How Black Creatives Are Working to Shake Up Broadway and Implement Lasting Change

When Stephen C. Byrd began producing on Broadway 16 years ago, he and his partner Alia Jones-Harvey were usually the only Black faces they saw in the business. “We would walk into marketing offices, PR firms, general management offices, and there was no one that looked like us, ever,” Byrd (“Ain’t Too Proud,” “Eclipsed”) recalls. “We would question it when we went in. ‘Why aren’t there people of color here?’ We felt strange sitting at the table.”

Now, many of Broadway’s most prominent Black producers, creatives and executives are working to change that.

Last month, the organization Black Theatre United released its New Deal for Broadway, a sweeping commitment to create more equitable practices in the theater with buy-in from every facet of the industry. The effort was marshaled by a coalition of Broadway’s best-known and most-decorated talent, including Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, LaChanze, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Vanessa Williams and Kenny Leon. The detailed document was hammered out during a monthslong series of summit meetings facilitated by BTU and attended by theater owners, unions, casting directors and every subset of the industry with the power to shift how Broadway works and whose voices are included, on stage and off.

That star-powered New Deal is just one of several initiatives from Black-led, Broadway-based organizations working to change the business from the inside. Some, like BTU, were founded in the past 18 months; others were around before the pandemic. All of them were galvanized by the murder of George Floyd, and now, as Broadway returns to life after a devastating shutdown, they’re working both separately and in tandem to ensure that the industry lives up to all its pledges of solidarity and its vows to do better.

The Great White Way has, since its inception, been exactly that — mostly white: There are few people of color in any facet of the workforce, and the industry’s prime ticket-buying demographic remains predominantly white as well. The sweeping efforts underway aim to change the face of Broadway at last, from the stories told onstage to the decision-makers behind the curtain to the audiences who fill the seats.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Sheryl Lee Ralph, who starred in the original cast of “Dreamgirls” and now, 40 years later, is a producer on the upcoming play “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” “There have been tiny, tiny increments, but now it’s time to see a big shift.”

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Tony winner Adrienne Warren and Britton Smith of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, founded in response to the 2016 murder of Philando Castile by police Lee Wexler

BTU co-founders describe the beginnings of the group as an informal conversation among colleagues who quickly coalesced to take action. As LaChanze recalls, her tweet about the silence of Broadway institutions in the wake of the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor prompted a call from fellow actor McDonald. LaChanze, set to star on Broadway this fall in Alice Childress’ play “Trouble in Mind,” remembers the two of them saying: “Let’s just get a group of friends together and see what we can do.”

Since LaChanze and McDonald are two Tony-winning Broadway veterans — McDonald has won the most Tonys of any performer in history — the friends they brought together, all of them Black, are among the biggest names in the business, with long careers and deep connections.

“We knew we had a platform together, and there was some influence there that collectively we could wield,” says another BTU co-founder, Schele Williams, a director at work on a reimagined production of Disney’s “Aida” as well as a musical adaptation of “The Notebook.” “We needed to insist that our industry not only have the conversations but really have some structures and some accountability.”

In addition to activities that looked beyond Broadway, including a census completion campaign in partnership with the Stacey Abrams-founded nonprofit Fair Count, BTU worked with NYU Law School’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging to create a structure for an extended summit of Broadway power players that ran between March and August of this year, in a series of virtual sessions lasting two to three hours each. In addition to meetings with the full group, attendees were also broken into smaller clusters — theater owners, producers, unions and two sections of creatives — to discuss issues specific to each cohort and create a list of commitments for each sector.

With 25 industry organizations and some 60 individuals listed as signatories, the New Deal, publicly available on the BTU website, enumerates the commitments made during the summit. It records the vow made by Broadway’s three biggest theater owners to each name at least one of their theaters after a Black artist; a pledge by directors and authors never again to assemble an all-white creative team; and a vow by casting directors to review audition notices in order to remove biased or stereotypical language.

Joint commitments across all groups include the abolishment of unpaid internships; support for an industrywide digital training program for equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging that theater owners will develop this fall; and the promise never to discriminate against anyone due to hair texture. Overall, the New Deal document encompasses more than 10 pages of specific commitments, with further summit meetings planned once every six months through 2024.

“We always think about: What do the next three years look like?” Williams says. “It’s going to be actions that are going to do all the speaking. They’re not louder than words. They’re the only things that matter.”

Another organization, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, has also been working to change the way the industry operates. Founded by younger Black theater professionals (including “Tina” Tony winner Adrienne Warren) in response to the murder of Philando Castile in 2016, BAC had already created programs in concert with lawyers, scholars, educators and activists that push for policy change.

Last year BAC, which recently received a special Tony Award for its efforts, launched industry-focused initiatives including the Reimagining Equitable Productions program of two-day workshops, which BAC has so far led with members of the companies of Broadway’s “Tina” and “Company” as well as multiple Disney productions.

Zhailon Levingston, co-founder and director of industry initiatives at BAC and also the director of the new Broadway play “Chicken & Biscuits,” describes the REP experience as one that gets every department of a production together in a room — something that in itself is a rare occurrence — and encourages them to consider “transformative change” through the lenses of power-mapping, accountability and sustainability. “We give them a process by which they can disrupt what we call the racial narrative and think about rescripting it,” he says.

Also in the past few months, individual Broadway productions including “Wicked” and “Moulin Rouge!” have created permanent company positions dedicated to equity, diversity and inclusion, and The Broadway League, a trade association of theater producers and presenters, has tapped Gennean Scott to be its first director of EDI with a mission to oversee and expand the league’s community-building efforts and professional development programs.

Programs dedicated to attracting and retaining diverse talent aim to change the makeup of a workforce where there are few people of color in any position behind the scenes — not just among writer and directors, but in every department including design, casting, marketing and general management. As LaChanze, whose first Broadway credit came in 1986, notes of her upcoming project, “‘Trouble in Mind’ is the first time I’ve ever been directed by a Black person on Broadway.”

Warren Adams (“Motown”), co-founder of the Black Theatre Coalition with performer T. Oliver Reid and finance executive Reggie Van Lee, did a deep dive into the data, and found that since the first Black musical played Broadway in 1866, Black talent has comprised less than 1% of the entire working ecosystem. In the more than 11,000 productions since then, there have been only 17 Black choreographers. “I was number 15,” he says.

This fall, BTC will launch a fellowship program that places young professionals of color in studios, theaters and offices on Broadway and around the country, allowing each to build knowledge, experience and connections with the support of a $50,000 stipend.

The Theatre Leadership Project, a nonprofit founded earlier this year, has its own slate of paid fellowships for general management, company management and producing, some in partnership with other organizations (including BTC and The Prince Fellowship). More than one of those programs are multiyear fellowships.

“What we’re trying to do is push an industry towards a rather massive change,” says producer Travis LeMont Ballenger, one of the founding members of TTLP. “There are very few producers of color. There are no general managers of color. That doesn’t just happen on accident.”

As the impresarios who raise funds and unite creative teams, producers are among the most influential people in the industry when it comes to determining what and who makes it to a Broadway stage. Black stage talent knows this, which is why Ralph is far from the only well-known actor turning to producing. Blair Underwood is a producer on Broadway’s “Pass Over,” for instance, and LaChanze is branching out into producing as well. (She attended the BTU summit in the producers’ cohort.)

For now, at least, the small, clubby groups of Broadway movers and shakers are making efforts to open up. “I can certainly say my invite list has gone up,” says Brian Moreland, the lead producer of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” and a recent appointee to The Broadway League’s board of governors. “People are making sure I’m included in the conversation that pertains to the Broadway community at large, and that did not happen before.”

Meanwhile, creatives are seizing the moment to make work that they hope will help shake a hidebound industry out of its old ways — for good.

“That’s my hustle now,” says Douglas Lyons, the Broadway actor (“The Book of Mormon,” “Beautiful”) who wrote “Chicken & Biscuits.” “How can I write something that changes the fabric of what Broadway is?”

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