When will Broadway return? This question loomed over theatre workers and fans alike for more than a year. As the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted inequities in systems beyond healthcare, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations sprang up around the world, it became clear that business as usual would no longer do. What many assumed would be a six-week hiatus turned into an 18-month pause for reflection and redirection.
In the last decade, by my count, there have only been 20 shows produced on Broadway written by Black writers. During this season and the 2022-23 season, there are slated to be at least 12. What a difference a year makes.
Across the country, theatres faced a different reality. From making masks for frontline workers to providing spaces for protesters to rest, the demand to diversify and respond to community needs was much more urgent. If the pandemic pointed out anything, it’s that mission-driven work doesn’t stop even when cash flow does. Most regional theatres never stopped programming shows, instead quickly adapting to produce original virtual work, moving seasons outdoors, and making previously recorded works available for view. In Atlanta, where I work as an arts journalist and theatre critic, I watched theatres become social justice organizations, podcast studios, childcare programs, think tanks, and multimedia content producers.
The thread that connects Broadway to regional theatres can feel loose, with stark differences in experience among them. Still, the return of Broadway has stood as a beacon of hope, signaling a moving forward after the collective trauma brought on by the pandemic. People needed engagement, entertainment, and escapism from political strife, a deadly virus, and various existential crises. Truth is, they still do.
That’s why when I heard Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over would be the first new play to open on Broadway this season, I was both excited and skeptical. Nwandu’s modern adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot finds two Black men in an urban area trying to “pass over” to escape police harassment and violent conditions. Though I’d never seen Pass Over in person, I was familiar with the review controversy around the Steppenwolf production, and I jumped to watch the Amazon Prime version produced by Spike Lee when it was released, and I loved it.
Still, it wasn’t the type of show I ever imagined on Broadway, as New York’s commercial theatre has long seemed committed to glitter and nostalgia, and Pass Over offers neither. The Broadway version feels different from other iterations, relying less on Beckett’s dialogue structure, adding songs, and giving the white character more stage time. Yet to me the ending is more bleak and disturbing than the original.
Just as soon as Pass Over opened, there were reports of financial loss. It’s important to note that, much like regional theatre, Broadway is always operating at a deficit. That said, shows like Pass Over represent an idea of risk-taking that has not translated to regional theatre: It was new, featured two Black actors who were not stars and a white actor as the antagonist, and it’s not light-hearted. With the racial reckoning of the past year, I would hope that plays like this would come to be seen as less risky. But looking at the seasons that have been announced across the country, we can see that isn’t the case. As much as there are moves toward diversity in regional theatre, musicals and comedies still rule the roost.
Further, with some signs of fatigue about race setting in and critical race theory being misconstrued and weaponized for political interests, plays about racism may not be the fare audiences want to feast upon.
New Day, New Plays
On Broadway, where losses are taken by the millions, this opening slate of plays by Black writers tackle difficult topics head on. In the past few months I’ve traveled to New York twice to see these Black-authored plays, fearing they may not last long.
Keenan Scott II’s provocative Thoughts of a Colored Man is a series of vignettes told from the perspectives of different Black men whose identities are loosely based on Pleiades’ seven sisters. The entire piece is staged against a giant billboard with the word “colored” written in capital letters. Scott’s script tackles such issues as homophobia, class, and police violence. The transitions between monologues are abrupt, which is why when one of the characters is shot by a police officer, it rips the Band-Aid off in a way that’s hard to recover from by the end.
Alice Childress’s eerily relevant Trouble In Mind, billed as a Broadway premiere more than 60 years overdue, is a rehearsal room comedy sending up of Black stereotypes in theatre. The play’s title comes from a 1920s blues song by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones. As theatre lore goes, Childress wrote the play in 1955, and it had a successful Off-Broadway run. But though it was slated for a Broadway transfer, producers wanted Childress to make changes to the play’s racial overtones and she refused.
Now, with a cast of Broadway veterans, including Chuck Cooper and Don Stephenson, plus Brandon Michael Hall, the play has made it to the Great White Way. The main character, Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze), is a seasoned actor who has learned that the best way to keep working is to keep quiet about the script. She has trouble taking her own advice with her newest role, sending the production into a tizzy before it has time to get off the ground. And though the motivation for what flips her is not entirely clear, Trouble In Mind is the most thought-provoking of the new plays, even as the ways it challenges its audience have not changed since the 1950s.
It’s the opposite of Douglas Lyons’s raucous comedy Chicken & Biscuits, which offers laughs by the dozen. The Jenkins-Mabry clan has gathered to bury the patriarch, and hijinks ensue as soon as the chapel doors open. Rivaling sisters Baneatta and Beverly are competing in hair, wardrobe, and ridiculousness, just as they competed for daddy’s affection before he passed. Chicken & Biscuits is one of the only slapstick comedies on Broadway right now; what it lacks in grit, it makes up for in heart.
My favorite of the shows I caught was Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s heartfelt Lackawanna Blues. In this one-man show, Santiago-Hudson tells the story of growing up in a boarding house in Lackawanna, N.Y., by embodying the various characters who lived there, from hustlers to hookers to preachers to bluesmen. Watching him transform into two dozen characters is magic on its feet. The play also gives a history of the Great Migration and shows the plight of Black veterans, many of whom did not receive any G.I. benefits after serving overseas. Truly a masterwork, it also feels so personal to Santiago-Hudson; it’s hard to imagine who else could do it.
Representation Without Pressure
As a theatre critic, pre-pandemic I would see about 50 shows a year. But in the decade I’ve spent in the aisle seat, I rarely see work featuring people who look like me or who reflect my experiences. I’ve caught glimpses of myself through Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, or Valerie Johnston in Smart People by Lydia Diamond, but rarely has there been a one-to-one fit. The idea of a more diverse theatre experience excites me, because what happens on Broadway often influences the regions.
I am thrilled to see more artists of color have their day in the limelight. More of this always, please. But a decade is also enough time to know that we’ve seen this before. I can recall writing an essay for Black Masks magazine years ago, when Stick Fly and The Mountaintop ran on the heels of Fela!. I asked the question then: Is this a trend, or is it here to stay? The more things change…
I have also observed that as regional theatres return to in-person productions, there seems to be a deep desire to end the period of risk-taking and go back to a pre-pandemic normal, with just a smattering of diversity on the side.
Yes, Pass Over started at Steppenwolf and Thoughts of a Colored Man was a co-production between Baltimore Center Stage and Syracuse Stage. But now that they have the imprimatur of Broadway, how might these plays be received if they come to the American South, where the majority of Black people live? Perhaps these stories of urban life are meant for the places that found them first, and I’m okay with that. The exception is Chicken & Biscuits, which feels ripe for regional theatre. It comes off as an updated, culturally specific version of Dearly Departed by David Botrell and Jessie Jones—a play that had its Blackening in the film adaptation, Kingdom Come.
But we cannot ignore the reality that putting Black and brown stories onstage does not necessarily equal engagement and resonance with those communities. Chicken & Biscuits and Thoughts of a Colored Man, which stars singer Luke James and rapper Mack Wilds, were the only plays I saw with diverse audiences.
Representation absolutely matters. But ever since Broadway announced that so many Black plays would reopen its season, there has been a feeling of dread that if these plays don’t do well, there may not be opportunities for future artists. That pressure is unfair. This industry must relieve any single work from speaking for and to an entire group of people. The only way to do this is to continually diversify.
I also worry that our definition of representation is still too reductive at this point. It isn’t just about race; it’s also about the spirit and characterization of the group being represented. When I think about the television shows that positively influenced me growing up, I put Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Gilmore Girls, and Lizzie McGuire next to Sister, Sister, Family Matters, One on One, and The Parent ’Hood. It was just as important to me that the girls I saw were bold, quirky, and smart as it was for them to look like me. And what resonates will always vary from person to person.
There’s also the deeper moral question of whether there are more plays by Black playwrights on Broadway this season simply because the worst-case scenario is already upon us. To lose an entire year of production is something no one predicted and nobody wants to repeat. But is the risk of programming these plays now reduced by the fact that Broadway is bleeding money anyway? When tourism recovers in New York City, will producers feel so convicted to put quiet Black dramas on the commercial stage?
Elevating the Taste
As I sat in the audience on Broadway, I realized that while the identity of some of the playwrights had changed, the audience makeup had not. It’s a weird conundrum, since so many institutions have published diversity statements and paid for antiracism training for staff and boards. In a number of markets, Atlanta included, producers have added plays by Black writers without acknowledging that communities of color are still disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and may be inclined even more than usual to stay away. The work of diversifying the audience has thus gotten harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
This also makes the rush of many theatres to eliminate the digital engagement opportunities they offered during the pandemic all the more disheartening. I roll my eyes every time I hear someone say, “Thank God theatre is back.” It’s starting to sound like what they’re really saying is, “Thank God I don’t have to innovate anymore.” I believe the audience theatres have reached with their digital offerings is worth holding onto. This avenue gives people the chance to engage with regional theatres that they might not otherwise visit.
It takes time to transform the tastes of critics and audiences. As theatres strive to become more inclusive, it will take more than one or two seasons to open people up to plays that may upend their beliefs. This has long been the producers’ challenge, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that. It’s telling that the Broadway show that’s selling out right now is the girl power musical Six. It’s upbeat and funny, the costumes are eye-catching, the concept is unique, and it feels ripe for touring.
This raises another query: Are regional theatres as a whole and Broadway even speaking the same language anymore? With most professional theatres simply trying to keep the doors open, it feels like the divide between nonprofit and commercial theatre is only getting wider. The marketplace of ideas has both broadened and become hyperlocal for regional theatres. The need to support hometown talent and set artists up for success outside of New York feels more urgent than the dream of producing the next Broadway hit.
As thrilled as I am to see more diverse artists working—it’s literally all I write about—I also want these opportunities to come with frequency, enthusiasm, and more access for the audiences they are writing and acting for. This doesn’t just go for New York but for everywhere.
So my hope is that as the door opens for more Black writers on Broadway, it opens for more diverse depictions of Black life. I also want to see more stories from Latinx, Asian, and Native American artists, who are still sorely underrepresented in theatre. I want to see—imagine it—people of different ethnicities interacting with each other.
I applaud efforts toward diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging that are happening on Broadway and across the nation. I am truly optimistic that we will never disappear diversity ever again, but only as long as we remain vigilant. As we look toward the future, I hope that the people with the purse strings are as committed for the long haul as the artists who dare to create in turbulent times.
Kelundra Smith (she/her) is a writer based in Atlanta.
Creative credits for production photos: Chicken & Biscuits by Douglas Lyons, directed by Zhailon Levingston, set design by Lawrence E. Moten III, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound design by Twi McCallum; Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, music by Te’La and Brother Kamau, set design by Robert Brill, costume design by Toni-Leslie James and Devario Simmons, lighting design by Ryan O’Gara, projection design by Sven Ortel, sound design by Mikaael Sulaiman; Lackawanna Blues, written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, costume design by Karen Perry, scenic design by Michael Carnahan, sound design by Darron L. West, lighting design by Jen Schriever, original musical by Bill Sims Jr.
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