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The journey to Broadway for this season’s Black playwrights was never sure nor easy, and certainly not short. But it is an achievement that these writers, among the largest group of Black playwrights on Broadway at once, are finally able to share together.
It’s also an experience that Lackawanna Blues writer, director and producer Ruben Santiago-Hudson ruefully acknowledges will “probably never happen again.”
“The only thing there’s ever been seven of is seven white plays. There have never been seven women plays, seven gay plays, seven Latin plays, seven Irish plays, seven Jewish plays,” the theater veteran told THR about Broadway’s historic season featuring Black artists. “I know what I’ve seen and I know the history. I don’t think it’s totally changing. But we would be remiss if we didn’t appreciate the moment and the awakening.”
That awakening is, at least in part, illustrated through the writer-director and fellow creatives’ presence at Monday night’s “A Broadway Celebration.” For the first time in Broadway’s history — following an 18-month shutdown and swell of racial justice protests ignited by the death of George Floyd — the season opened with most of its plays produced by Black writers.
That includes Santiago-Hudson alongside Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play), Lynn Nottage (Clyde’s), Douglas Lyons (Chicken & Biscuits), Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu (Pass Over), Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew) and Keenan Scott II (Thoughts of a Colored Man). Alice Childress, who passed away in 1994, is the season’s eighth playwright, with her powerful and timely Trouble in Mind currently running at Roundabout Theater at Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction.
As part of the ongoing celebration of this historic moment, all seven of the eight productions’ living writers were present at the event, co-hosted by CAA Amplify, Broadway Advocacy Coalition and The Movement Theatre Company, honoring their work and their journeys alongside their fellow Black theater artists. Held at the Times Square EDITION, the evening included virtual speeches by host committee members Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson and a surprise musical performance by Pose star Dyllón Burnside, who performed his single “Heaven” as well as the song “Young, Gifted & Black” alongside his Thoughts of a Colored Man co-stars Bryan Terrell Clark and Luke James.
The star-studded Broadway event also featured in-person remarks from Britton Smith of the Tony Award-winning Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Deadria Harrington, David Mendizábal, Taylor Reynolds, and Eric Lockley of the Movement Theatre Company, and Ruben Garcia and Kevin Lin, co-heads of CAA Amplify.
For all its guests, the night was an unbridled moment of Black joy and a chance to shower love on each other’s successes while reflecting on one another’s journeys to and through the theater world. Those journeys were for some more than a decade in the making. In the case of Childress’ play — which nearly secured a Broadway run in the 1950s until the playwright refused to tone down its messages on race for white producers — six decades, to be exact.
For Scott, whose show Thoughts of a Colored Man was one of the first to open on Broadway’s return, it’s been a 15-year road beginning when he was a sophomore at Frostburg State University. He says his success is proof that “if you work hard — if you bet on yourself — it is possible to make it to the highest level.” But, he says, the pipelines must be there to do it.
“What this year has shown is that we can have the types of resources we need to be able to ascend to a level of Broadway,” he said. “I have experienced some success on a mainstream level, but we as a whole still need those resources and support. A lot of pipelines are not created for us, and we’re not privy to those existing pipelines to get to these destinations.”
Pass Over writer Nwandu, whose play debuted before the official Sept. 14 full-capacity reopening, says Broadway was never a goal, but that worked to her advantage. “I think one of the things that made me very strong is the fact that I was not one of those people. I grew up in L.A. I grew up in Hollywood,” she told THR. “So just writing — and if it’s a 10-person workshop, if it’s off-Broadway, whatever — I’m always astounded when people in real life come and see my work.”
And see that work they did. While Nwandu questions how much legacy Broadway “as a whole was working” to help support her play, whether it be through marketing or audience engagement — and amid the industry’s repeated overtures about increased inclusion and diversity — the weeks Pass Over ran, “it did what we wanted to do.”
“We got to invite people in who are not Broadway people. I don’t have the numbers but I wish I did for the number of people who were like, ‘This is my first Broadway show. I’m in New York, born and raised in New York, and I’ve never seen a Broadway show,'” she said. “I felt like we were preaching to an audience or group that everybody says they want: New Broadway.”
But Pass Over not only opened new doors for its playwright and its audience. Like its fellow honored shows, it also employed “people of the global majority,” Nwandu says, at various levels and in crew positions Black, Asian, Latino and Indigenous creatives have typically been overlooked for and underrepresented in.
When it came to Chicken & Biscuits, Lyons says his play was not only about centering Black women in his narrative but having them shape the show in every way, from lighting and sound to costuming and hair. The act of hiring a crew of color was just as important as the story he was telling and who it spoke to.
“I am trying to reach and employ folks of color and queer people with my work. That is why I’m doing this, and I had to get back to that fundamentally this season,” he says. “Us shutting down because of COVID and all the hoopla — it’s like, you can get caught up in that or you can remember what you’re trying to do, which is effect change.”
That change for Lyons is most felt in how the show will exist outside of its now shortened Broadway run. “Chicken & Biscuits, every time it’s done, will employ seven principal Black actors at every company in every regional theater. That is history.”
While speaking to THR, Clyde’s Nottage — the first woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice — shared a similar sentiment about employed Black creatives as she celebrated the chance to stand next to so many of her peers this season.
And similar also to Santiago-Hudson’s declarations that Broadway was not built by or for its Black artists, the historic season is just a slice — not the whole — of Black theatrical success for Nottage, who got her early start and introduction to theater through entities like the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia and Negro Ensemble Theater.
“When I thought of theater, I didn’t think of Broadway. I didn’t think of the regional theater. I thought about these Black theaters where incredible work was being done. I think that there’s a way to continue to think that way. We often feel as though in order to make it, you have to be on Broadway — but I don’t think that’s true,” Nottage told THR.
Perhaps, then, the most profound legacy of Nottage and the others’ work on Broadway is that it doesn’t just impact the “Great White Way.” It can also help change the resources and focus on Black theater spaces, she says, where artists can create without “needing the validation” of a certain portion of the industry.
That kind of validation is what Tony-nominated Harris — whose Slave Play received a historic 12 nominations before being shut out by voters at the 2021 show — says he’s never looked for.
“I never had Broadway as a standard-bearer for where I wanted to be,” he says. “I’m a student of the avant-garde. I’m not a student of commercial theater. And while some of the artists I love who engage in the avant-garde exist inside of the commercial theatrical landscape, I’m not holding that space as a place for me.”
Still, the writer echoes his fellow playwrights’ feelings that while in the space, not being in it by oneself is “exhilarating.”
“I think that what’s exciting is that I’m not doing it alone and no one else is doing it alone,” Harris shares. “That’s been amazing, right? Because we can cross-reference and ask questions — figure out how we can demand things in ways we didn’t have the same power to before or the ways in which it was really scary to ask.”
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