Theater is fleeting by nature, and as such, those who pioneer the way for inclusivity on stage — who give performances that chip away at inequity role by role — are sometimes forgotten.
With performers like Lillias White and André De Shields, those roles are so numerous that sitting them down together, as the Broadway Advocacy Coalition did on Tuesday night in New York City, erects a living monument to Black Broadway.
The Broadway Advocacy Coalition, an activist group leading conversations about dismantling structures of racial power in American theater, brought the two stage legends together as a part of their new virtual series, BroadwayVS. Meant to honor White and De Shields while raising money for the Cody Renard Richard Scholarship, the evening served as a continuation of the community’s ongoing contemplation about what lies ahead for Broadway while its lights remain dimmed.
“The universe recreates itself for our pleasure,” said De Shields, who originated the title character of “The Wiz” in 1973, appeared in shows like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Play On!” and “Full Monty,” and last year won his first Tony Award at age 73 for his role as Hermes in “Hadestown.”
“It took me 51 years as a professional performing activist to get my brass ring, my golden trophy. Fifty-one years of sowing seeds, and I finally had my harvest,” he added, speaking about his Tony Award but signifying a larger reckoning for Black artists on Broadway.
“This is indeed a time for reflection, a time for rest. A time to look in the mirror and dig into what makes us so afraid of each other,” said White, 69, who broke out in 1981 as a replacement for Effie in “Dreamgirls,” won a Tony in 1997 for her leading role in “The Life” and appeared in the original productions of “Barnum,” “Cats,” “Once on This Island” and “Fela!”
Hosted by Amber Iman and produced by the Shubert Organization, BroadwayVS also featured White and De Shields trading songs from their careers, including White’s signature rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and De Shields’ “So You Wanted to See the Wizard.” Stars like Audra McDonald, Ken Page, Marc Shaiman and Jerry Mitchell sent their virtual well-wishes to the legendary actors, who were presented with BAC’s Broadway Advocacy Legacy Award.
Not unexpected, BroadwayVS became something momentarily transcendent — a telling of oral history.
Charlayne Woodard saved the production of “Ain’t Misbehavin,” De Shields recounted, when she stepped in to replace Irene Cara, who left the production to film “Fame” just before the show transferred to Broadway. “You wanna sing? Just sing,” was the advice Betty Carter gave White one night at the bar at Blue Note.
Both spoke about the artists who made their successes possible. “I look up to John W. Sublett, the muse for the Gershwin’s creation of Sportin’ Life in ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I look up to Sidney Poitier. I look up to Paul Robeson. I look up to Geoffrey Holder,” said De Shields. “And I look up to the young people who were marching through the streets earlier this year saying Black lives matter,” underscoring a key thread woven through the evening: For many in the theater — and, indeed, for many Black artists who rely on community to weather the industry’s blows — it takes a village to make change.
The night ended with a duet of “Believe in Yourself” from “The Wiz” and a closing thought delivered by De Shields: “Broadway is resting now,” he said, “only because it knows it’s got a lot of hard work to do.”