In the year since calls for racial justice echoed through nearly every sector from fashion to Wall Street, New York’s theater district has remained dark. But a pointed reckoning with systemic racism and gross abuses of power in the industry has gained tremendous traction off stage.
Some of it has unfolded in the public square. “We See You White American Theater,” an open letter published in June 2020 calling for anti-racist theater systems, has amassed over 100K signatures and recently reported that more than 100 theatre institutions have responded to its demands.
Karen Olivo shocked fans by stepping back from her lead role in Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! with a call to accountability. Adrienne Warren, star of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, said at a recent Broadway for Racial Justice March in Manhattan, “I ain’t going anywhere, but I’m not signing my name on any contract until Broadway communicates with this community.”
Driven by a swell of grassroots organizing, impassioned demands for action, and an overwhelming rejection of the status quo, a movement has also been swelling behind the scenes. Nearly all of the new shows announced for the upcoming season are written by Black playwrights, including the Broadway premieres of Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II and Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over.
Productions old and new aiming for Broadway’s September return, and the legacy institutions representing the interests of producers and theater employees, can no longer turn a blind eye to the industry’s history of racism and exclusion. Calls for radical change begun last June have turned to hammering out answers and a path forward.
Collectively, the movement has presented a daring vision for a safer and more equitable profession and artform. After months of often trying work behind the scenes, activists are cautiously optimistic about what that future could look like. Organizers hope that actions taken at the ground level—in rehearsal rooms and on individual productions—will lead to institutional change.
Sustainable transformation would mean unwavering long-term commitment from every corner of the business. Real progress will be measured over time, not only by whose stories are told on stage but how nurtured and respected cast and creatives feel behind the scenes. The creep of complacency is always a threat. But activists and industry leaders say the momentum is undeniable.
“Every day the myth that it’s us versus them fizzles off a little bit more”
From community-led organizations like Broadway Advocacy Coalition to individuals speaking out or leading initiatives within their own companies, the movement to make an anti-racist and more inclusive theater industry has been happening from the ground up. “It always starts from practices that are either developed or imagined or demanded by those who are mostly affected,” says Zhailon Levingston, Director of Industry Initiatives at Broadway Advocacy Coalition.
Last June, BAC organized a three-day public dialogue called #BwayForBLM, drawing attention to the experiences of Black theater professionals and insisting on industry transformation. In the intervening year, BAC’s programs have included professional pipeline scholarships for Black theater artists and technicians, and the recent launch of a workshop called Reimagining Equitable Productions (REP).
The program is set to partner with Broadway and touring productions from Disney Theatricals (Frozen, The Lion King, and Aladdin), as well as Tina and the new production of Company starring Patti LuPone. REP will tailor its goals and practices to the needs of individual companies, with the aim of creating and fostering a safe and equitable workplace for everyone involved.
Levingston says that REP workshops will bring together enough production participants, from leadership to staff, that “an understanding of the landscape itself is super clear,” since everyone works on a show from their own perspective. The workshops will aim to center those who are directly impacted by racism and other forms of exclusion, “because they are experts in the way that the policies are lived out,” Levingston says.
Indeed, over at Diana, a new musical about the late Princess of Wales now set to open in November, André Jordan, who is Black, helped organize efforts to create a safer and more equitable workplace. The company successfully lobbied to remove costume designer William Ivey Long, who has previously faced sexual harassment allegations, from continuing to work on the show, though his designs will still be used.
The production also implemented an anonymous digital tip line for company members to voice personal concerns, brought in professional unconscious bias training, and paid for five sessions worth of mental health counseling for its cast, through Darkness Rising, a Black-led nonprofit.
“We felt that the only way we could talk about the changes in the industry were to address the problems in our own show,” Jordan says. “We have this broader line of communication with the producers. Every day the myth that it’s us versus them fizzles off a little bit more, and it becomes a little bit more of a team.“
The production also plans to include a program insert stating its commitment to Black Lives Matter, condemning attacks on Asian Americans, and acknowledging indigenous land. “I hope that would be something that each theater implements and isn't afraid of what effect that [statement] is going to have on their ticket sales,” Jordan says. “We're all coming back into a precarious position where we have to make money, but we can still do it the right way.”
“It’s time for white allies to stand up and do the work”
A more public call for change came on April 22, with the March on Broadway, organized by Black actors Courtney Daniels and Nattalyee Randall. On the heels of reports that uncovered producer Scott Rudin’s long-rumored history of intimidation and abuse, the march called for his removal from the Broadway League.
Though Rudin quit the trade organization for theater owners and producers on his own shortly after, activists continue to insist that the Actors’ Equity add him to the “Do Not Work” list of employers at odds with union standards.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Daniels says of the demonstration that traversed midtown Manhattan with a reported 350-plus participants. In addition to greater inclusion for gender-diverse and disabled artists, the march issued demands for transparency and accountability from Actors’ Equity on its internal efforts to foster diversity.
Following the march itself, Daniels and Randall worked with Broadway vets including Kelli O’Hara, Laura Benanti, and Stephanie J. Block to raise the visibility of their demands. The three stars are among those working on potential riders to union contracts that would promote inclusivity, safety, and anti-racism, the organizers say.
“It’s time for white allies to stand up and do the work,” Randall says. “They gave us our space, now we want them to take over and finish it.”
Union contracts that insist on inclusivity, offer protections to marginalized people, and promote anti-racism could potentially codify the transformational change activists are seeking across all professional theaters. But proposing and insisting on riders that include such language right now falls to the hands of actors and individual productions, as Actors’ Equity has so far taken little action to amend standard contracts. “Our union is not helping us with that whatsoever,” Randall says.
In an emailed statement, Equity spokesperson Brandon Lorenz said the union is “seeking to bargain additional language around racial justice and workplace safety into contracts.” Answering organizers’ demands for financial transparency, Lorenz also disclosed that “17% (more than $1.1 million) of the union’s basic dues are devoted to diversity and inclusion work.” The union also points to its “Diversity and Inclusion Retrofit” program, listing off its support for Black Lives Matter and pledging internal reforms.
But activists say the union badly needs to address racism in its leadership and structure if it has any hope of regaining the trust of its members. “It's hard for a union to protect you when they can't even protect their own house,” Daniels says.
“Actors’ Equity tends to do a lot of the questionable business in the dark”
Many activists accuse Actors’ Equity of offering lip service and inaction, obstructing information from members, and fostering white supremacy in its leadership. “The institution was never meant to be equitable; it was built to be exclusive,” says Davon Williams, who was at the center of a controversy that led the union’s first annual convention of delegates to end with a walkout of Black and other nonwhite members just days after the March on Broadway.
Williams and other witnesses recount that after he was subject to a racist confrontation by a white delegate, their concerns over the incident were dismissed. A virtual walkout followed, effectively ending the convention with lack of sufficient participants to vote on further measures. Williams was among those who drafted and presented the Black Theater Matters Bill, which ultimately passed at the virtual convention with a range of provisions aimed at greater inclusion.
In researching and drafting the bill, Williams says he heard accusations from members of sexual harassment and use of the n-word by Equity leadership. After the convention, Williams says nonwhite delegates were asked to meet with the union’s legal council to provide their accounts of the incident. “The big complaint that we had was, you haven't done any type of anti-racist work with the white [leadership], but you're bringing us in here, essentially, to speak to your lawyers.”
Though confidentiality rules prohibit Williams and other delegates from naming their abusers at the convention, Williams says he’s considering legal representation of his own and is committed to raising his voice. “Actors’ Equity tends to do a lot of the questionable business in the dark,” Williams says. “I found that the more public the stories and situations are, the more Equity feels compelled to do the right thing. Essentially, that's what it's about—just getting them to do the right thing.”
In a letter to members this week, Equity President Kate Shindle wrote, “Although I am deeply saddened and sorry for any pain that was caused at the convention, this experience has presented a true opportunity to identify and interrupt this harmful pattern of behavior,” adding that further discussions are underway and additional steps would be announced in the coming weeks.
Equity spokesperson Lorenz did respond specifically to members’ allegations of racist remarks and sexual harassment from leadership, nor Williams’ account of meeting with the union’s legal council following the convention.
The Broadway League has been more forthcoming about its ongoing and recent efforts to address industry disparities. Conversations about equity and inclusion are “as vibrant as any conversation we have short of re-opening,” says the League’s president Charlotte St. Martin.
Of several commitments made by the League last June, the body has since undertaken unconscious bias training for leadership, appointed two nonwhite members to its board, and led a conversation series around racism and discrimination with industry artists and leaders, among other initiatives. Martin has also promised a sweeping survey of diversity in all aspects of the industry, which won’t begin until live theater resumes in earnest.
The League also recently announced the hiring of Gennean Scott as its first Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, who will begin work in July. Martin says that in addition to joining a handful of existing internal committees touching on diversity and inclusion, Scott will conduct outreach with advocacy organizations and lead equity trainings with League members, among other duties as she creates the role.
“We thought before the racial reckoning and the murder of George Floyd that we were doing more than anybody in the business, certainly in New York, because we had so many programs, we had workforce development, audience development, professional development,” Martin says. “But in retrospect, and stepping back, there’s much more we could do, which we’re attempting to do now.”
Levingston, of Broadway Advocacy Coalition, considers across-the-board engagement from theater owners and producers “all dreaming together at once” to be unique to this moment. “That’s a distinction happening this year that we are committed to perpetuating as much as we can,” he says. “What I want to see from all leadership in this industry is a sense of fearlessness in the work, despite the fact that no one can get this right in one simple action.”
Over at Diana, Jordan has faith that his Broadway debut may also mark a fresh start for the industry. “I am hopeful about an all-around more inclusive Broadway and theater industry, I really, really am,” he says. “I feel confident stepping into this brave new world that we're about to encounter.”