Broadway is finally coming back, after going dark last year to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
More than a year into a global pandemic and amid an international social justice movement, Broadway, it seems, is changing. Seven new plays – which do not include musicals – joining this fall’s lineup are written by Black playwrights.
And it leads to a question: Is this just a moment, or sustained shift toward a broader range of storytellers on “The Great White Way”? While notable productions written by Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun,”) August Wilson (“Fences”), Langston Hughes (“Mulatto”) and others undoubtedly knocked down barriers for playwrights of color, Broadway has historically and overwhelmingly been dominated by White voices.
“If this moment is going to be sustained, it will be sustained by artists of the global majority producing their own work, because any time a non-White artist is left to the mercy and morality of a White audience, White producer or White money, then that interest and that level of vulnerability and that level of focus is going to … ebb and flow,” said Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the playwright behind “Pass Over,” one of the new plays coming to Broadway.
Of course many people will be interested in Black stories right now, given the events of the last year, Nwandu said, but she noted that Black people are interested in Black stories all the time.
“We need Black producers to produce them,” she said. “We all want to see ourselves on stage.”
For Zhailon Levingston, the director of industry initiatives at the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and the director of “Chicken & Biscuits,” another new play hitting Broadway this fall, this moment is “a grand opportunity more than … any kind of arrival point.”
“It feels like however this new moment in this season on Broadway emerges, it will be the start of a completely new era,” Levingston said. “And I just don’t imagine that era being one of no progress in terms of Broadway making (a) more equitable space.”
Though there’s no telling what Broadway will do in this moment or how these plays will be received, Levingston said he is beginning to see change behind the scenes. He told CNN there are concerted efforts to ensure that Broadway does become a space where stories of all kinds are told.
Some of those efforts are similar to those being made by other workplaces in the US – such as diversity or antiracism training requirements and policies, Levingston said. But there are also further discussions about how Broadway can reduce barriers to entry for positions like producing, which determine what plays get made.
As it stands now, the barrier to entry for a Broadway producer is steep, as there are certain rules set by the US Securities and Exchange Commission dictating how much money investors must have. To change those rules would essentially mean petitioning to change the law. It’s no surprise then that most producers on Broadway, Nwandu said, are similar to the character of Maxwell Sheffield on “The Nanny”: wealthy and White.
But while these factors affect what stories are told on the stage, things are changing. Levingston told CNN that “Chicken & Biscuits,” for example, features both new and longtime producers, as well as a cross-racial producing team. It’s a rare collaboration, he said.
This moment in theater also follows allegations against prolific Broadway and Hollywood producer Scott Rudin. An April report in The Hollywood Reporter alleged that he had verbally and physically abused his staff at his production company for years.
This led to questions about not just having a racially equitable system on Broadway, but also one that cares for its workers in a way it hasn’t before. For example, the actors involved in Nwandu’s play, “Pass Over,” have a wellness stipend, since the play deals with police brutality.
“I don’t think any of us that are part of this moment are under any illusion that we are operating in a space… shaped or made to deal with our specific needs,” Levingston said. “Though there is a real opportunity for change to happen, there’s also a real opportunity for a lot of hurt to be perpetuated.”
Here are the seven plays by Black playwrights coming to Broadway this fall:
- “Pass Over” – Written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymor.
- “Lackawanna Blues” – Written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
- “Chicken & Biscuits” – Written by Douglas Lyons and directed by Zhailon Levingston
- “Thoughts of a Colored Man” – Written by Keenan Scott II and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III
- “Trouble in Mind” – Written by Alice Childress and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
- “Clyde’s” – Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey
- “Skeleton Crew” – Written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson