The great Black reckoning on the great white way: Blackness rules Broadway and the Tonys

Matthew Allen speaks with Black creatives at the Tony Awards and examines the growing renaissance of Black productions and artists thriving on Broadway this season and beyond.

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The age of COVID-19 has coincided with one of the most significant Black renaissances that Broadway has seen in quite some time. It could’ve easily been chalked up to bad timing, and so many things could’ve gone wrong.

Waiting until a deadly pandemic shut down production for a year to open the door for numerous Black exhibitions when audiences were limited looked like a trap; a recipe for failure; another way that Blacks are taken advantage of.

“All of these Black shows opened right after COVID, and a lot of us felt like the sacrificial lambs,” Tony Award winner David Alan Grier told theGrio. “They threw us out there and said, ‘Nobody croaked. OK, now Broadway can open.'”

Despite the danger and the uncertainty, these productions did not only survive but thrived. Black shows and creatives dominated the 75th Tony Award nominations. Productions like “A Strange Loop”, “MJ the Musical”, “for colored girls”, “Skeleton Crew”, and more were hits. Grier and Tony Award-nominee Lynn Nottage referred to this age of Blackness on Broadway as “a reckoning.”

“I think that we’re in an extraordinary moment, coming off of COVID, and in particular, the cultural reckoning where the theater community stood up and said, ‘You know what? We want to return to a Broadway that is more inclusive, more welcoming, and safer for folks,'” Nottage told theGrio.

David Alan Grier, and daughter Luisa Danbi Grier-Kim on the 2022 Tony Awards red carpet at Radio City Music Hall, New York City. Photo by Matthew Allen.

If Sunday’s Tony Awards proved anything, Black productions, actors, directors, and writers are here to stay. The new shows stand shoulder to shoulder with big winners like “The Lehman Trilogy”, “Company” and old faithfuls like “The Lion King”. Tony Award nominee John-Andrew Morrison of “A Strange Loop” says the powers that be in Broadway understand the power of Black stories and storytellers.

“It feels like the industry is catching up and realizing that there’s wonderful talent in the Black community and the people of color community,” he said. “We just need to open the door.” Once that door was opened, Black creatives took full advantage on all fronts.

“This season, I feel like everyone was given a shot and they got their shot and shined,” said Tony Award nominee Mikaal Sulaima. “From “for colored girls”, to “Thoughts of a Colored Man”, to every production that featured and starred and was written and directed by Black playwrights and Black directors, Black performers really did their thing.”

The Tony Awards proved this point. “A Strange Loop” took home Best Musical. “MJ the Musical” won four Tonys, including Best Actor in a Leading Role in Musical for Myles Frost. Phylicia Rashad won Best Actress in a Featured Role in Play for “Skeleton Crew”, a category that included three other Black nominees (Uzo Aduba, Renita R. Miller and Kara Young.)

Rashad noted that Black excellence and representation on Broadway isn’t a revelation but rather the result of a cultural ebb and flow in the industry. “There was a time back in the 1970s when there were five Black shows running,” Rashad said. “It isn’t new; it’s cyclical. But we look forward to a time when such things are not cyclical.”

Michael R. Jackson, who won two Tony Awards on Sunday for “A Strange Loop”, echoed Rashad’s sentiments. “I grew up with a real sense of Black excellence in the arts as a child,” Jackson told theGrio. He sang in all-Black choruses and dance troupes while in middle and high school. “This, for me, is a continuation of something I’ve been doing for a really long time.” 

Phylicia Rashad in the media room following her win at the 2022 Tony Awards. (Photo by Matthew Allen)

Indeed, today’s renaissance is undoubtedly a continuation of the heritage of Black Broadway shows like “Purlie”, “The Amen Corner”, “The Wiz”, “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Dreamgirls”, to name a few.

With the fanfare Black productions and performers are receiving this season, nobody wants or anticipates it to be just a one-off. “It feels like we are a real part of this Tony’s season, and not just an addition,” talk show host and exceptional material writer at The Tony Awards, Amber Ruffin, reflected. 

Actress Tamara Tunie says the community is moving forward with keeping this momentum up. “We’ve all been working diligently to move the needle, to really recognize inclusivity in a way that is really meaningful,” she revealed. “We all need to continue to be vigilant and to continue to work to ensure that inclusion is represented on Broadway from now into perpetuity.”

One sign of the inclusion becoming a feature and not a glitch in the system will be the growth of opportunities for Black writers, set designers, sound engineers, costume designers and producers. More important, as Morrison would say, only time will tell if Broadway will choose to invest in its Black creatives, even in the face of failure. “I’m waiting to see when a show from someone of color flops. Will they give them another show,” Morrison wondered. 

Actress Tamara Tunie on the 2022 Tony Awards red carpet at Radio City Music Hall, New York. Photo by Matthew Allen.

For example, industry stalwart Maurice Hines thrived on Broadway as a performer, choreographer and director in Black shows like “Sophisticated Ladies”, “Uptown … It’s Hot” and “Eubie!”. However, when his show “Hot Feet” flopped and closed, his opportunities to direct on Broadway again faltered, despite his stellar credentials.

“That, to me, is the signal that there’s change and that there’s a true investment of Black artists on the other side of the table,” Morrison said. “There are a lot of white artists who have been able to fail upwards, and I wonder if that can start to happen for Black artists as well.”

So, here’s hoping that the 2021 Broadway season is a sign of what will continue.

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