Broadway Is Brimming With Black Playwrights. But for How Long?
Broadway’s prepandemic theater season featured two plays by Black writers, and one of them had been kicking around since 1981. The previous …
Broadway’s prepandemic theater season featured two plays by Black writers, and one of them had been kicking around since 1981. The previous season, there was one such play, and the season before that, zero.
This season, if all goes as planned, there will be at least seven.
The sudden abundance, after decades of scarcity, is a response to criticism the theater industry, like so many others, has confronted since the widespread protests over police brutality that followed last year’s killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Facing scrutiny over what kinds of stories are told onstage, and who makes decisions offstage, Broadway’s gatekeepers have opened their doors to more Black writers, at least for the moment.
“I did not expect it, to be honest with you,” said Douglas Lyons, who turned to writing while performing in the ensemble of “Beautiful.”
Lyons was nothing if not determined. He met Norm Lewis, the much-laureled musical theater performer, when a onetime Elphaba introduced them at a party (Broadway is a very small community). Fandom turned into friendship, and now Lewis is starring in Lyons’s Broadway-bound comedy, “Chicken & Biscuits.”
“He’s a young African American male who said he’s admired my work, and that was an honor to hear,” Lewis said. “He could be my son, and knowing that he’s creating this new frontier, I’m excited to represent that.”
The path to Broadway for “Chicken & Biscuits” was fast and unexpected. The show, about a funeral upended by a family secret, was running at the Queens Theater, which has never before transferred a play to Broadway, when the pandemic forced live theater venues to close. But then Hunter Arnold, a producer who had neither seen the play nor met Lyons, offered to bring the show to Broadway, where it’s scheduled to start previews on Sept. 23 at Circle in the Square Theater.
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the author of “Pass Over,” with two of the play’s actors, Jon Michael Hill, left, and Namir Smallwood. The play is the first production to begin performances on Broadway since the shutdown.Credit…Ike Edeani for The New York Times
“I don’t know if I still believe it yet,” Lyons said. “I didn’t know I had a place here.”
The quick transfer reflects not only this unusual moment, but also Lyons’s persistence. “He probably sent me 20 to 50 emails, submissions to the office, Instagram direct messages,” Arnold said. “I admire a hustler.”
Lyons said years as an actor had taught him to persevere. “I understand, having worked on Broadway as an actor — sometimes you got to go get the thing.”
In addition to “Chicken & Biscuits,” this season’s plays by Black writers include a long-slighted classic (“Trouble in Mind”), an autobiographical reminiscence (“Lackawanna Blues”), two naturalistic dramas (“Clyde’s” and “Skeleton Crew”) and two more formally adventuresome works (“Pass Over” and “Thoughts of a Colored Man”).
“They are seven different plays that examine fundamentally different aspects of the Black experience,” said Lynn Nottage, whose “Clyde’s,” about a truck stop sandwich shop owner managing a staff of formerly incarcerated people, begins previews Nov. 3 at the Hayes Theater.
Nottage is the most celebrated of this season’s playwrights: she is a two-time Pulitzer winner, for “Ruined,” which infamously never made it to Broadway despite a repeatedly extended Off Broadway run in 2009, and “Sweat,” which played on Broadway in 2017.
For most shows, the Broadway audience is — or at least was, before the pandemic — predominantly white. And theater owners have long pointed to that to justify their programming choices.
“I still grapple with why Broadway matters, and why we are so deeply invested in presenting our work in these commercial realms that traditionally have rejected our stories,” Nottage said. “But it’s a really big platform. On Broadway, you’re speaking to the world.”
Like Lyons, most of the writers have never been produced on Broadway.
Keenan Scott II is the author of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which is about a day in the life of seven Black men in Brooklyn, and which begins previews Oct. 1 at the Golden Theater. Scott was a slam poet before turning to theater; for years he produced his own work, with money borrowed from family and friends, at locales including the Frigid Festival and Frostburg State University, his alma mater.
“When I got to college and started reading plays, I wasn’t seeing myself,” he said. “I wasn’t seeing my essence as a young Black man captured onstage.”
Is he worried about how his play will fare? “I worried through my whole 20s, but now in my 30s I’m being confident in the artist I am,” he said.
‘First step on a journey’
The plays are arriving at an existentially challenging moment for Broadway, when theaters have been closed for a year and a half, when the Delta variant has set back the nation’s recovery from Covid, when tourism is way down, New York’s office workers are not yet back, and consumer readiness is, at best, uncertain.
“We have these seven plays coming when we don’t even have audiences yet, so this can’t be a measuring stick for how to move forward — this has to be the first step on a journey,” said Dominique Morisseau, whose “Skeleton Crew,” which starts performances Dec. 21 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is about workers at a floundering automotive plant in her beloved hometown, Detroit. “You don’t get to one-and-done us.”
Morisseau’s plays are widely produced around the United States but have not previously been staged on Broadway; instead she made it there first as the writer of the book for “Ain’t Too Proud,” a musical about the Temptations. She was one of numerous Black artists who said they were simultaneously delighted that so many Black writers are having their works staged on Broadway this season, and worried about the precarious climate in which they are arriving.
“None of us wants to be set up like bait, or test dummies, for coming back from Covid,” she said.
In 1923, “The Chip Woman’s Fortune,” by Willis Richardson, had a brief run at the Frazee Theater, and that one-act play is generally considered the first serious drama by a Black writer to appear on Broadway. In the century since, the industry has grappled with diversity off and on.
Many Black artists have found a creative home on Broadway, but the number of plays by Black writers produced there has remained stubbornly low.
Almost immediately after the George Floyd protests began last year, new and existing organizations representing Black theater artists set about demanding change in the industry. Many of them have been particularly focused on employment issues, pressing for greater diversity on creative teams and backstage, and for more respectful working conditions. But these groups have also called attention to long-simmering questions of whose stories are told, and by whom, on the nation’s most prominent stages.
“What we are seeing is the impact of grass-roots activism, as it relates to the movement for Black lives around the country, and the fruits of that labor coming to bear in the professional theater,” said Eric M. Glover, who teaches dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale.
Seizing an opportunity
The casts of these plays feature some well-known actors: Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones (“Clyde’s”); Phylicia Rashad (“Skeleton Crew”); LaChanze (“Trouble in Mind”); and Keith David (“Thoughts of a Colored Man”). Four of the seven plays are being produced by nonprofits, and the commercial productions are backed by a combination of emerging producers and Black influencers promising to use their celebrity to help, including the actors Blair Underwood and Samira Wiley, the retired basketball star Renee Montgomery and the singer and reality television star Kandi Burruss.
Aduba, an Emmy winner for “Orange Is the New Black” and “Mrs. America,” last appeared on Broadway a decade ago, singing in the cast of a “Godspell” revival.
The actress cites several reasons for coming back. She is a fan of Nottage’s work, describing “Ruined” as one of her favorite plays. She wants to help Broadway recover from the pandemic. But she is also eager to be part of theater’s response to demands for greater diversity on Broadway and beyond.
“I’m really glad to see that the call to action has been responded to by some producers and theaters, by really stepping up and making sure that the Great White Way has some color added to it,” Aduba said. “And my action now is to make sure that I can be a part of that, and add my voice and my art to the conversation.”
Several of those acting in the plays have demanded changed over the last year. LaChanze and Lewis are founding members of Black Theater United, a group formed in response to police brutality that has negotiated a series of promised changes with industry leaders, including not only diversity training and mentorship programs but also a pledge to forgo all-white creative teams and to rename some theaters for Black artists.
LaChanze and Lewis are also both known as musical theater performers; this season, they are seizing the opportunity to star in plays.
“It’s very important to tell authentic stories of Black drama, and not necessarily Black trauma,” LaChanze said. She will play a stage actress confronting racism in “Trouble in Mind,” a 1955 drama by Alice Childress that is scheduled to begin previews Oct. 29 at the American Airlines Theater. “From the beginning of my career, in most cases, my characters were subjugated or experienced trauma. Today I have more options. And now folks get to see me sink my teeth into a text, and not just my vocal cords.”
The long road to Broadway
Manhattan Theater Club has wanted to bring “Skeleton Crew” to Broadway with Ruben Santiago-Hudson as director since he oversaw a well-received Off Broadway run of the play at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, but the project was impeded because the powerful producer Scott Rudin had the rights. Rudin did not stage a production, and then his rights lapsed, and then he stepped back from producing over bullying allegations. Now the nonprofit has its chance.
“Trouble in Mind” has taken even longer. Commercial producers talked about bringing it to Broadway in the 1950s, but dropped the idea when Childress refused to rewrite the ending. Years later, long after Childress had died, the director Charles Randolph-Wright, who had become obsessed with Childress’s work in college, shared his interest in the play with the Roundabout Theater Company, which held several readings, and began imagining a Broadway production.
Randolph-Wright, who also directs television, said the project was delayed by his schedule, but that the timing now feels fortuitous. “It’s as if Alice is orchestrating it, and saying, ‘We’ll come in now, as people are hopefully listening in a different way,’” he said.
Among the benefits of the long gestation: LaChanze is now ready for the starring role. The actress had participated in a benefit reading, also directed by Randolph-Wright, in 2011, but was considered too young for the part. She, like Randolph-Wright, had encountered Childress’s work at college, and finds herself drawn to her character, a veteran Black stage actress.
“I have had conversations a couple of times where a white male director tells me, a 50-year-old Black woman, how a 50-year-old Black woman would speak, and I would have to acquiesce,” she said. “In this play, I don’t.”
For commercial producers, it was a little easier getting a theater for plays with Black writers this season. “The door used to be closed, because the belief was there’s not a market here,” Arnold said. “Now there’s this little crack in the door, where you call a theater and instead of them being like, ‘Oh, shows with a Black audience are challenging’ instead they’re like, ‘Tell me about it.’”
In addition to the seven plays with Black writers already announced, there is likely to be at least one more this season: a revival of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which is aiming to open in the spring.
‘A very risky, tricky time’
Regardless of who writes them, plays have long been an especially tough sell on Broadway, and most lose money. But Black artists worry that context will be forgotten when this season is assessed.
“Plays don’t do well on Broadway, normally, and now we’re coming out of Covid, so now you want to give these seven playwrights a chance?” said Britton Smith, who, as president of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, works with Zhailon Levingston, the group’s director of industry initiatives and the director of “Chicken & Biscuits.”
The coalition, formed in 2016, is receiving a special Tony Award this year for its work to combat racism. (The long-delayed ceremony, honoring work from the 2019-20 season, is taking place Sept. 26; among the nominees are that season’s two plays by Black writers, “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris and “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller.)
Smith said he worries about how the box-office performance of the plays will be assessed. “It’s a very risky, tricky time, for everybody,” he said.
Already there are reasons for concern: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” an existential play about two Black men trapped under a streetlamp, has been struggling at the box office despite strong reviews, since becoming the new season’s first production to start performances last month.
“Broadway is a moneymaking venture,” said Underwood, a “Pass Over” producer. “None of us want these plays to get all this attention and then close because the audiences aren’t coming yet.”
The nonprofit productions start with a built-in base — they can count on subscribers to help fill seats — and, even if the plays don’t sell out, those companies can justify the productions as part of their mission, and make up any deficits through fund-raising.
For commercial productions, millions of dollars are at stake. According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” is costing up to $5 million to mount; “Chicken & Biscuits,” up to $3.5 million; and “Pass Over,” up to $2.8 million.
But even plays that don’t make their money back can succeed in other ways: paying a good wage to those who work on the productions; bolstering the reputation, and future earning power, of the artists involved; and making it more likely that the works will be produced elsewhere.
“I don’t care if we recoup; I don’t care if we get awards; I don’t care about any of those benchmarks of success,” said Nwandu, whose play draws on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the Book of Exodus. “Success will be when every single audience member who is meant to see this play has seen this play and has been touched by this play.”
Assessing the demographics
The numbers are stark: In 2018-19, 74 percent of theatergoers were white, and 4 percent were Black, according to a demographic report by the Broadway League, a trade association representing producers and theater owners.
“To say Broadway is a white space is kind of like saying there are clouds in the sky,” said Tristan Wilds, an actor who makes music as Mack Wilds, and who will be making his Broadway debut in “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” “You have to break down why. And I think that this season of plays will crack the usual mind-set.”
Wilds, who landed a recurring role on “The Wire” when he was a teenager, grew up on Staten Island, and discovered a love for theater early. “When I was 13 or 14, instead of taking a girl to the movie theater, we went to ‘The Lion King,’” he said, “and I was hooked from there.”
Producers are redoubling their efforts to attract Black theatergoers, aided in part by a cottage industry of consultants. They are sending out emissaries (Santiago-Hudson created a band that he brought to Grant’s Tomb and the Apollo Theater to promote “Lackawanna Blues,” an autobiographical solo play about his childhood); buying ads in publications that focus on Black readers (“Pass Over” advertised in the Harlem News and Amsterdam News); and seeking coverage in media with large Black audiences.
There are other efforts as well. Second Stage, the nonprofit presenting “Clyde’s,” hired a full-time staffer to conduct community outreach. Manhattan Theater Club, which is presenting “Lackawanna Blues” and “Skeleton Crew,” joined the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. And the producers of “Pass Over” offered deep discounts on great seats via access codes posted at community centers.
“There’s a fallacy that Black plays don’t sell, and it’s totally wrong,” Santiago-Hudson said.
Regardless of what happens this season, the artists involved said they will keep seeking more opportunities for Black writers on Broadway.
“I know from experience it’s all sunshine one day and the next day everything can be swept away by a rainstorm,” Nottage said, “so I think it’s wonderful, but I know unless we continue to apply pressure, next year can be very different.”