Last season on Broadway was historic, and not only because it was the first full season after COVID-19 had begun (though it had not yet ended). It was also a span in which, out of a total of 35 shows that opened between fall 2021 and spring 2022, 11 had Black authors. That is a noteworthy number, not least for Broadway, where by my count only 15 shows with Black authors had opened on the Great White Way between 2010 and 2020 (and fewer than 30 in that span were by non-white authors).
Had Broadway finally changed? Had producers and audiences finally heard the cries for justice after the murder of George Floyd? Or had a business skittish about returning to in-person theatre simply “allowed” Black-fronted shows be the first to dip their toes back in the uncertain, not to mention dangerous, pandemic waters?
And how did the season go? A Strange Loop won the Best Musical Tony and is still running, but did audiences turn out in droves for Pass Over, Trouble in Mind, Lackawanna Blues, Thoughts of a Colored Man, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Skeleton Crew, MJ, Paradise Square, Chicken & Biscuits, and Clyde’s? Well, do audiences typically turn out in droves for any Broadway show, let alone during a pandemic? It is probably more fair to view this crop of Black-authored material as no more or less of a gamble than any other theatrical venture, and assess its value based on the usual calculus of risk and reward rather than on any special considerations; after all, when plays by white writers flop, as they have been doing since the beginning of Broadway, you don’t hear concerned murmurs about the commercial viability of “white” plays.
Which in turn raises one final question: If this season was indeed a sign of change, is it change that is likely to stick or a flash in the pan?
I spoke recently to two producers who have made a certain amount of risk-taking central to their approach, and who were involved in several of the past season’s shows, and who have accordingly strong opinions on all these questions. Ron Simons has been producing on Broadway for the past decade, starting with the 2012 revival of Porgy and Bess and more recently putting his weight behind such shows as Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations and last season’s unofficial repertory of Black poetic reflections, for colored girls and its mirror piece, Thoughts of a Colored Man. This coming season he’s got the all-Black revival of Death of a Salesman. Hunter Arnold, also on the scene for the past decade, had his hand in many of those shows, as well as in the form-breaking A Strange Loop and the current season’s Ohio State Murders and The Kite Runner. I barely had a chance, or need, to ask questions once these two got rolling on the state of the industry and on the audience development crisis that is also a great opportunity, if it can be seized.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: American Theatre mostly covers the nation’s nonprofit theatres. But there are nonprofits on Broadway too, and most commercial productions have ties to regional theatres, as well as huge impact on regional theatres’ programming. So the fortunes of commercial and nonprofit theatres in the U.S. are all inextricably linked and interdependent. Last season on Broadway, there was a historic preponderance of shows by Black authors. You were both involved in some of these productions. Do you feel like last season represented long overdue progress?
RON SIMONS: I’m still marveling at the fact that li’l ol’ me had three plays on Broadway in the same season—actually, on the same block—all about Black people. When did that happen before? Was there another season like that?
So yes, I feel as though progress was made, clearly. The number of people of color who were in this past season was just staggering to me. But that’s not the question. The question is, was this a systemic change, or was this a one-off? That is the only thing that matters. This past season came to be because of this perfect storm of people being out of work or at home, with more time and leisure time to listen, and then Black Lives Matter—I’ve never seen that many white people protesting for racial equality in my life. Many people in this country didn’t know that Black men were being killed on the regular—that was a news flash for many people. All that together, I think, is the reason why we had such a diverse season, with so many Black writers’ productions hitting Broadway.
But I want to know what the landscape looks like in two years, five years, 10 years. And it’s not just the stories; it’s all the other ancillary people who make the stories happen. It’s not just about the producers: It’s about the ad agencies, the press, it’s about casting, general management. How has the industry been moving to change, especially in those areas that are less visible, that a lot of people don’t even consider? Those are the kinds of things that will show whether or not we’ve made progress, or just had a blip on the screen.
HUNTER ARNOLD: I think you’re exactly right. I would go one step deeper and say: Yes, we had this sort of moment of pause during COVID to think about what we stood for as an industry. We had this moment of pause that happened after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters movement where everybody was like, Shit, we need to do a better job. So we then let more shows about communities of color lead our way back at the hardest time our industry has ever had—because those artists had been waiting and ready. Now, are we going to honor those artists that broke that ground? Or are we going to say, “Thank you very much for taking the risk,” and then go back to the sort of typical entitled patriarchy that we’ve seen as an industry?
Yes, it’s easy to create representation onstage. It’s almost easy, but not as easy, to take people like Ron, who’ve been doing this for a long time, who’ve been championing these causes and bringing content to the industry for a long time, to say, “Okay, we’ll give you 50 percent more opportunity than you would have had before on projects,” and then think, well, Ron will then solve this problem of how we make sure that the agencies and the press rep and the company managers and the general managers and the backstage folks and all these unions look like the city of New York. Ron can’t solve that problem. That takes a lot more work. I am working on a project right now with tons of amazing people who I think all believe in things that I believe—that we have to create pipelines, we have to create opportunity, because if the theatre can’t get this shit right, how do we expect Amazon to get it right, you know?
RON: You better preach, Hunter.
HUNTER: So I’m on this show, and if you look at the creative team, it’s mostly people of color; if you look at the company, mostly creative people of color; if you look at the next generation down, producers, co-producers, pretty decently people of color. And then you start looking at the vendors—when I’m on Zoom calls with them, there are 42 boxes, and 38 of them look like me. That’s not progress.
RON: I remember, I’m not gonna say what show it was, but we had the first co-producer meeting, and I said, “Excuse me, can I ask: Do you have a Black account manager who can manage this, since it’s a Black story?” And some said to me, “Ron, you’re already making waves! It’s only the first meeting.” I was insulted. I can laugh about it now. But this was a valid question! Were I in charge, I would have asked before I even made the selection for who was going to work on this project. When I start new theatrical opportunities, I want to talk to the casting agent and ask: Do you have a Black man or woman on staff? Same thing with advertising, same thing across the board. If we don’t ask, then they won’t feel compelled to make a change. But if Hunter and I are the client, we can say, “For us to work with you, we need this, and if you can’t help us with that, thank you for telling me, now we can make a decision.”
HUNTER: And it’s a small community. Let me be honest, if Ron and I said tomorrow, “We won’t hire any vendor that doesn’t have VPs and senior directors that are 40 percent of color,” we would have no vendors to hire. So we can’t even take that position. But what we have to say is: Show us people that are getting ground-level experience that you’re moving up through your organization, that you’re paying a living wage, who come from backgrounds and communities that we’ve never even told as an art form that this was a viable job for them.
If you break it down, not even socioeconomically, but simply based on race, arts programs exist predominantly in white zip codes across the country, so you’re never going to have a situation where a random 22-year-old white kid that went on a full ride scholarship to an eight-year school, and a similar 22-year-old genius student of color that had to go on student loans to get to a B-tier school, are going to be on identical tracks in terms of getting into our industry. So you have to fight that shit at the earliest level. If an associate company manager job for an Off-Broadway musical pays $28,000 a year, who do you think is going to take that job? The answer is some white kid whose parents paid for their college and are subsidizing their apartment, who already lives in Manhattan and doesn’t have a commute. If you really want to change that, you have to say, what does that job need to pay so that the best qualified applicant, regardless of race or gender or creed, can take it and get a foothold?
I mean, the number of times, Ron, that I hear your name on calls, and it’s always kind of in an offensive context—people are like, “Well, Ron Simons is doing really great work,” and I’m like, Well, why isn’t he already on this call? Why is he on the second call? You know, Lee Daniels is doing his first show this season. And I can’t tell you, because I’m not involved in it intimately, whether Lee is running the show or lending his name to the show. If that were my show, I would desperately want him to be running it, because that is a man who has built a career for himself against the odds and has continually employed people in his community, who has opened the door for communities that aren’t his but are still underrepresented, and has made a shitload of money doing it. What I hear when I add those things up is expertise. We can all get somebody to put their name on a show, but the question is, who’s going to get involved in the community and make sure that 10 years from now we look back and go, “We had what problem? That was so stupid.”
It’s interesting to hear you both talking with a sense of mission, which is something I expect to hear more from nonprofit leaders. I think of commercial producers as more focused on profit margins, and on primarily on finding stories people will pay to see. I guess I’m wondering, with all this advocacy for change, what’s in it for the bottom line?
RON: With my shows, I’m already looking past Broadway. I’m of the mindset that Broadway is great—it’s a really great place to be branded, because wherever you go, you can say “the Broadway hit.” But I want to know, what is the tour gonna look like? And what am I wrapping around that stop in Denver, say, to help educate, motivate, or inspire local people to become part of a change? It’s very good for us to go to a show and feel inspired, but it’s going to die on the vine unless word gets out beyond just the Broadway attendees to communities around the country, some of which are white, some of which are Black, some of which are integrated. I’m producing this show called Lyrics From Lockdown, and in the lobby as you’re walking out, we’ve got information about a website where you can go and volunteer, so it’s not just about the education, it’s about the action. That’s a big thing for me: I really want to create curriculum for teachers. I think that is as important as trying to get the Broadway show up and running. It’s about what you do with the show as it goes out on the road and meets more people.
HUNTER: Ron couldn’t be more right. If you look at the life cycle of a title in terms of how many hearts and minds it touches, the vast majority of the audience that title will touch is not on Broadway. It’s at tours, it’s at regional theatres, it’s high schools. One of the huge problems that nobody’s talking about is that Broadway will congratulate itself in a year where there is one August Wilson play and one Lorraine Hansberry play, and go, “Wow, out of 45 titles there were these two beautiful Black plays.” But what did that do to create anything that a forward-looking regional theatre, community theatre, college theatre, high school theatre has as new content? The answer is, it did zero.
At the end of the day, the question is, are you actually trying to solve the systemic problem, or are you trying to solve the current problem? The problem with trying to solve the current problem is that you can’t tell between honest short-term intentions and short-term virtue signaling. If the brilliant white director who’s been working on Broadway for 25 years brings an incredible new Black play to Broadway, you actually can’t tell if that’s a change in their person and system, or if that’s something they did because they were concerned about the current environment. What you can tell is if somebody says, How do I create more work to be licensed to tour? How do I commit to a five-year plan where I might do shows for a community that has always felt not invited to Broadway? It’s not a simple answer of, If you build it, they will come. Actually, you better build it, you better invite them, you better listen to them and hear whether or not it resonated with them, you better build it again, and you better invite them again. Because for 80 years or more, this industry has told them, “You’re not our audience.”
A Sense of Welcome
HUNTER: I remember something that happened that really moved me in a deep way. I had a show where one of the community advisors asked us to send somebody to sing a number at a church on Sunday. I said, “Somebody send me the address to the church, I’ll come up there.” And somebody from the agency team said to me, “Oh, you know, you’re going to be a fish out of water if you go up to that performance—you might draw focus.” And I said, “If one white dude draws focus in a 1,200-person Black church with a performance going on, we’ve got problems so big, I can’t solve them. But maybe what we need to realize is that you giving me a warning, like, ‘Hunter, you might be a fish out of water’—that is what most people of color feel like going to any Broadway show. They are being asked to come into a space that is not their space.”
RON: I’ve had so many occasions where the person says, “We want someone to come to Abyssinian Baptist Church, they don’t even have to sing a number, just show up and talk about the show, use their star power, and if they could sing a number that is a whole ‘nother level.” And what I get is, “Oh, we can’t overtax our cast—we can’t send them to everything. We’ve already got Good Morning America booked, and NBC Nightly News.” What you’re saying is: “I don’t make them a priority. Black churches, Black institutions are less important than national news agencies.” Well, then you should not then come back in six months and say, “I was expecting more Black people to come. Where are they?”
HUNTER: I had a conversation on a show that was—and by the way, I hate this term, but a show that was a Black show. And somebody that wanted to do six church visits in a row, plus Harlem Week. The agency said, “We have to protect what we’re asking cast to do.” And this co-producer, who’s a bit of a firebrand, said, “Okay, I get it. There’s priorities. So if CBS Sunday Morning is the front of the bus, where are the Black churches?”
RON: They’re not even on the bus! They’re at the bus stop.
HUNTER: I literally almost got up and walked out of the room because I was like: You just made everyone so appropriately uncomfortable.
If You Build the Market
RON: We need to face some of the hard realities. There’s a lot of competition for Broadway shows. You’ve probably been in some of these meetings where they give all these statistics: The thing that bounced back first after COVID hit were concerts. People were spending money and going to concerts like there was no pandemic at all, as opposed to Broadway, which was decimated and tried to crawl our way back up to be a part of the selection that people can have. In my opinion, we haven’t cracked this nut as an industry. How do we get to the people who are spending so much money to see concerts to say we are a viable option that they should consider?
HUNTER: I had a young assistant, and it was his 25th birthday, and I said, “What do you want for your birthday?” And he said, “I want to go to the Taylor Swift concert.” And I remember me feeling like, “I’m going to be the only old-ass guy; I guess I can try to blend in with the soccer moms.” Ironically, I got there, and I was like, holy shit, everyone is here. The truth is, if you go to almost any concert, it is infinitely more diverse than we are on Broadway. And until we create that room, it’s really difficult to ask people to prioritize their money.
This is where the economic thing comes in for me. People say, “If we advertise in The New York Times, that person’s going to pay retail at $129, and if we advertise in Harlem Week, that person’s going to buy the $79 ticket.” I’m like, no—if you care, and if we’re lucky, this is a five-year project. It’s really probably a 25-year project. We have been investing in the current audience for 100-plus years. So they now exist. Back when that started, no one was like, we’re doing that because we prioritize rich white people. At the time, people were like, We’re doing that because we’re building an audience for our art form. Well, what we need to realize is that we still have to build an audience for our art form, and that audience no longer looks like Connecticut and the Upper East Side. Look at Six, which is a total juggernaut. Love it or hate it, it’s a total juggernaut. You go in there and find me 25 68-year-old white people on any evening, and I’ll be shocked. It’s also one of the cheapest shows, but it’s continuously cranking out more than a million dollars a week. What that tells you is that the market is there if you honestly approach the market.
RON: You know, we were talking about longevity rather than a one-off, and asking whether things have significantly changed. Statistically speaking, Black people will go see plays—not musicals, I’m talking about plays—but they’ll see white and Black plays, while white people in general will only go see white plays. But they’re gonna see a Black musical in a heartbeat. Everybody enjoys singing and dancing. But when discussing Black content, white people in general are just not that interested in Black stories. It’s not surprising that when you do stories about African Americans, more African Americans and younger people will show up, because they can relate to the story. African Americans grew up in a society that was predominantly white, and so we actually know how to move through white circles, because if you’re gonna be a successful Black person, you have to know how to navigate that world, whether you’re in corporate America or Broadway, you’ve got to learn how to negotiate, navigate. If you’re white, you don’t have to navigate any place other than your circles. You don’t have to invest the time to get to know Black people and Black culture. Your existence does not depend on it. Our success and sometimes our lives depend on that.
HUNTER: My biggest fear is that what we saw last season is a moment instead of a movement. Maybe I’m being a pessimist when I say this, but I think we need 10 seasons to normalize equality. We need 10 seasons before theatre lovers go, “Oh, I saw this show that happened to be about an Asian family. I saw this show that was a Shakespeare classic. I saw this brand new musical which was pretty mixed and blended.” But it’s not one season, and it’s certainly not one season that comes back after fucking COVID! You know, some people go, “Well, economically those Black shows just don’t work.” I’m like, what did work in the last 12 months?
RON: I cannot stress enough how important it is for this diversity of storytelling to be taken on by regional theatres. I don’t care if the production comes from someone like me who’s going to enhance it and give you some money to put on that particular show, or whether it’s just the artistic director who is behind it. We need vision, and we’ve needed this for the longest time. You know, the mindset at a lot of theatres is still, oh, we already have a Black show this season, because, you know, there can only be one Black show per season. Why? Because they’re concerned about their subscribers. Their subscribers don’t look a whole lot different, in many cases, than Broadway ticket buyers. They have been afraid to alienate them, so they err on the side of less diversity, not because they want less diversity, but because they don’t feel that their constituents will swallow the pill. I have two shows, for colored girls and Thoughts of a Colored Man. I talked to theatres, who have told me, “I can only do one.” I think the two shows make for a great pairing; if I ran a regional, I would love to have the two pieces in rep: Monday, let’s talk about what Black men say, and Tuesday, let’s talk about what Black women care about. But no one is thinking of that. I was talking to someone at the Shubert organization, and she said, “Have you thought about running your shows together?” And I was like, absolutely. But no one was willing to even discuss it.
To reiterate, we have to make sure that the stories are being told are for diverse audiences. The thing I’ve got this season is Death of a Salesman, which I’m excited about because I saw it in London, and I was sitting next to Wendell Pierce’s attorney, and at intermission, we were just crying. I had never got even a teary eye at a production of Death of a Salesman in my life. What happened was, they did not just say, “Oh, we’re gonna put a Black person in this role that’s usually played by a white person.” They said, “We want the family to come in and bring their culture with them.” They are not Black people playing white people. When it gets really interesting is when you take a story and you immerse it in a different culture, you can hear things. I heard things in that play that I never heard; I literally felt like I was watching a brand new play.
Where’s My Invitation?
HUNTER: Ron, I don’t know how many times you’ve heard this, but I love bringing projects forward and somebody will say, “Oh, my God, it’s a beautiful project, but there’s three other Black projects this year, and so we’ve got to be careful…”
RON: I heard that so much, especially this past season. People don’t understand what they’re saying underneath that. So much to unpack there. I say this literally at least once every single week, sometimes several times a week: When people say, “Oh my God, 75, 95 percent of audiences for Thoughts of a Colored Man were Black? How’d you do that?” I say, “Well, you know what, it’s a very simple formula. If you’re going to throw a party, and you want people to come, you have to invite them.” You should not be surprised if you throw a party and no one shows up because you didn’t invite anyone. I’m talking about Black people in particular, not just non-white people. The reason we haven’t come to Broadway is not because of what I heard for many years, which is that Black people just can’t afford Broadway tickets—bullshit, by the way, complete, utter bullshit. Do you know how much it costs to buy a ticket to see Beyonce? Money is not the issue. The issue is, Have you reached out to these audiences perennially? When we do a show on Broadway and it has Black content, some agencies don’t have people who work for them who know how to reach out to that community, which is why one of four gifted Black women are hired for every Black show to reach out and do marketing to Black people. Sadly, they are given a tiny sliver of the overall marketing/ad budget.
HUNTER: Thank you for saying that, Ron.
RON: A tiny sliver! So I find myself as co-producer saying, you need to be advertising on WBLS, buying ads in Essence magazine, and that shit requires money, just like the ad agency that you’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you really care, why don’t you make sure that whoever is doing the outreach to Black communities, you give them not a certain amount of money, but a certain percentage—give them 15 percent of what the budget is? That makes people uncomfortable, because it’s saying that by spending your money here, you get to spend less money over there. But you can put as many double trucks in The New York Times in full color as you want to, and it won’t get Black people to come see the show at all. Black people don’t read The New York Times, in general. If you want to reach them, you do the Wendy Williams show, you do Charlamagne Tha God. In general, we don’t know that as an industry. As far as I can tell, there are only two ad agencies that have Black people in the upper echelon of management!
HUNTER: Why aren’t they vice presidents of an agency? Here’s the thing. You have these women doing community outreach—and frankly, to me, even the way we refer to them in meetings dismisses the integrity of what they do. They’re not called our second ad agency; they’re not called audience engagement. They’re called community outreach. So we’re like, “Hey, we want to bring you on this thing, go only talk to Black people.” What the fuck is that about? It’s not, “What we want you to do is teach us how to reach people we’re not reaching today.”
I remember, I was on a pretty big musical, which was doing, let’s say, $500,000 a month in advertising. And the community outreach partner we had on the musical was getting 10 grand a month. And I said, “Hey, do we give a fuck about bringing new audience in? If we do just 10 grand, that’s a joke. That’s 2 percent of our spend.” If I was the producer of certain big-budget, star-driven revival musical, I might be like, “I’m doing this for Broadway multi-buyers that see nine shows a year, I don’t need any new audience.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as a commercial producer. But if I’m saying I care about bringing in new constituents, I have to put my money where my mouth is. The answer I got from the agency was, you know, there’s no data that exists for all of the alternative advertising, and none of these community outreach vendors have ticket analytics people behind them, they don’t have marketing analytics, they don’t spend enough money that they get a surplus on buying, and so we just can’t give you bang for your buck through them like we can through us. I remember listening, and I kind of paused and said, “So can you fucking fix that? I’m not asking you to tell me not to spend money outside of the existing community. I’m saying, how do you think we got data on the existing Broadway market? We courted them, we invited them, we spent money on them, we analyze how they spend their money. We can’t get that for new communities?”
By the way, if you look at Broadway demographics, what’s the group that hasn’t come back post pandemic? 60-year-old-plus white people. They tend to be moneyed and privileged; they had a summer home and got used to staying there, and now they don’t come back from Palm Beach nine times a year, they come back from Palm Beach two times a year. Bless them if they’re enjoying their time in Palm Beach, but as an industry we have to be like, well, who’s still here? And the answer is, communities of color, students, young people, people who came back to a renaissance of New York City. Now we have to take that moment of being like, so how do we get those people into the theatre? We’re not going to get it by driving more money to Wheel of Fortune, CBS Sunday Morning, and The New York Times.
RON: That’s right. It really stymies me when I hear white producers who are forlorn because they don’t know how to get more diverse audiences. No one seems to be acting on the fact that what everybody needs for Broadway is younger audiences, I don’t care what color they are. Historic audiences are getting too old to go to the theatre, they’re going away. That’s why I love KPOP. Now, did I know what KPOP was until six months ago? No. It’s why I like Lyrics in Lockdown, which has spoken word, poetry, music, and is a wonderful intergenerational piece that will bring younger audiences. So I ask questions like, who are the young bloggers that you’re reaching out to? Ever? Anything that I’ve not been a lead producer on has someone say, “Yeah, we gotta court those people.”
HUNTER: It’s funny, because I have my feet in two worlds; I’ve spent a lot of time in entertainment and a lot of time in technology. And when I walk into a board meeting for a technology company at 45 years old, there’s are three kids that try to help me, like my 45-year-old ass is gonna die on my way to the table. And then on Broadway, I’m the young guy, and everyone is like, “Hey, Tiger!” It’s a beautiful thing that we have all of this history. And I truly believe that most of the people on Broadway, we are a liberal community, a progressive community, most people’s hearts are in the right place. But where it gets dicey is when you ask someone: If you believe in creating the next generation of audience, if you believe in creating the next generation of access, what if that means that you have to take a backseat? And I think too few people realize that backseat doesn’t mean no seat. Backseat means mentorship, support, moving to the point where you’re offering your wisdom and your advice, not your day-to-day activity. So if it comes your time to say, “Oh, I am now an usher of the next generation, and I’m here to be a strict teaching advisor”… You look at corporate America, which is way more whitewashed and privileged-based than Broadway, but there’s actually a process where you go from being the president, to the CEO, to the chairman of the board. Then they get out of the way and they’re there to mentor and bring up the next generation. We have no transition plan on Broadway.
RON: This is why I have eight mentees, all Black women, and they are all blazing trails. It just blows my mind. What if every producer on Broadway—they don’t need to bring on eight mentees, but what if they just brought on two mentees? So many people would be starting to be prepped to come up to be the next generation. I gave a talk to the inaugural class for this organization called TPOC, Theatre Producers of Color. And I remember on that Zoom, when I joined, I looked up and saw all these brown and Black faces, young people, like 20s, 30s, and I literally started to tear up. Why? Because I saw: Oh, my God, this is the future of Broadway. I just hope that people don’t have to die to make space for who’s coming up next to take the reins with their new thoughts, ideas, visions.
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