See Us, Trust Us, Employ Us: Broadway’s Women of Color on Confronting Racism—and Reshaping Theater
Debbie Allen, Dominique Morisseau, the sisters behind ‘Women of Color on Broadway,’ and others tell Tim Teeman about confronting racism, and shaping a future of inclusive theater.
It was 1980. Debbie Allen was yet to find mainstream celebrity in the TV show Fame as Lydia Grant (and all her subsequent success as a multi-award winning actor, director, and choreographer). She had just appeared in the movie that preceded the TV show—and been nominated for her first Tony Award, for her role as Anita in West Side Story.
She recalled to The Daily Beast one evening walking across Times Square with a producer from the show, “who I will let be nameless. He was talking about how great I was in West Side Story and this and that and the other, when he said, ‘But you know Debbie, you just have to remember that you’re black.’
“And I was wondering, ‘When did he think I ever forgot it?’
“He was letting me know I was probably not going to win the Tony Award, and said it in a way that I was not in any way thinking. I was quite shocked. I didn’t say anything, and that was somebody who thought they were being supportive saying something that was very out there.” (That year, Priscilla Lopez would win the Tony. Allen won the Drama Desk award for outstanding feature actress in a musical.)
It is 2019. Cynthia Meng went to an audition recently for a keyboard player in a major New York show. She was the only woman, and woman of color, in the room. “Everyone else was white and male,” Meng, an Asian-American professional musician and music director, told The Daily Beast. Having recently worked on the Tony-winning Hadestown—with its diverse cast, musicians, and behind-the-scenes crew—she had “forgotten that this was the norm.”
The composition of the room served as a reminder, despite all the fine words spoken these days around increasing diversity and inclusion, “of how much work still needs to be done.”
The experiences of women of color on Broadway span generations and professions. Candice Marie Woods, who plays Diana Ross in the Tony-winning Broadway hit Ain’t Too Proud—the Life and Times of the Temptations, recently came out, and wants to help other LGBTQ people as well as helping Broadway evolve in the characters it crafts for performers of color.
She told The Daily Beast she was one of the only black women in her classes when she trained as a dancer. “In musical theater I was the token black girl in a lot of productions. One of the good things was I got to learn to find my inner strength and own peace to be in that space where you feel different. Until Ain’t Too Proud, I have never been in a musical where the whole cast, bar one actor, is black. It has been wonderful.”
Then there are the systemic issues of racism that Broadway inevitably encapsulates. “Do I think that Broadway is an old bastion of white, patriarchal supremacy?” mused Dominique Morisseau, Tony-nominated playwright of the book of Ain’t Too Proud. “Yes, but I think the entire culture is, so how is Broadway going to get away from where we are as a nation? It’s not. I think we have to push it.” Cracks are appearing in this edifice, said Morisseau, “but how much is Broadway willing to risk and sacrifice to achieve true diversity?”
That question remains to be confronted and answered—and the women talk more deeply about their experiences below—but increasingly women of color are building their own table rather than simply asking for a seat, almost 70 years since Juanita Hall became the first black performer to win a Tony Award in 1950 for her role in South Pacific.
Two sisters doing it for themselves
It all started in Jersey City, New Jersey. For sisters Victoria Velazquez and Alexia Sielo, music was a constant presence in their lives and home. Their mom was an R&B recording artist and their dad trained at Opera Ebony, America’s longest surviving African-American opera company. Later, he would become his wife’s manager.
The family attended Broadway shows and concerts together, and made three gospel albums together. The love of music would continue for the sisters, with Velazquez studying the business of the music industry at New York University while Sielo studied musical theater at New York Film Academy. Both have found that producers have sometimes fixed and stereotypical ideas of the characters they want people of color to fill on stage. Their father advised Sielo only to do roles she felt comfortable with.
Frustrated by the limited opportunities on Broadway, where few shows featured women of color, Sielo expressed her concern to Velazquez about finding work. Velazquez, who is inspired by the producer Clive Davis, said a university course had taught her to make her own opportunities, and she wanted to help her sister do the same.
Out of a mixture of frustration and desire for collective empowerment and change, the sisters co-founded the group Women of Color on Broadway. The group is meant to be many-purposed, providing both support and advocacy.
The sisters started with what they know best—music, producing hour-long concerts that are meant to be fun but also provide an opportunity “to look back at the African-American, Latin and Asian women before us who paved a way for other women of color, and diversity, on Broadway.” (The sisters themselves have a mixed African-American and Puerto Rican heritage.)
“A lot of women were trying to break into an industry traditionally filled with seasoned, mostly male professionals who are uncomfortable with change,” Velazquez told The Daily Beast. “A lot of women and people of color are trying to create a community of coming together so they can come up as one to approach this, and try something new. It’s the start of an evolution.”
The Women of Color on Broadway concerts’ focus is on performers, while acknowledging—as the group itself does in its membership—the contributions of those “behind the desk,” including writers, directors, and other creative backstage staff.
The concerts celebrate singers like Anne Brown, who played Bess in the original Porgy and Bess, and the Tony-winning, Grammy-nominated Melba Moore, the first black woman to replace a white actress (Diane Keaton) in a lead Broadway role (in Hair). Moore was also the first African-American woman to play Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway. The show features other songs from modern and classic shows, including Hamilton and The Color Purple.
Velazquez has been heartened to see diverse audiences at commercially successful shows like Hamilton and Ain’t Too Proud. Both feature people of color prominently on and off stage. While the group is focused on outreach to people of color, Velazquez added that it “doesn’t mean we don’t want conversations with white writers, male writers, and male producers. We’re committed to women of color advancing their careers and presenting them with great career opportunities. In order to do that we need the voices and ears of everyone in the community.”
Occasionally the support from the theater community has surprised them. Velazquez recalled her sister telling her the story of a white actress who declined the offer to do a promotion of a show featuring a lot of people of color. “She told the producers that it wouldn’t be appropriate, and that they should choose a person of color, which they did. That was very brave of her.”
Velazquez hopes the variety of roles will grow, that directors and producers will audition and cast widely. The future, she said, would hopefully be more “colorful,” where the stage and audience are filled with as many different kinds of faces as her New York City neighborhood.
Certainly, in recent seasons there have been positive signs on the stage, said Velazquez, such as the color-blind (or color-conscious) casting of Aisha Jackson as the understudy for Patti Murin’s Anna in Frozen (Jackson made her first on-stage appearance as Anna in March 2018), and Brittney Johnson being the first woman of color to play Glinda in Wicked.
Noma Dumezweni starred as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Nicolette Robinson played Jenna in Waitress, and Christiani Pitts played Ann Darrow in the critically savaged King Kong.
“It’s a slow process,” said Velazquez. “But hopefully we’ll get to a place where these casting choices are not a ‘first time,’ and just unimportant, and that women of color can just be cast as people, as any other actor. I hope it’s not an isolated trend, but indicative of a wider shift and producers see it as their responsibility going forward. Producers have the money. I’d say to them, ‘Listen and be open.’”
Christine Toy Johnson, chair of Equity’s National EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Committee, recognizes the phenomenon of some producers and directors treating diversity as a box-ticking exercise, although she likes to think it may lead to more diverse casting. “If we get into the room both physically and philosophically, the teams of writers and directors and everyone else have to be open to seeing us and giving fair consideration to us.”
However, she added, “It’s maddening we’re still having to express why the American landscape of storytelling should reflect the American landscape of human beings.”
Martine Sainvil, spokesperson for The Broadway League, said ensuring true diversity on and off stage was “a challenge the entire industry is working on. We’re not there yet, but the effort is being put in to try to do better.” Theaters and shows faced the “ongoing challenge of reinforcing Broadway as an idea.” Audiences needed to know shows were actually playing, marketing departments needed to target specific audiences.
The organization began its Broadway Bridges scheme in 2017 with the goal of ensuring every New York public high school student attends a Broadway show before they graduate.
Sainvil said plays with themes of diversity and diverse casts and characters attracted diverse audiences.
But while Broadway producers and financiers may be moved to finance such surefire blockbusters as The Lion King and Aladdin (both with significant people of color casts), it is not a guaranteed thing that they back more thematically challenging shows, or shows where there are not just people of color in the casts but leading that cast (or in significant roles), and whose character powers the narrative, and in which race/racism itself is a significant theme.
The dream is to have a breakout hit like Hamilton, or the buzzy presence of shows like Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Choir Boy, Hadestown, Ain’t Too Proud, and American Son. Tony winner Karen Olivo is playing Satine in Moulin Rouge!.
Not every show is a critical or commercial success. And not every show has a star like Audra McDonald, who recently delivered a brilliant performance in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (When McDonald won the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Play for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill five years ago, she also became the first performer to win six Tony awards, and the first to win in all four acting categories—in the leading and supporting categories for both plays and musicals.)
The star power of actors like McDonald sells tickets. Off-Broadway, future Broadway shows can seed and bloom, and there have been standout, people of color-led shows like the much-acclaimed Fairview, A Strange Loop, April Matthis’ wonderful performance in Toni Stone, School Girls: Or the African Mean Girls Play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine, and Slave Play, itself soon to open on Broadway. Tina—The Tina Turner Musical will also open on Broadway this autumn.
Morisseau, who pushed for a diverse marketing campaign when her show Pipeline was produced at Lincoln Center, said marketing companies needed to figure out new ways to sell shows to audiences of color.
“Risk needs to be taken and attention needs to be given to audiences of color and younger generations of all backgrounds,” said Morisseau. “Broadway has not tapped into the buying power of audiences of color, and how to approach them about buying those tickets. That’s a failure.”
‘Representation within the underrepresented’
Issues of race and racism on Broadway are multi-layered, encompassing the challenges faced by those who work there on and off stage, as well as the kinds of plays being produced, financed, and seen on stages, the kinds of characters within those plays, and the composition of audiences going to see the productions.
According to the most recent statistics from the 2017-18 season from The Broadway League, almost three-quarters of Broadway’s audience is white, although it is (very slowly) becoming more diverse.
Did Velazquez consider Broadway to be institutionally racist? “Yes, it’s naturally racist because of the history we’re trying to change. With something that’s over 100 years old, you can’t deny there’s lot of racial tension, and Broadway is a racist industry and the entertainment industry is a racist industry, in the recording industry, in TV, and in Hollywood.”
Women of Color on Broadway said that between 2008 and 2015 people of color represented less than 25 percent of the theater industry. Last year, 196 individuals were hired as directors, writers, choreographers, and designers for more than 130 Broadway shows. Of that total, only 13 percent of directors, 24 percent of choreographers, and 13 percent of writers were women.
The union Actors’ Equity’s first study of diversity, published in 2017, showed that women and members of color have fewer work opportunities, and often draw lower salaries when they do find work. The study examined the casts of new productions that opened between 2013 and 2015, covering Broadway and production tours as well as off-Broadway contracts.
The number of women of color who were classified as principals in plays, musicals, as members of the chorus, and as stage managers was dramatically lower than any other demographic.
An Actors’ Equity spokesperson indicated that the study also found that women were underrepresented as principal in a play (women made up only 35 percent of contracts), principal in a musical (42 percent of contracts), and stage manager (37 percent of contracts). Women who find work also draw lower salaries in both principal in a musical and chorus contracts.
Caucasians made up a majority of all onstage contracts—principal in a play (65 percent of contracts), principal in a musical (66 percent of contracts), and chorus (57 percent of contracts). Caucasians were generally hired with higher contractual salaries. African-American members reported salaries 10 percent lower than the average in principal in a play roles, for example.
Seventy-seven percent of stage manager contracts on the Broadway and production tours went to Caucasians. Over three years there were only six contracts given to African-American members.
An Equity spokesperson emphasized these were only Equity statistics. Without the campaigning and representational muscle of a union, “it’s not unreasonable to conclude the problem is more stark in non-Equity houses.” (Actors’ Equity is planning a second diversity study, most likely next spring.)
At this year’s Women’s Day on Broadway, Julia Jordan, playwright, screenwriter, founder, and co-executive director of the Lillys, presented statistics that simultaneously spanned the gamut of depressing to cautiously hopeful.
The Lillys, set up in 2010 to advocate for gender parity at all levels of theatrical production (and named after Lillian Hellman), oversees “The Count,” a statistical analysis of women working in theater undertaken in partnership with the Dramatists Guild.
The analysis has been conducted twice, once from 2011 to 2014, and then from 2016 to 2017. In the first survey, just over 3.4 percent of work being produced in American theater was by women of color; that figure almost doubled in the second surveying period, to 6.1 percent.
Of plays on Broadway, none were by women of color in the 1998-99 season, Jordan said. It was the same figure in the 2008-09 season, and in the 2018-19 season, of the eight shows by women on Broadway, two were by women of color; “representation within the underrepresented,” as Jordan put it, adding that there had been zero female directors of color this season.
Jordan noted that the U.S. Census estimates that the country is made up of 20 percent women of color; the same figure went for those receiving B.A. degrees in literature, B.A. degrees in performing arts, and new dramatists at the Playwrights Center. “There’s no shortage of women of color in the pipeline—until production,” said Jordan. (The Lillys did not return a request for comment for this article.)
The most recent Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s annual study of Ethnic Representation on New York City stages for the 2016–17 season revealed, as Playbill reported in March, that 95 percent of all plays and musicals were both written and directed by Caucasian artists.
Playbill reported: “African-American playwrights were represented at 4.1 percent and MENA playwrights at 1.4 percent. According to the survey, the Broadway season featured no plays or musicals by Latinx, Asian-American, or American Indian/Native/First Nation playwrights, nor playwrights with disabilities.”
Of all playwrights, 75.4 percent were male and 24.6 percent female. According to Playbill, “Eighty-nine percent of playwrights produced on Broadway were male and 11 percent female. Female directors fared only slightly better than female playwrights, representing 31.1 percent. Only 0.8 percent of directors included in the survey were non-binary.”
Working in this environment, as the women of color who spoke to The Daily Beast made clear, can be challenging, frustrating, and also immensely fulfilling—a roller coaster of experiences, good and bad.
Candice Marie Woods: ‘It feels like family, a unity we all share’
In one production, which she declined to name, Candice Marie Woods had played the only black character and had her face cut from promotional materials. “The idea, I guess, was that I somehow didn’t work for the target audience, and so my face wasn’t needed, which was very discouraging and alarming.”
To be included in such promotional activities would have made Woods feel as if all her effort had been worth it. “Actually,” she corrected herself, “there were hurdles I jumped through and over other girls didn’t, like painting my shoes a different color or having to find different foundations, or finding things that worked for my hair. Going that extra mile and not being included in the overall promotion of the show was hurtful.”
But Woods did not want to burn bridges, so she buckled down and worked. “I didn’t want to ever be seen as a ‘difficult person,’ because people of color get titled that too.”
Considering the racism she has faced, Woods recalled the number of times directors have wanted her to be “sassy.” At 21, it was “thrilling” to be on stage; it was only later that she questioned the number of “aggressive” black roles she was asked to do.
“There are a lot of little micro-aggressions like that,” Woods said. She would nod, did as she was told, then talk to other women of color for solace, strength, and to compare experiences. “A lot of the time I was surrounded by people who did not look like me. I didn’t always feel I had someone to turn to.”
Working in an almost all-black company in Ain’t Too Proud, Woods said, was “beautiful. I used to pray for the moment to be in a production like this because I hadn’t had that experience. It was everything I had prayed for and dreamed of. It’s the college I never went to, and the sorority I was never part of. It feels like family, a unity we all share. We pray before every show, we lift each other up, share our experiences.
“A lot of people in this production I’ve known for years. It’s beautiful not only to share this experience but to see these black men shine in their blackness and come through in one of the biggest hits on Broadway right now. I’m extremely grateful for that, and it’s a complete contrast to the other experiences I have been in.”
To see book writer Morisseau “behind the table” was a powerful moment, Woods said, as “I had never seen a black woman behind the table. It made me think, ‘Oh, not only can I be here, I can be behind the table one day.’ It gives that sense of confidence. Change is happening. It’s subtle, but it’s coming.”
Debbie Allen: ‘I would feel remiss to say Broadway is racist’
Debbie Allen recalled first experiencing racism when she and her mother tried to get her into her ballet school of choice at 8. “I was 14 when they finally let me come,” Allen recalled. “I was told I would never make it in this dance world, this ballet world at all, and that I should go into something different. That just wasn’t true.” Allen laughed. “I did pretty good.”
When Allen was growing up, “everything was white-only in Texas and segregated. Growing up in Texas at that time, racism was part of everyday life. It’s how we came into the world, dealing with that. But on the dance floor, everything is equal. It all comes down to what you do in that room.”
Allen finally got the place she deserved, embarked on a stellar career, and ultimately worked with the likes of Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins. Her ballet mistress Tatiana Semenova “kicked my ass all the time to become the dancer everybody came to love, and taught me the backbone of my balletic technique.”
By the time Allen got to Broadway, she was an accomplished performer. At auditions in the early 1970s, she heard more than once, “We don’t need any more brunettes in this show.” Allen said, “I knew that was code for ‘We don’t want any black women in this show.’ I was beyond qualified. I knew the person telling me that, who I ended up working with many years later, was following an edict from producers. I knew I would have to keep going. It didn’t stop me. I wouldn’t let it stop me. It was a pause at most. Then I started working everywhere. The black community in theatre and the arts has always been very strong.”
Allen played Beneatha in Raisin, the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1974, and Anita in West Side Story. Allen said that playing Puerto Rican was helped by her experience of living in Mexico with her mom and sister for a few years when younger.
That role was cast color-blind, as was her title role in Sweet Charity, directed by Bob Fosse in 1986, for which Allen won the Astaire Award for Best Dancer, and another Tony nomination.
“I remember Bob asking me, ‘Debbie, do you want (her character’s husband) Oscar to be black or do you care if he’s white?’ I said, ‘I just want him to be good Bob.’” (The part went to white actor Michael Rupert.) In 2008, Allen made her Broadway directing debut, with an adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Phylicia Rashad, James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, and Anika Noni Rose.
Allen recalled The Wiz opening on Broadway is 1975, and the reviews being “scathing” about Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy, “as if we had put Jesus back on the cross by having someone play what Judy Garland had played.”
But The Wiz, an all-black retelling of The Wizard of Oz, “was something new, and Stephanie Mills was amazing and never to be rivaled in that role. The reviews said things about what she looked like as opposed to the amazingly gifted child she was, and how powerful and dynamic her voice was.” (The Wiz’s director, Geoffrey Holder, made Tony Award history to become the first African-American director to win Best Director of a Musical.)
Fosse also cast Ben Vereen in the original production of Pippin in 1973, Allen noted. “Bob was always looking for what was going to be dynamic, interesting, and challenging for the audience.”
Racism on Broadway, said Allen, was “part of a larger, older conversation about racism that has not been resolved in this country yet.” She never felt isolated on Broadway, she said; but she recalled being the only black person in the room when choreographing Fame, and when she has directed, and while choreographing the Academy Awards for 10 years.
Allen’s experience of theater is that it is more open than Hollywood and the world of television. She recalled the thrill of seeing color-blind casting in plays staged by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I would feel remiss to say Broadway is racist. That would be horrible. My niece Condola Rashad played in A Doll’s House, and played Saint Joan on Broadway. Broadway is not racist. I would say there is always going to be people who have that mentality. We can’t separate Broadway from the rest of the world. I want to see good theatre and creativity and really gifted and talented people do what they do—white, black, Asian, Latin, whatever. I think Broadway is very welcoming to black people and diversity.”
Cynthia Meng: ‘Seeing Asian people on stage would have been so inspiring to me as a kid’
Cynthia Meng music-produced the last Women of Color on Broadway show, and was inspired to see the evolution of female artists of color through history. As an Asian-American, Meng has been asking herself about the kinds of stories she would like to see of her community, which is particularly poorly represented on Broadway.
“I didn’t learn about musical theater from my family,” Meng said. “It was not an artform my parents grew up with or experienced at home. Naturally, I didn’t even know musical theater could be a career. So, for me, visibility and seeing Asian people in the arts on stage would have been so inspiring to me as a kid. I would have turned to this career a lot sooner and considered it a possibility. I want to see more now. I want to see other people who look like me on the stage.”
Meng’s introduction to theater came via Glee, “which had two Asian characters in it. ‘Oh my gosh, that’s new for me,’ I remember thinking, as I watched them sing and be in this career that wasn’t typical to see Asian actors in.”
Meng, who is 25 and a member of Women of Color on Broadway, said: “I would say that I have been lucky to be in quite a few rooms with women and people of color. But I do think, behind the desk, there is a dearth of not just women but people of color and other underrepresented groups. There was one female director of a musical this season, and it was the awesome show I worked on—Hadestown.
“It was really great to see that be recognized (Rachel Chavkin won one of the show’s seven Tonys, among many other awards). It’s a little disheartening. In the end, the people behind the table are the gatekeepers and storytellers. We need diverse voices. Because of the way the teams are set up, we sometimes miss out on the perspectives of people who are part of the world and life. The team behind the desk should represent the diversity we want to see on the stage.”
It’s usual, Meng said, to see all men in an orchestra pit too, despite the “excellent work” of Maestra, a community of female composers, music directors, and theater musicians founded by Georgia Stitt in 2017.
Those who are really committed to diversity on and off stage have come from communities whose identities are often marginalized, such as the female creative team of Hadestown. The creative process was genuinely collaborative, with all voices valued and welcome, said Meng. “It started from the top down.”
Meng, like Allen, would not say in it itself Broadway was racist “maybe because that seems like such a harsh accusation to label on such a large community of people. It was definitely brought up in racist traditions. The people who were in power and are in power to some extent still are were brought up with racist ideologies, and that affected the stage. Theater, as we’ve seen in the past, was a hot-bed of racism with black-face and yellow-face. Broadway benefited from racism and certainly espoused it.”
Meng is “very conflicted” about the recently revived Broadway show, Miss Saigon—she loves the catchy songs, recognizes how “problematic” the story is, and welcomes the amount of work it has given to Asian actors, who—Meng said—will ask each other, “How many Saigons have you done?”
In her own theater life, as noted by others in this piece, Meng said she had experienced a series of micro-aggressions. “It’s never as full-on as someone calling you a ‘chink.’ It’s more having people, so many times, insist on guessing where my parents are from.
“When they do this, people say to me, ‘I can tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people so well. It’s so odd and weird. Why are they so fixated about what I look like and my background. It’s like me saying I can visually tell the difference between an Irish and Scottish person. These random things build up, and you build a skin around it.”
Earlier this year, Tony Award-winning Hadestown star André de Shields told The Daily Beast, “The Great White Way is not called that for racial reasons, but because many years ago it was electrified and it appeared as if it were daylight all the time. But it’s a marvelous metaphor if you want to discuss racism, because for so many generations we of color have been taught this is an inhospitable environment.”
De Shields’ words resonated “a lot” with Meng. “My parents certainly felt that way—as a kid, I know I was discouraged from diving further into the world of theatre because those people [‘true Americans’] will ‘never accept you as their own,’ which I think could also explain why Asian-Americans specifically weren’t as involved in the art form until much later into its history. Or at least, my parents never saw this art form as something belonging to them.
“I think that puts into context better my thoughts about if the industry is racist. It’s kind of like a two-way street: if the environment is “inhospitable", as André puts it, to people of color, then they in turn will build up a wall or an expectation that they shouldn't pursue such things either, and that itself contributes to the lack of such people in the industry. And the people who do enter always face the idea that they are the ‘other.’”
Dominique Morisseau: ‘These micro-racisms add up, and chip away at you, a little bit at a time’
Morisseau, the Tony-nominated playwright and MacArthur “genius award” winner who wrote the book for Ain’t Too Proud, said that women of color are “scarce” on Broadway. “And we also have to negotiate the power of our voice, particularly because Broadway is such a commercial space, and decisions about our work get made with that angle in mind.” Off-Broadway or in local theaters, the writers have more power, Morisseau said.
“Behind the desk,” Morisseau wanted to see more women directors of color, crew, technical, and design staff, and producers of color who have a key role in shaping shows artistically.
“Because there aren’t enough of us working behind the scenes, I think people take for granted the value of our perspectives,” Morisseau added. “I am often asked to be considerate of an older affluent white audience, which is opposite to where my personal allegiances are. My personal allegiances are to a younger and more diverse generation of audience members. When I come into a commercial space I bring that perspective, and advocate for placing value on those communities.”
That perspective, said Morisseau, came from her home-town of Detroit, as well as Los Angeles and New York, “and by that I mean the boroughs of New York where I taught for 10 years.” She did not compromise on her vision for Ain’t Too Proud, she said, and does not want her work “measured against the ideology of one section of the population.”
The overt racism of President Trump as an appalling new bar has led to people not identifying the more subliminal, insidious forms of racism as such, Morisseau said.
“The more common racism we face is polite. Overt racism kills our bodies, the racists in the middle of the night who burn crosses on the lawn. The more familiar killers are quiet, and their racism kills our souls, and I have experienced that on numerous occasions within the theater.
“Sometimes it will be audience members policing my reaction to the work I’m seeing. I have gone to the theater, and had someone sit in the seat reserved for me as the playwright, and who doesn’t think I need to be in that seat. I’ve been told my natural hair is too big for the people who can’t see sitting behind me. At another play, several cast members were called ‘colored’ by audience members and some of the staff. Personally, donors or directors who are older than me have treated me, a woman of 41, as their little pet, patting my hair, squeezing my cheeks. When I have said, ‘Please don’t touch my hair,’ I have been accused of yelling.
“Actually, I have been accused of yelling in ways that have made me furious, by white men who really do yell at each other. I do not yell, but if I assert what I believe it is considered yelling. That’s become so typical, it’s almost a joke. There has been a lot of misreading of my tone throughout my career.”
She has told producers who claim she once yelled at them that they are insulting her character, and her ability to get her point across without yelling. “These micro-racisms add up, and chip away at you, a little bit at a time,” Morisseau said.
Then there is the ignoring or sidelining of people of color-created work. Morisseau recalled submitting her first play about a group of black women at a Detroit abortion clinic to a development program, “and one of the criticisms of the work was that the work did not specify these were black women. The women were assumed to be white, unless stated otherwise.”
Several times, Morisseau has felt critiques of her work, “when it does not center whiteness or even talk about de-centering whiteness, it is treated it a lot harsher than when whiteness is not mentioned at all, or when somehow white people don’t have any reason to feel uncomfortable watching it. If it doesn’t do anything to make white people feel uncomfortable, or goes out of its way to make white people feel uncomfortable—those two things are applauded right now. But work that doesn’t center whiteness at all gets insulted.
“It feels like those critics are not judging the quality of the work, but what they perceive the ideology of the work to be. I don’t like how journalists give work a thumbs up, thumbs down. It doesn’t feel nuanced to me. I’d rather see journalism that didn’t kill other writers’ work.”
Alexia Sielo: ‘Broadway can do better. I don’t know if it will’
Alexia Sielo has worked as a professional actor for a year and a half, and said in almost every production she has been in there has been a form of racism, “even if people didn’t mean it.” As both black and Latina, she has noted that she is not considered, “black or Hispanic enough, or too black because of the color of my skin” for certain roles.
“The good thing about being a black actor on Broadway right now is that there are a lot of opportunities for us. It’s a kind of negative and a positive.” It was positive, she said, in that it meant actors like her had a showcase for their talents; the negative “is going into a room and being the only person of color who has the balls to be there or say they won’t play certain characters.”
Sielo said that black, Latin, and Hispanic women want to perform, but worry “they don’t have a fighting chance of a callback because of culture or the color of their skin.” She is concerned that diverse casting is a trend. Permanent change is needed, which can be achieved by educating the next generation into thinking of diversity as a necessity. “There’s absolutely no excuse.”
In another production, it was relayed to her that the feeling was she didn’t fit in with other women in the show. “But I just wasn’t kissing up to anybody. I deserved to be there. I auditioned and got the role. There are cliques in shows: the black actors tend to keep their side and the white actors to theirs. It was like that in high school too.
“Sometimes it’s nothing to do with racism and prejudice, it’s just a lack of education around culture. It needs to be improved. I do my best to talk to everybody. I welcome questions on my blackness and my Latin-ness, no matter how offensive they have been. I try to have an open dialog.”
White producers, Sielo said, often have black stereotypes in mind when casting: “an older, heavy-set woman, or a mezzo-soprano or alto screaming the entire show. You don’t often see a black ingenue cast in a show. A friend who recently starred in a production of a well-known musical played the main character’s wife, and got backlash from people who felt she wasn’t soft enough. But she absolutely was. She kept her hair natural, and to people she didn’t look like an ingenue. She wasn’t looking the way they expected.”
Sielo said she had never faced overt racism, but that—alongside the words of Trump—it has seeped into the general culture. “It’s always been there. I don’t think all of Broadway is racist. I just think certain people raised in a certain way are powerful in the industry, and therefore that affects everyone. Broadway can do better. I don’t know if it will. It’s definitely a process happening right now.”
All change: ‘10 years ago all-male, all-white seasons were commonplace. Today they are virtually non-existent’
“Younger white women have so far been the biggest beneficiaries of the push for parity,” The Lillys’ Julia Jordan told the Women’s Day on Broadway audience earlier this year—older white women and women of color of all ages have not. “Those two groups are our growth opportunity.”
Jordan said the majority of Lillys grants in the past few years had gone to women of color working in theater, and would continue to do so in the organization’s tenth anniversary year.
A sculpture of Raisin In The Sun author Lorraine Hansberry the organization had commissioned would travel to multiple locations around New York City in 2020. The Lillys is also beginning a campaign to raise half a million dollars for grants for women playwrights of color.
“A big systemic problem is child care—theaters have to address it,” said Jordan. “Without it there can be no gender parity, unless there is a complete sea change in culture and biology.”
“To end on a happy note,” she told the Women’s Day on Broadway audience, “10 years ago all-male, all-white seasons were commonplace. Today they are virtually non-existent.”
Equity’s Christine Toy Johnson has been heartened by the number of female directors and producers with shows on Broadway this season, as well as non-binary actors, actors of color, and those with a disability (most notably, Tony winner Ali Stoker).
Toy Johnson—a “pathological optimist,” she told The Daily Beast—noted that the increase in diversity of those working in theater led to an increase in the diversity of what is seen on stage. “As long as we don’t think, ‘Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown’s director) won a Tony. Done. We don’t need to have this conversation any more.’ It’s important we see this as progress, not that we’ve achieved all we need to.”
How to attract more people of color on Broadway as an audience? “The more diverse the show the less homogenously cast and produced, impacts the audience,” said Johnson. “It will get people to see that they’re not only invited, but they belong.” Hamilton, for Johnson, is the apotheosis of a show that achieved this. Shows, said Velazquez, should appeal to people of color audiences as producers of The Wiz did in the mid-1970s, when Velazquez’s father recalled busloads of members of black churches came to see the show.
Velazquez and Sielo think audiences respond well to diverse casting, enjoying seeing people of different kinds alongside one another. “I hope we get there one day. Casting agencies are more conscious about who they pick for roles. They see that eyes are on them right now. That’s a good thing. We have to be more conscious about the kind of people we hire.”
This autumn, as part of an initiative called “The Conversation,” Women of Color on Broadway plans to partner up with high schools and colleges and production companies to introduce young women of color to a variety of Broadway careers, including marketing, musical supervision, lighting, and wardrobe design. The initiative also aims to set up conversations with Broadway women of color actors and internships for young people.
Future hopes: ‘Trust black people. We have been doing big, bold, beautiful things for a long time’
Today, if Candice Marie Woods faces ignorance or insensitivity, she is “happy to correct and enlighten” those who seek to diminish her. Broadway, she feels, should become more open to all marginalized communities, to “people whose stories are not being told, to faces who are not being seen. But they’re there. If only we could understand the Great White Way wasn’t that any more.”
Woods, who came out a couple of years ago, was inspired by the other queer women of color she met in the Bay Area when Ain’t Too Proud toured there. “I found a freer version of who I am, an honest, more transparent version. I fell in love out there, and I also saw people who looked like me. And for the first time in my entire life I felt normal. I didn’t feel like I was alone. I felt like I was part of a community. All this time I didn’t know there was space for me in this LGBTQ community. I was like, ‘What’s this Q?’ Oakland was Black Power, black love, everything. It was so beautiful.”
Woods is proud to be called a “black queer woman.” Up until she came out, she felt “aggressively pushed into a corner” in how people perceived her, and that her voice didn’t matter. “I am a queer black woman on Broadway playing Diana Ross, an iconic role. And I know there are other queer women out there who want to do what I do, but don’t see themselves because people are not discussing it and we’re not writing stories about it.
“I am in a hot Broadway show with a bunch of black people and if you want to see yourself represented, come see it. Sharing that I am queer with people will hopefully help them to see there is more to me, and we should be telling more diverse stories on Broadway.”
Woods also wants to contribute to helping the LGBTQ community in whatever way she can. “We’re in trying times and have to do it. Someone did it for me. I have benefited from other people’s work. I feel responsible to give something back.”
To Broadway producers, Woods said: “Trust us, trust black people. We have been doing big, bold, beautiful things for a long time. Trust our writers, producers, and directors. Say, ‘Let’s make it happen.’” Woods would love to see stories not about slavery or downtrodden black women, but “about people with regular lives that she could recognize. “Black people clip their toenails too,” she said, laughing.
Progress may be slow, but real change can be achieved, said Woods, by “standing together and doing the work to make this change happen.”
The key thing, said Debbie Allen, was for producers of color to pilot projects and maintain creative control, and for more producers to follow them, “because Broadway is a business, not a non-profit. I directed one of the highest-selling plays on Broadway, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Terrence Howard and Phylicia Rashad. It was controversial we were doing it, but it sold out, then went to London and won an Olivier Award. Change happened, and is happening. There have been more shows since then.”
Will Allen, presently starring in, directing, and executive-producing Grey’s Anatomy, return to Broadway again? She laughed. “Yes, if they let me out of here. I’m in lockdown in Shondaland.” Stand by for the Netflix musical, Christmas on The Square, which Allen directed, starring Christine Baranski and Dolly Parton. “We just wrapped it. I loved it, and had the best time in world doing it. It was amazing.”
There has been progress on Broadway, Cynthia Meng said, with better casting and more diversity, and questioning whether Latina stories should be told with non-Latina actors, “but there is no way that this is the end. It needs to be keep going.”
Meng mentioned a recent article in the New York Times that celebrated the achievements of a group of female producers on Broadway, “but I noticed they were all white. If there were more producers of color that would really benefit the stories being told on Broadway. The biggest place we can use more diversity on Broadway is in the producing realm.” Her next engagement will be with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes.
In her next show, based on the TV show Soul Train, Dominique Morisseau, together with choreographer Camille A. Brown, and director Kamilah Forbes, will form the first black female creative trio to pilot a Broadway show.
“I wanted to change course and make history on this creative team,” said Morisseau. “That’s how we can do the show we intend. What having three black women heading this show says that there will be things inherently in the culture of the show that we will all have equal access to—and that won’t need to be explained or negotiated. Of course, we will have different ideas, but this is exciting.
“There is always this question when people of color enter a field where they are not dominant; that thinking of, ‘Well we wanted them, but we couldn’t find any capable ones.’ We’re like, ‘No, there’s tons of capable people of color. We were always here. We’re not going to play that game any more.’ We’re excited to change that narrative not just in the show, but in our field.”
Forbes and Morisseau have already started discussing a future, all-woman project. On Broadway, the dream shows Morisseau would like to see are Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky and Flyin’ West.
Morisseau would also like to see her own play, Skeleton Crew, on Broadway. “And then there is the Broadway show I have never seen that maybe I want to create,” she said, laughing softly. “A contemporary musical centering on black women.”