transfer after buzzy runs in London’s West End. American shows may start in Boston, Chicago or San Diego before transferring, or at theater festivals such as the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Often, as with Hamilton or Slave Play, a show transfers after a successful run at an off-Broadway theater in New York.
Regardless, commercial producers must meet with the Nederlander, Shubert or Jujamcyn organizations and court their approval to lease space. Often, playwrights, composers and book writers — the creators of the work — are excluded from those conversations. Harris was a notable exception because he insisted on being a producer on Slave Play, which revolves around a therapeutic retreat for interracial couples who aren’t connecting sexually.
“Recognizing that I had to explain to these people why my play needed to be on Broadway and not Martin McDonagh‘s was a very daunting task,” Harris said as he recounted the experience. “And I also know that it was a thing that had a lot of pressure on it because there are rules in people’s brains and in their subconscious about what is and isn’t a Broadway-worthy show. … It’s like you’re meeting a mafia boss in a way. And again, that’s no shade. That’s just the fact.”
He compared his show to Broadway productions of Look Back in Anger in the ’50s or Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in the ’70s. “I don’t think that anything that’s happening in Slave Play is anywhere near as radical as what’s happening in those plays.”
“I think that, moreover, me saying, ‘Here is the path to a young audience,’ was what charmed them into doing it,” he said. “One of the things that gets lost in these conversations about what is and isn’t on Broadway and who wants things on Broadway and who doesn’t is that none of those people actually want to be irrelevant. They just want to make money.”
The circuitous routes to Broadway mean that the changes Black artists are demanding must occur in the production pipeline. Jacob Padrón, the artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, founded the Sol Project in 2016 with the intention of getting more work by Latino theatermakers produced by working in concert with off-Broadway New York theaters. Padrón set a goal of ushering in 12 world premieres and he’s halfway there. But he and Mendizábal, who also works with the Sol Project, found themselves doing much more than introducing Latino playwrights to artistic directors.
“I don’t know that when we started the Sol Project, that we knew how much activism was going to really center our work in terms of having to have really difficult conversations about race and racism with these artistic directors who were leading companies that were really entrenched,” Mendizábal said. “A lot of white fragility, a lot of just really problematic stuff came up as we tried to navigate these partnerships.
“Having to talk about how you talk to audiences that you don’t normally have relationships with. How do we want to think about the marketing, the way that you’re actually talking about this play that is written by a person of color? It was about systemic intervention. It was about changing the whole apparatus around how a theater company supports people of color.”
The off-Broadway theater is ruled by a different model than Broadway (excluding the six Broadway houses that are nonprofit). In the off-Broadway realm, artistic directors hold a great deal of power, and their programming decisions can, for a lucky few, amount to winning the lottery.
Take, for instance, Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater. His decision to program Hamilton, and the show’s ensuing popularity, was a key part of its transition to Broadway. The same could be said of Jim Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop. His decision to program Slave Play was one of the first in a line of steps that culminated with the show transferring to Broadway. Work that doesn’t get staged can’t be seen by commercial producers. And artistic directors hold the keys to what gets staged. Yet the power to introduce new shows that could eventually play on the large Midtown stages is concentrated in a small group of people who are overwhelmingly white.
Mendizábal and Padrón say they would like to see different, more experimental models of leadership that democratize the process. So did Harris, who suggested seasoned artistic directors step aside and make room for new individuals, or for those programming decisions to be made by a diversified committee.
“One dream that I have is that … all of these people who have held their positions for longer than I have been alive as a human being — which is crazy — would say, ‘Listen, I understand that I have a wealth of expertise and a wealth of information to give over to a new community of thoughtful, excited people who are the same age I was when I helped start this company,’ ” Harris said. “ ‘So I’m going to take a step back, and I’m going to give my artistic directorship to Whitney White. … Let’s give it to her and see what she does with it.’ ”
Diversifying Broadway also means reaching audiences that are younger, Blacker and browner. In the 2018-19 season, Broadway audiences were 74% white, 8.6% Asian, 8% Latino and 3.9% Black, according to the Broadway League. Those audiences were, on average, 68.3% female. Changing that mix will require expanding ideas of what will do well commercially, as well as the metrics for determining success.
In September 2019, the New York Post declared that “Slave Play may be provocative, but it sure isn’t selling tickets.” The article said the show was losing money in previews and might have to close before the end of its scheduled 17-week run. In reality, Slave Play extended its run by two weeks.
“I know that most shows don’t make money on Broadway,” Harris said. “And so they put a larger onus of success on my show because it was a show about Black people and by a young Black person who was very loud about their ability to get a young audience. They ignored the fact that my very young producers, my very diverse producers, worked so very hard to make sure that not only my audience could get in to see my play, but also were seeing it affordably. And they ignored the fact that we might not have been selling our tickets at the highest rate that everyone else was selling theirs at, and therefore not bringing in the largest chunk of change, but we did create a model that more shows could use of giving people affordable tickets and having high attendance rates.”
His frustration reflects a larger trend on Broadway. The number of seats in theaters remains the same, but revenues have grown as ticket prices have climbed higher.
“Explain to me why it’s OK for an average ticket price to be a hundred and some dollars. Why shouldn’t the average ticket price be $ 79?” Harris said. “Because that sort of change would make more space for work that doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s work.
“People will pay $ 150-$ 200 to see Beyoncé because they know it’s f—ing good. But when you’re rolling the dice on a play, you don’t know that.”
Reviews from sites such as Show-Score, which functions as the New York theater equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, can help playgoers decide whether their money will be well spent. But those sites, and the ranks of professional critics, are disproportionately white, and evaluate shows through a white gaze. The Black audience isn’t underserved; it’s barely provided prestige analysis from people who look like them — something that white theatergoers take for granted.
Expanding Broadway’s reach and name recognition from the theater district in Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx would also go a long way in meeting underserved audiences where they are. But expanding Broadway beyond Manhattan introduces more cans and more worms. If a Broadway theater can be located in the outer boroughs, why not extend the branding to theaters in Chicago, or Boston, or elsewhere? Those are negotiations that must be worked out between the Broadway League and groups such as #WeSeeYouWAT calling for big structural change.
But overall, rather than continuing to shift responsibility to audiences to roll the dice on new and nontraditional work, artists say it’s up to theaters’ power brokers to do it. Still, they’re skeptical that such a shift will take place.
“It’s such a beast in terms of the capitalism around it, and I also think in terms of who are the gatekeepers that are running these Broadway theaters,” Padrón said. “I want to be optimistic in saying that what I envision is a more equitable, a more kaleidoscopic, a more just community. When I think about Broadway, I just don’t know if that will be the reality, even with this reckoning that is happening.”
Mendizábal invoked Harris and Slave Play as an example of what’s possible when producers are willing to take risks.
“I still have this like, 12-year-old little boy dream of what Broadway could be — that really reflects the world that we see on the subway, the world that really is New York,” Mendizábal said. “I think there’s a part of me that’s still almost ignorantly hopeful about it. But it’s going to take a lot of systemic change and a lot of radical producing.”