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Where Does This Diverse Broadway Season Leave Women of Color?

Where Does This Diverse Broadway Season Leave Women of Color?

Viola Davis said in her Emmy speech last month, “The only
thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You can’t
win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” The same can be said of
Broadway, where there is currently a small surge in leading roles for women of
color. But, despite a season hailed as a one of diversity, the number of women writers of color on Broadway remains dismal,
especially in musical theater. Off-Broadway and regionally, the numbers are
better but still low, and the pipeline to Broadway needs to be addressed.

This fall’s biggest gains in diversity for women come
from leading roles in Broadway musicals. Opening just weeks apart, three
musicals — one written from an existing song catalogue, one revival, and one original — have
leading roles for women of color. “Allegiance,” a new musical starring
Tony winner Lea Salonga as a Japanese-American during World War II, and “On
Your Feet,” a musical about the Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, are already in
previews. In November, a revival of “The Color Purple,” the 2005 musical based
on the Alice Walker novel, will mark the Broadway debuts of three women of
color: Cynthia Ervio as Celie, Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson and “Orange
is the New Black’s” Danielle Brooks.

Whether this season is just a happy convergence or an
effort by producers to build more diverse seasons remains to be seen, but three
out of eight musicals (or 38%) of the musicals opening this fall have leading roles
for women of color. In the spring, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald headlines
“Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That
Followed,” a reworking of the 1921 musical, adding another woman-of-color-led production to this
season’s tally. 

Three plays this Broadway season also have women of color
in leading roles, two of them revivals. “The Gin Game,” D.L. Coburn’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, originally starred Jessica Tandy, with Julie Harris playing the
role in a late-’90s revival. Cecily Tyson assumed the role of Fonsia Dorsey when
the latest revival opened this month. In the spring, Sophie Okonedo will play
Elizabeth Proctor in “The Crucible,” a role originated by Beatrice Straight and
played in the 2002 revival by Laura Linney. 

But Broadway also needs non-musical roles written for
women of color. With the recent announcement of the Broadway transfer of “Eclipsed”
from off-Broadway’s The Public Theater in February, this season’s slate of
plays has a total of one. The story of the relationships among women detained
and raped by a Liberian rebel officer, “Eclipsed” was written by playwright and
actress Danai Gurira (best known for playing Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”)
and stars Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o. The current off-Broadway run has
been extended and is sold out.

“Eclipsed” is the first Broadway play by a woman of color
since 2011, when Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” a play about Martin Luther
King, Jr., featured a starring role for Angela Bassett. In the same season
Lydia R. Diamond’s family drama “Stick Fly” opened with Tracie Thoms and
Condola Rashad. Also in that season, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks contributed to
the book adaptation of “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” starring Audra McDonald.

Looking both at this season and seasons past, plays and
musicals by Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women, as well as women of other
racial minorities, are still largely absent from Broadway. “In the Heights,”
the 2008 Tony-winning musical, featured a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Hudes
won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2012 for her play “Water by the Spoonful.”
None of her plays have yet made it to the Broadway stage.

Hudes joins a long list of women whose successful shows have
remained off-Broadway. Off-Broadway can be a fertile place for new work, a
place where producers and theaters can take greater risks. It can also breed
Broadway productions as the successful pieces transfer, but many deserving
shows by women of color have failed to make the leap. From 2000’s “The Bubbly
Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” a musical by Kirsten Childs at
off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, to 2009’s “Ruined,” Lynne Nottage’s
acclaimed Pulitzer-winning play at Manhattan Theatre Club’s off-Broadway space,
works by women of color with strong roles for women of color rarely make it to
Broadway.

Some playwrights are taking their off-Broadway plays to
television. Fernanda Coppel’s play “King Liz,” which features a great role for
a woman of color, had a successful run off-Broadway this summer at Second Stage,
and Showtime
just announced
that Coppel will develop it as a series for the cable
network. Playwrights have moved back and forth between TV and theater for years,
but now television, with its many channels and audiences, provides a next step
for the pieces that don’t move up the ladder to Broadway. 

Musical theater in particular has a meager record of producing works by women writers of color. Childs is one of the few current writers
whose work has been done off-Broadway. In the history of musical
theater, only Micki Grant, who received three Tony nominations in the ’70s;
Vinnette Carroll, who was also the first African-American woman to direct on
Broadway; Brenda Russell, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for “The Color
Purple”; Parks; and Hudes have worked on Broadway musicals as writers. In the
current season, only Russell and Estefan are represented, but neither is
primarily a theater writer, and Estefan’s music was not written specifically
for her show. 

Looking to the future, aside from “Eclipsed,” there are
no plays or musicals in the Broadway pipeline written by women writers of
color. “Gotta Dance,” a musical by the late Marvin Hamlisch based on the 2008
documentary, has a multi-ethnic cast of women and a targeted spring 2016
opening. A revival of “The Wiz,” slated for the 2016-2017 season after its live
television performance on NBC this December, and a yet-to-be-scheduled revival
of “Miss Saigon” from the West End are the only shows on the horizon with a
woman of color in the leading role. Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” which was
developed outside of New York, may be coming
to The Public Theater next season
, and based on its previous track record, there is potential hope when Second Stage takes over the Helen Hayes Theatre on
Broadway for more female playwrights to find a home.

But off-Broadway and regional theater is just the tip of
the iceberg. The pipeline to Broadway runs from off-off-Broadway and local
theaters, from workshops to development opportunities. Women of color must be
present in theater leadership, in the makeup of MFA programs, and in casting in
order for future Broadway and off-Broadway seasons to become as diverse as they
need to be. As Broadway celebrates this so-called diverse season, it needs to
recognize the disparity that still exists on its stages and in its creative
teams. If the theatre business doesn’t take conscious steps to correct the
imbalance, these moments of triumph will only be tiny blips and then will fade
into the background.

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