When Audra McDonald was nine, she was offered to play “the little Black servant girl” in a production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”
McDonald desperately wanted the part, but her parents stepped in and refused.
“They said no, it’s a demeaning role, you don’t have to do that, there are other roles you can do. You may not be happy with this now, but one day you’ll understand that you don’t have to perpetuate that stereotype. I was furious at the time, but boy do I understand it now,” McDonald said.
The legendary Broadway actor recounted the anecdote (one she’s previously shared) and revealed how her parents’ decision has “played into a lot of my role choices” during a wide-ranging keynote conversation at Series Mania.
Having accepted the festival’s first ever Etoile Award, which honors an international star in the TV industry, McDonald discussed her whole career, from her first steps on Broadway, to her latest turn in “The Bite,” Robert and Michelle King’s COVID-zombie satire.
Asked whether Broadway has changed in terms of diversity, McDonald said there has certainly been improvement since she first entered the scene in the 1990s, but there is still a long way to go (McDonald is a co-founder of Black Theatre United, a leading organization in the movement for greater diversity and equity on Broadway).
“It’s better and there’s awareness and there’s a reckoning now. I don’t think it can ever go back to a time it’s not inclusive, when cast and crew and directors and storytellers aren’t more diverse,” McDonald said.
The pandemic has hit the Broadway community harder than most, with McDonald pointing to the fact that many performers and crew fell ill, and “almost everybody lost their health insurance” due to theatre closures.
However, McDonald is hopeful that theatres can be up and running soon.
“I hope we can beat back the variant enough….It would be devastating, especially to Broadway, if we have to shut down again. I worry that we wouldn’t come back from that. Hopefully we can get through this time and get it open safely and get everybody back to work. I think we need live theatre; we need that connection as humans. We need it as performers and the audience needs it again too,” she said.
McDonald used a clip from her performance in the live action “Beauty and the Beast” and a question about the film to touch on inclusion in the film space.
Had a live action “Beauty and the Beast” been made in the ‘90s, McDonald said she’s sure it would have featured “an all-white ensemble.”
“There’s no way they could have done that this time. They would have been called out for it,” she added.
McDonald has more history with the Disney musical than some may realize, having auditioned for the Broadway adaptation in the very early stages of her career.
She was turned down for a part in the ensemble, only a few weeks before landing the part of Carrie Pipperidge in “Carousel.” She of course won her first Tony for the role.
“When we were filming ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Alan Menken was on-set, I said, ‘Hey Alan, I’ve got to tell you something. I auditioned for your show back in 1994,’ and he said, ‘I know, we didn’t cast you. This payback, sorry about that,’” McDonald shared.
Turning to her prodigious television career, McDonald compared her roles in “Private Practice” and “The Good Fight,” saying that she considers it “a luxury and an honor” to play Liz Lawrence-Reddick, a character whom she strongly agrees with politically.
Any “Good Fight” fans hoping the show might take advantage of its vocally-gifted cast via a musical episode can keep their fingers crossed, as McDonald said that she and Christine Baranski “still want to push” the Kings for an all singing and dancing edition.
McDonald’s latest collaboration with the Kings is “The Bite,” in which she plays a doctor who realizes that a new COVID variant is turning her patients into zombies.
The series, which had its U.S. premiere on Spectrum several months ago, was shot entirely remotely during the pandemic and was “able to employ a good amount of crew in New York,” according to McDonald.
Next up for McDonald is Julian Fellowes’ HBO series “The Gilded Age.” Although she remained mostly tight-lipped on the project, which will reunite her with Baranski, McDonald believes the series is “going to be incredible” and will have a “very similar feel” to Fellowes’ wildly popular “Downton Abbey.”
“Instead of that entire world in England, you’re seeing what’s going on even prior to that in New York. It’s a huge society that maybe a lot of people don’t know about, especially the Black part of that society. We’re going to learn a lot about that in the show, I’m very excited. I’ve always wanted to be in a costume drama, even though the corsets are horrific,” McDonald said.