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The 2021 Tony Awards was peppered with calls for increased diversity as Broadway’s big night returned to New York as stage shows are resuming after being shut down for more than 18 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Winners ranging from The Inheritance‘s Matthew Lopez, A Soldier’s Play‘s Kenny Leon and honoree the Broadway Advocacy Coalition all called on the industry to do better.
Accepting the award for best play, Lopez said that he’s the first Latin writer to win in that category even though this is the 74th Tonys, calling his community “underrepresented on Broadway” and vowing, “this must change.”
“We are a vibrant community reflecting a vast array of experiences and, yes, skin tones. Let us tell you our stories,” he added.
In the press room, Lopez spoke about how the production shaped his experience as a gay man: “When I first started to write the play, I felt incredibly disconnected from the gay community. I felt divorced from my own history. And it was my attempt to understand it, to make contact with it, and to make peace in some ways with the parts of it that I had a less than ideal relationship with. I wanted to understand how being gay shaped my life, how being the gay man who was a child during the [AIDS] epidemic, becoming a sexual being in New York City as a young gay man, having been taught the lesson that my sex life would kill me, and I needed to unpack all that. I needed to understand it; I needed to get all that out. And I hope that having done all that, that others will come to the play with their own questions and the things that they’re wrestling with and maybe not get all the answers that they’re seeking from the play, but hopefully that the play will encourage them to begin to seek themselves.”
Best revival of a play winner Kenny Leon opened his acceptance speech by repeating the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd three times — both of them, Black Americans, were killed last year by police.
“We will never ever forget you,” Leon said.
He then told the audience at home and within the Winter Garden Theatre that “we can do better,” with respect to diversity and inclusion, saying that the “table” of great artists should include figures like Melvin Van Peebles.
“The land we’re standing on tonight is Native American land, so let’s hear all of the stories,” he said.
In the press room, Leon spoke about A Soldier’s Play‘s relevance to today: “The play ends with a big image of an American flag with Black men saluting the audience as we hear a Nipsey Hussle hip-hop tune. So I married 1940 to 2020, and it’s even more important now, given what happened right after we opened the play with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.”
He added, “I just think as artists, it’s our job to really impact the world through our storytelling. And like I said on stage, the more stories we hear, the clearer we get to truth.”
Earlier, during the first half of the four-hour extravaganza, airing exclusively on Paramount+, host Audra McDonald recalled, during her monologue, how the Winter Garden Theatre was home to the Tonys in 1975, where The Wiz was a big winner, sparking a great hope that that season would mark the beginning of increased diversity in theater but for 46 years, not enough has changed, she said.
But she remains hopeful the industry will be more equitable and inclusive. “Broadway is back and it must and it will be better,” she said.
During her acceptance speech for best choreography, Moulin Rouge! The Musical‘s Sonya Tayeh, said, “As a brown queer Arab-American woman, I wasn’t always welcomed.”
She said it’s been 10 years since a woman previously won that honor and while she’s proud to be part of that legacy it’s “too small.”
In the press room, fellow Moulin Rouge! winner Aaron Tveit said that he hopes any push for increased inclusivity also extends to “the people who can access [live theater].”
“When tickets cost upwards of $300, $400 dollars, it sends a message to people that this is not for you. And it would be my dream in my lifetime, that as I lay in my bed dying, that the most expensive Broadway ticket would be $100,” he said. “That would be a dream come true. I hope that we can do that in some way shape or form. It’s gonna take a huge effort from everybody involved, but that’s what I hope for the new Broadway after this pandemic.”
Accepting a special Tony award for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which uses storytelling to dismantle racism and was founded in 2016 in response to police brutality, Britton Smith said, “Our team and our founders who vision to make an industry better that wasn’t even built for us, we all owe them a huge round of applause and thank you. My biggest worry is that when we come back to the machine, when Broadway comes back, that opening will close and push out empathy and push out challenge but this award is evidence that moving forward requires calling out.”
Later, during the Leslie Odom Jr-hosted Broadway’s Back segment on CBS, BAC co-founders Amber Iman and Adrienne Warren, who won earlier for her role in Tina — The Tina Turner Musical, recalled founding the group in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin. Daniel J. Watts, Jared Grimes and Broadway Inspirational Voices also teamed up for a special performance, which featured tap dancing, spoken word and gospel.
During Broadway’s 18-month shutdown, Floyd’s death and the galvanized movement for racial justice led the theater industry to examine its own track record on issues of diversity and inclusion.
McDonald is among the founding members of Black Theater United, a star-studded nonprofit organization that aims to reform and combat systemic racism in the theater industry and beyond.
Other founding members in the group of actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers and stage management include Vanessa Williams, Billy Porter, Wendell Pierce, Brian Stokes Mitchell, LaChanze, Anna Deavere Smith, Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis and Tamara Tunie.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, the Broadway League, the trade association that presides over Broadway stages and helps present the Tonys with the American Theater Wing, announced it would undertake an audit of diversity in the industry.
“I think we have done a good job onstage, and we’ve done a good job with the Tony Awards, but in a lot of our backstage areas we haven’t done as good a job, and if people are frustrated, they have the right to be,” League president and chief executive Charlotte St. Martin told The New York Times in June of 2020. “We have to change, and we will change.”
In November of 2020, Actors Equity, the labor union representing more than 51,000 professional actors and stage managers in live theater, released a diversity and inclusion report covering the years from 2016-2019, only its second such study, with the first published in 2017 based on data from the 2013-2015 theatrical seasons, but the group aims to make such reports annual.
The report found modest improvement since the 2017 study, including a more equitable distribution of contracts and earnings, but such improvements were gradual, inconsistent and not enough to change longtime problems, Actors Equity found.
The study also showed that there continued to be disparities in pay between people of color and white union members, women and men and trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals and their cisgender peers.
Just last month, as Broadway began to reopen, Black Theater United unveiled a New Deal for Broadway, pledging to strengthen diversity, signed by some of the most powerful players in the industry.
Sydney Odman contributed to this report.
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