By MARK KENNEDY, AP Entertainment Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — At a Tony Awards nominees luncheon last month, veteran theater producer Ron Simons looked around and smiled. It seemed appropriate that the meeting be held in The Rainbow Room.
“I can guarantee you that I have not seen that many people of color represented in all the categories of the Tony Awards,” he recalled. “It was a diverse room. That encouraged and impressed me a lot.”
For the first full season since the death of George Floyd reignited a conversation about race and representation in America, Broadway responded with one of its most diverse Tony lists yet.
Multiple Black performers were nominated in each acting category, including three out of five Outstanding Actors in a Musical, four out of six Outstanding Actresses in a Play, two out of seven Leading Actors in a Play, and three out of five Leading Actresses in a Play. There are 16 black performance nominations out of 33 slots, a very healthy 48%.
By comparison, at the 2016 Tonys, the breakout season that included the diverse revival of “Hamilton,” “Eclipsed” and “The Color Purple,” 14 of the 40 nominees for plays and musicals, or 35%, were colored actors.
“Hopefully the diversity we saw in the season remains the norm for Broadway, that this isn’t just an anomaly or a flicker in reaction to what we’ve been through, but just a reset,” said Lynn Nottage. , the first writer to be nominated for both a play (“Clyde’s”) and a musical (“MJ”) in a single season.
The new crop of nominees also features more women and people of color in the design categories, such as first-time nominees Palmer Hefferan for sound design of a work (“The Skin of Our Teeth”), Yi Zhao for design of Lighting for a Play (“The Skin of Our Teeth”) and Sarafina Bush for Costume Design for a Play (“For Colored Girls Who Have Thought of Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enough”).
Other firsts this season included L Morgan Lee from “A Strange Loop,” becoming the first trans artist to be nominated for a Tony. Adam Rigg, scenic designer for “The Skin of Our Teeth,” became the first gender designer nominated and Toby Marlow, co-creator of “Six,” is the first non-binary songwriter and lyricist nominated.
Eleven artists, including Jaquel Spivey from “A Strange Loop,” Myles Frost from “MJ” and Kara Young from “Clyde’s,” received a nomination for their Broadway debut performances, and 10 designers received nominations for their Broadway debuts, as than creators like ” Michael R. Jackson, playwright of A Strange Loop, and Christina Anderson, co-author of Paradise Square.
“I’m very, very excited about all the new voices we’re hearing, all the new new writers being represented on Broadway for the first time,” said AJ Shively, an actor nominee for “Paradise Square.” “I really hope that trend continues.”
Perhaps nowhere is diversity more evident than in the oldest play currently on Broadway. “Macbeth,” directed by Sam Gold, has a Black Lady Macbeth in Ruth Negga, a woman taking on a traditional male role (Amber Gray plays Banquo), a non-binary actor (Asia Kate Dillon), and representation of people with disabilities ( Michael Patrick Thornton).
“If the whole world is a stage, our stage is certainly the world. I’m really proud to be up there with all the actors,” says Thornton, who uses his wheelchair as a cunning device to play the cunning nobleman Lennox.
But while the performance was seen on Broadway this season, so was an invisible virus that didn’t care. The various mutations of COVID-19 have sickened actors in waves and deprived many box offices of critical funding. Returning skittish theatergoers often had an appetite only for established, comforting shows.
Several of the black-led productions fell short, including “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” “Chicken and Biscuits,” and “Pass Over.” They debuted in the fall, just as Broadway was slowly restarting and audiences were most fearful. “Thoughts of a Colored Man” closed early because it didn’t have enough healthy actors, at one point recruiting the playwright himself to come onstage and play a role.
One of the most painful blows was Ntozake Shange’s revival of “For Colored Girls”, which struggled to find an audience. The cast of seven black women included deaf actress Alexandria Wailes and, until recently, a pregnant Kenita R. Miller. It garnered critical acclaim and a whopping seven Tony Award nominations. But it will close this week.
“In past seasons, if there had been a play with seven Tony Award nominations and this group of rave reviews, the show would have gone on for quite some time,” says Simons, the lead producer. “There is an audience for this show. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting the audience into the theater to see the show.”
Despite an excess of inventory and a lack of enough consumers, there were clear game-changers, as “A Strange Loop,” a musical about a gay black playwright, captured a leading 11 nominations, beating established choices like “The Musical Man.” .” Broadway veterans agree that the extraordinary stories were available to those resilient souls who bought tickets.
“I am so proud to be a part of one of the voices of Broadway this year,” said Anna D. Shapiro, who directed Tracy Letts’ Tony-nominated play “The Minutes,” which exposes the delusions at the dark heart of music. American. history. “I am very impressed by the vitality and dynamism.”
Broadway data often suggests improvement one year and then decline the next. Take the 2013-14 season, which was rich in roles for African-Americans, including “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington, Audra McDonald channeling Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” and the dance show ” AfterMidnight.”
There were also African-Americans in non-traditional roles, such as James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie in “Aladdin,” Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe in “Les Miserables,” and Norm Lewis becoming the first Black Phantom on Broadway in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
That season, black actors accounted for 21% of all roles. But the next season, the number fell to 9%.
Camille A. Brown, who this season along with Lileana Blain-Cruz became the second and third black women to be nominated for best directing of a play, has weathered the ups and downs.
“My thing is, let’s see what it looks like next year and the year after that and the year after that.” she says. “I think the landscape was definitely challenging, especially after George Floyd and the events that happened after that. But this is only the first season after all those things happened. So let’s see if it keeps going, keeps evolving and keeps making progress.”
Simons is optimistic that this year’s earnings will last and celebrates that at least a diverse group of actors earned their Broadway credits this season. Predict more Tony winners of color than ever.
“Even though the box office hurt all our feelings, it’s really a celebration because we’ve never seen this kind of diversity on Broadway,” he says. “It’s a weird year and it’s a weird year for both good and bad.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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