The 65th Tony Awards will take place this weekend in New York City. The awards are an annual event celebrating the accomplishments of the members of the Broadway community.
Through the years there have been several notable Broadway shows starring African-American ensemble and lead cast members; The Color Purple, Fences, Dreamgirls, The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Carmen Jones. However the numbers are minuscule in comparison to the hundreds of Broadway shows featuring predominately white ensemble and lead actors.
Last year the New York Times attempted to address the benefits Broadway could reap by building a black audience. “Broadway shows about black characters often draw black theatergoers, but the producers of Memphis and Fela! as well as producers of some coming shows are particularly going after African-Americans. Whether black theatergoers become a larger, reliable part of the Broadway audience remains to be seen, as do the range and quality of the shows that are offered to appeal to them.”
Though several new shows have appeared, many theater-goers are wondering, what is the future of the black Broadway actor?
This season, The Scottsboro Boys musical premiered on Broadway. The all black cast brought to life the historic case of nine African-American teenagers wrongfully accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. After six weeks and only 49 performances, due to low ticket sales, the show closed. Sunday The Scottsboro Boys will wait in anticipation to see if they take home a win from their 12 Tony Award nominations.
The Scottsboro Boys book writer and Tony Award-nominee David Thompson, says that he sought to bring the most authentic version of the historic story to Broadway.
“I knew that I loved the story and I knew that I loved the chapter in American history because I found it so profoundly wrong. I knew going into this though I couldn’t tell an African-American actor what it meant to experience racism, because that wasn’t in my experience. My responsibility was to create a narrative that would be very honest, authentic and true.”
Actor, dancer and singer Sean Samuels is currently featured as the villain “Swiss Miss” in Spider-Man, his third Broadway show after appearing in Tarzan and Curtains. Samuels feels he often auditions for black roles in shows but the roles are few are between.
“The roles that I tend to go out for are roles for a black man to play. Once in a while I will go in for a non-ethnic specific role. Work for black actors comes in waves, there will be seasons where there are a lot of shows that black actors can be in, and other times there can be a drought, I just wish it was more constant.”
Oftentimes black actors only get the opportunity to audition for roles that are definitively black, rather than having an opportunity for color-blind auditioning. Samuels says,”There needs to be an open mindedness in casting. A black actor should be able to audition for a lead role in a white show like Annie as well as for a role like Elphaba in Wicked. Elphaba is a green witch, there is no reason why a black actress should not be taking on that role.”
There are several up-coming Broadway shows that will employ the talents of black actors. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is well-positioned for the 2011-2012 season, The musical Josephine, about the life of Josephine Baker is expected in the spring of 2012, and the play The Mountaintop starring Samuel L. Jackson comes to theaters the fall of 2011. Asmeret Ghebremichael currently stars in ensemble of The Book of Mormon which leads the Tony Awards with 14 nominations. The musical about Mormon missionaries on a trip to Uganda employs nearly a dozen black actors to play the Ugandan Villagers.
Gherbremichael says she tends to consistently see the same people at the auditions she goes to.
“There are fewer roles for us black actors, and a lot of us competing for the same part. If it’s a role in an ensemble show, a lot of us joke that we are auditioning to fill the “token” slot. At a certain point you start to see the same black actors that are going from show to show, and if your lucky you get cast as one of the few black people in the show.”
Many of the classic Broadway shows were written in a time when the stories of people of color weren’t being told, therefore one rarely sees black actors in Roger & Hammerstein shows like Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. However the hope of many black actors is that this lack of diversity in classic shows will change.
Singer, actor and dancer Eric.L. Christian has performed in the Broadway casts of Chicago, Hairspray, The Lion King, Cry Baby and The Color Purple. He began his Broadway career 15 years in a revival or Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Christian says “Getting that job for me was significant, because at the time that was one of the only shows on Broadway that had a mixed ensemble of actors in the show. a lot of the shows that Broadway revives were written in a time period when they didn’t hire black actors.”
Recently Christian experienced the frustrating auditioning process of seeking a “token black role” in a white show.
”Evita is coming up to Broadway soon, and about 15 or 20 actors of color that have been on Broadway for a long time auditioned for the show, including myself. It was a long process, and in the end none of us got the gig. To have no people of color at the audition book the job, was a little bit disappointing. Then to know that the producers are going for a more European look or aspect for the show was even more upsetting. To have so many black actors come out and audition for the show and not book it, just didn’t make sense.”
Christian has come to the conclusion that the lack of diversity in shows largely lies in the absence of black talent behind the scenes producing and directing new shows.
“I would like to see more black writers, choreographers, and lyricists bringing their stories to Broadway. The people of color who have a certain amount of monetary clout, need to produce it, back it and get it on Broadway to tell the story.
Black actors on Broadway continue their pursuit for a level-playing field, and remain optimistic that things will get better.
“This season has been promising for the black actor. We have our show, The Book of Mormon which is almost half black, The Scottsboro Boys, Sister Act, Memphis and others. We are starting to see more opportunities for black actors, not just the token black guy or token black girl in the ensemble. We can carry shows, and we should be playing these larger roles, there is room for more than just one or two of us on Broadway, says Gherbremichael.”