The Rise of the Gay Black Hero in Theatre

Special Features   Black and Gay on The Great White Way:
The Rise of the Gay Black Hero in Theatre
The Academy Awards failed to recognize minority actors this year, but theatre pushes further to spotlight the gay black man's story.
Griffin Matthews <i>(Invisible Thread</i>), Billy Porter (<i>Kinky Boots</i>), Colman Domingo (<i>A Boy and His Soul</i>) and Phillip James Brannon (<i>Bootycandy</i>)
Griffin Matthews (Invisible Thread), Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), Colman Domingo (A Boy and His Soul) and Phillip James Brannon (Bootycandy)

At the Academy Awards this year, all of the nominees in the 20 acting categories are white, and the outrage has ignited a dialogue on representation and equal opportunity in showbiz. On the small screen, however, networks made a greater push for racial diversity in television with shows like Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, Empire, Jane the Virgin, Cristela andTelenovela receiving glowing reviews. On and off the Great White Way, theatregoers have experienced the most diverse season in years with productions like Allegiance, Hamilton, Eclipsed, Skeleton Crew, Pageant: The Musical, Gloria, On Your Feet! and revivals of The Color Purple and The Gin Game, as well as a star-studded reimagining of the much-anticipated Shuffle Along. Forest Whitaker will revive Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, marking the first African-American to play the titular part on Broadway. While many note the need for further progress, a slight-but-present trend, nonetheless, has found its way to the theatrical stage this season: For the first time, theatre-makers unapologetically put the gay black man’s experience in the spotlight.

“I believe it’s one of the last frontiers in the landscape of commercial storytelling. It’s our turn,” says actor and playwright Billy Porter via e-mail, in between rehearsals for Shuffle Along.

Frustrated with not seeing characters that reflect his own upbringing, Porter, who earned the Tony Award for his portrayal of the show-stopping drag artist Lola in the Broadway hit musical Kinky Boots, began to pen his own material. Building his confidence as a writer, his first play was fast-tracked after the entertainer took home Broadway’s top prize.

With a cast that included Lillias White and S. Epatha Merkerson, Primary Stages helmed While I Yet Live in 2014. Porter’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age play with music chronicled his experiences growing up as a gay black Christian man in 1980s Pittsburgh, PA and received laurels. “The only thing constant in life is change, and change takes time,” Porter continues. “It took over 15 years for my Pentecostal mother to come around to acceptance, but she did—and we, on the other end of the journey, must be steadfast, immovable and patient [in] how we demand our place at the table.”

Leading the charge in bringing these characters to the stage alongside Porter is Colman Domingo (Scottsboro Boys, Passing Strange), who wrote an intimate coming-of-age drama A Boy and His Soul. The one-man show recounts Domingo’s childhood and coming out in 1970s Philadelphia amid the rise of disco. It won a GLAAD Award and a Lortel, establishing the actor as a playwright.

Colman Domingo in <i>A Boy and His Soul</i>
Colman Domingo in A Boy and His Soul Carol Rosegg

Tarrell Alvin McCraney, 35, emerged as a significant voice when his award-winning dramas, Wig Out! and The Brother/Sister Trilogy, both premiered to rave reviews in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In Marcus; Or, the Secret of Sweet, the finale of McCraney’s three-part play, a 16-year-old boy at war with his sexuality and living in the projects on the Louisiana bayou is forced to square off against a strong-willed community. Other writers who have joined the fray like Aurin Squire, Travis Tate or Rick Watkins, deal with the paradoxes of inclusion and the political processes of what it means to be a gay person of color.

“If I were being cynical (which I can be), I might say that [this proliferation] may be due to what my friend and fellow musical writer, EllaRose Chary calls ‘the trickle down equality of white gay men,’“ says bookwriter and composer-lyricist Michael R. Jackson. “If I were being more charitable (which I also can be), I would say that as the world has begun its change toward recognizing equality for LGBTQ people (inasmuch as it can), more room is being made for stories about marginalized groups, but, even in that, it’s only happened because more black gay men have been pushing to get their stories seen and heard.”

Glenn Davis, Phillip James Brannon, and K. Todd Freeman in Steppenwolf’s <i>The Brother/Sister Plays</i> (<i>The Brother Size</i>)
Glenn Davis, Phillip James Brannon, and K. Todd Freeman in Steppenwolf’s The Brother/Sister Plays (The Brother Size) Michael Brosilow

Playwright and director Robert O’Hara believes that this uptick in gay black stories is just coincidence: “I think there is some kind of confluence of different artists: Billy Porter, myself, and a few other writers of color who are gay, as well, whose work just kind of landed at the same time.”

Last August, Jackson—who is preparing a performance of his seriocomic concept musical A Strange Loop at Feinstein’s/54 Below—penned a daring exposé on diversity in musical theatre in HowlRound. In his op-ed, Jackson expressed the importance of the casting process, noting that it should aim to “decenter whiteness as the primary reference point in the stories nonwhite bodies populate.” One half of the creative team behind the globetrotting rock musical Invisible Thread, actor-writer Griffin Matthews, echoed this standpoint.

Matthews, who penned the musical with collaborator and partner Matt Gould, notes why it was absolutely vital that the musical have a nonwhite protagonist. “I think one of the things we wanted to tackle in Invisible Thread was that a black gay man was the protagonist of the play,” says Griffin of the recent production at Second Stage Theatre that developed a cult following among fans. “He’s not the best friend; he’s not the guy in a corner. … Our show wanted to put the black gay man at the center of the story.”

Griffin Matthews and Michael Luwoye in <i>Invisible Thread</i>
Griffin Matthews and Michael Luwoye in Invisible Thread Joan Marcus

Through his experience with the show, helmed by Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (Pippin), Matthews realized how much power the creatives have, especially in the casting of their show. “If you are going to see a play or a musical, you have to know the creative team has something to do with [not casting diverse actors],” says Matthews. “It wasn’t necessarily because people of color didn’t come out [and audition] for the role, it’s because it starts at the top down.”

Taken from his own experiences, the docu-fiction musical chronicles a closeted actor who leaves New York City to volunteer in a Ugandan village and teach orphans with limited access to education. Although the show received mixed reviews, it tackles the experience of being a gay interracial couple in an inter-faith relationship, blackness as it is viewed locally and abroad, as well as intimacy, masculinity and religion. Matthew expressed that he and Gould were disheartened by reviews despite audience reaction.

Jackson says that because only a few of these plays with gay protagonists of color make it to the stage, he worries that theatregoers don’t have the language to appropriately criticize works by nonwhite musical theatre artists (particularly if they are writing nonwhite people and their stories). With a few recent productions shining a light on these characters and subjects, many of the writers expressed need for more unique voices, especially from LGBT women, and a bigger public platform in theatre, film and TV to be considered progress.

“Every few years, there’s something everyone likes to turn to and go, ‘Look at that anomaly’ and call it a movement,” O’Hara says. “It is not a movement, it is an anomaly, and until it becomes a movement, I’ll say, ‘See how many Hamiltons there are and see how many Bootycandys there are in the next season, because there won’t be many.’ I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think there will be many.”

A scene from <i>Bootycandy</i>
A scene from Bootycandy

Obtaining critical acclaim for the production of his thought-provoking dark comedy Bootcandy at Playwrights Horizons, O’Hara made waves last season for the provocative compilation of sketches that follow a young black man growing up gay in the 1980s.

“My first play, Insurrection, was about a homosexual traveling back in time,” O’Hara explains. “I came out the gate ready [to address gay people of color and their place in society], and knew that I was doing a play about a black man and slaves and gay people. I was told when I first wrote it, ‘Why are you writing about gay people and slaves?’ as if gay people and slaves couldn’t possibly be in the same America. [I was asked] 'Why isn’t it two different plays?' And this was 1995. So, I’ve been ready. I guess you’re going to have to ask the white folks running American theatre and ask them.”

That feeling of readiness was more or less echoed from each of the writers, all of whom desire more opportunity to see multifaceted, complex and emotionally colorful humanity in diverse characters.

The need to create opportunities for actors and more voices in stories compels Matthews in his writing. “It’s less about what we are missing, but opening up the many different versions of what it means to be black and gay. If I want to be black and gay and myself right now on a Broadway stage, I’d rather go and be in Kinky Boots, but if I’m not right for that show, well, then there’s nowhere else for me to go,” he says. “What I think we are trying to do as writers, as I see so many black playwrights and even white ones, to be honest, they are trying to create more roles and more versions of black men and black women.”

Porter says he would like to see more “stories about black men loving each other. Narratives about black men killing each other can get green-lit in an instant. Stories about black men loving each other have not had the same support. It’s disgusting quite frankly.”

Billy Porter and The Angels (Kyle Post, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Joey Taranto and Paul Canaan) in <i>Kinky Boots</i>
Billy Porter and The Angels (Kyle Post, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Joey Taranto and Paul Canaan) in Kinky Boots Matthew Murphy

Save for limited engagements, none of these writers have received the commercial acclaim that plays by white LGBT people have, and few of their plays have actually made it past the literary department. To that point, O’Hara says it’s up to the theatres to also hire more nonwhite talent behind-the-scenes, noting that white theatre-makers direct many plays with black actors on stage. “I find that incredibly problematic,” he said. “It seems to be exciting to have a white director for a black play and not exciting to have a black director for a white play, and because I am a black director I sense that acutely.”

As a musical writer, Jackson also senses this. He continues to write gay black characters “because I’m sick of looking in the mirror of the stage and seeing the same shirtless white gay taking up all of the oxygen in the room and being the mascot for an experience that does not even remotely represent my own.”

“I think that gay black men are completely complicated, exciting and beautiful group of people—that we should see all of their colors,” O’Hara says. “So, I try to present the colors that I have, Tarell presents the colors that he has, Colman presents the colors he has, Marcus [Gardley] and Branden [Jacobs-Jenkins] and Tracey [Scott Wilson] and all the other writers that identify as black and gay.”