The discussion about opportunity and employment with regards to race is a long and controversial one in the history of theatre. Last year, the 2015-2016 Broadway season was seen as a banner year for diversity (in race, religion, physical ability etc), but many wondered if the display marked actual progress that would continue forward, or simply a fluke. The issue is not relegated to commercial New York theatre, of course. Recently, the debate garnered new fuel when a producer in Portland, Oregon was refused the rights to produce Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? due to his choice to cast a black actor in the featured role of Nick.
African-American actors Denée Benton (a 2017 Tony nominee for her starring role in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) and Norm Lewis (a 2012 Tony nominee currently starring in Off-Broadway’s Sweeney Todd) sat down with The Great Comet general manager Andy Jones to talk about their experiences auditioning and working in entertainment and their hopes for the future of the industry.
I’ve heard you say that you were surprised that you’re being considered for Natasha, a classic white princess.
Denée Benton: You know, it was less even about the culture that they were representing and more about “If there’s gonna be a beautiful soprano on Broadway, she’s gonna be white.” If it’s not specifically a black story—if it’s not Ragtime or Porgy and Bess or Show Boat—and “clearly, this is a black woman,” then historically, they just don’t cast us. I would have just assumed they weren’t looking for me to tell that story. But ingenues like Natasha came very easily to me….
And so with Natasha I fell in love with her. And I was scared to want it, because I was scared to be let down. But I had gone in for [director] Rachel [Chavkin] and [writer] Dave [Malloy] before with a different show and I felt like they really saw me. Like they saw my essence and they wanted to see what I could bring, not like this box that I needed to bring. I was too young for the role, but when I found out it was the same creative team, I thought “Oh. They’re a little bit woke. They’ll be willing to see [me].” And it gave me a confidence: “Okay, this is a real thing.”
Norm, by contrast, for a long time you’ve been playing roles that most people would see as a classically white role. There was a big deal recently when you played the Phantom; you also did Javert in Les Miz, Triton in The Little Mermaid. So this is not really a new thing for you.
Norm Lewis: Not really. I was thinking earlier about how I was lucky enough to be in an environment where I never thought of myself as the President of the United States, but I never thought of myself as not the President of the United States. You know what I mean? If you work hard, you can achieve anything. Not saying that just working hard is enough. I’ve been very blessed and fortunate. But I just showed up. Unless they specifically ask for blond hair and blue eyes, I was there. And maybe they saw my essence as well.
Both of you have also played roles that are also more traditionally conceived as African-American roles. Denee you played a Black Lives activist in UnREAL. And Norm, you played Porgy in Porgy and Bess, where the Gershwins really insist that Porgy be played by a black actor. Is that a completely different experience, in terms of developing your approach to those characters?
NL: I think you find out what’s in the script. You find out what is in the music, you know, if you’re talking about musical theatre. You cannot help but bring your own experience—whether it be black, white, or indifferent—to a particular role. I brought a lot of blackness to the Phantom.
What do you mean?
NL: I remember one black man who said he saw my hands [and my skin color because the mask covers so much of my face]. He didn’t know that I was in the show and that changed the whole perspective of the show for him, me trying to pursue this white woman, me wearing a mask to be accepted in this society, the killing of people with a noose. I mean, it just brought in so many different things.
DB: Oh yeah, those images. The history’s there.
NL: Yeah, the history’s there. So he looked at it from a different perspective. But with Porgy—and all of us being African American in the show, bringing in our experiences of our community to this particular role—I think that that’s what translated onstage and to the audience.
DB: I think for me if the role is great and written well, then you can bring great work to it. And the role of Ruby, this black rights activist, she wasn’t a stereotype. She was a fully fleshed out human being. She had a story arc. She had love. She had loss. I think the issue for me, for the black roles that are available, many of them are wonderful and written well, but there’s so few of them that if you don’t do them well, then you’re afraid you won’t work. Or in film and television especially, the kind of stereotype sidekick black girl… There’s no meat to it.
With Ruby and Natasha, because they were women who were written well, what I bring to them as an actor in my process is similar. The experiences I bring will be different, because the roles are different, but I feel like you approach it with your same gifts and with your same tact. Some lines ring differently because of the history that comes with my aesthetic. There was a line in the show where I’m talking to Sonya about Anatole. And I would say, “He’s my master. And I am his slave, what can I do?” I flagged it, of course. “Oh, that’s interesting, but it’s Russia.” So the conversation we ended up having was that the fact of the matter is that we [as the production] are in America. And this does have that history. And do we want the audience to even go there? If I’m saying I’m the slave of this white man who I’m in love with? But I think it’s exciting, like with Phantom, the world has room for things to have different perspectives and dynamics.
Miss Saigon, when Jonathan Pryce was cast as the original Engineer, it’s all anybody talked about because he wasn’t Asian. And yet, in The Great Comet, Denée, nobody in the audience really talks about the fact that an African-American woman plays Natasha.
DB: Because I’m not taking a part from anyone. If there are ten shows written in a year, nine of those roles she will be considered for a white woman without a question. It won’t be a question about race. It won’t be an in-depth conversation. In the writer’s mind, when they close their eyes, that’s who they’re writing. And so for a show like Miss Saigon… Okay, you’re not gonna let me tell anybody else’s story. But you have to let me tell my story. You won’t let me tell your story. You won’t let me tell my story. How am I supposed to work?
NL: No, but it’s true. That’s one reason why The Wiz was written. That’s one reason why a lot of these shows, especially in the ‘70s, were written as the “black” version of something. Because the opportunities were not given. Now it’s a little bit different. Josh Henry is going to play—which I’m so happy about—the lead in Carousel. I mean, that has been a dream role of mine for years. But I don’t think I would have been considered for that when it came out when. A lot of black women made advancements in the opera, classical world, because they were seen as the damsel in distress or the exotic, but as far as a male playing the tenor, the lead tenor, he would never be hired. Because they didn’t see him as a romantic lead. They saw him as the brother, the father, the best friend, or whatever, the baritone.
DB: I feel like in theatre, film, and television, I think about the things that black women are supposed to be able to do. We’re supposed to walk in the room, be strong. We need to be sassy. We’ve got to have attitude. We need to tell it like it is, blah, blah, blah. But no one wants to see us be soft. No one wants to see us be gentle. No one wants to see us be beautiful and cherished, right? And so it plays with your mind growing up, what you think you are allowed to do, what you think you’re worthy of, what we see in the culture affects how kids treat each other. It affected my dating prospects in school when I was a kid. All of those things, it’s far more powerful than being in a casting room hearing, “Oh, we just don’t see her as that.” I think rewriting the opportunities—because there are some black women that comes very naturally to and they are fierce. But what about those of us who are also extremely talented and have as many stories to tell? Why isn’t there space for us? If you’re a handsome white man, you can play a World War II hero, you can play a trans woman, you can play an Asian man. They let you transform as an artist. Hey, I also want to save the world from aliens!
NL: Have you had the “Can you be more urban?”
DB: It is so just irritating. I did this voiceover audition and I just ended up leaving, because I felt like ”Ma’am, I can’t give you what you want.” You know? And they said “We’re really going for this sassy, really urban vibe.” And I said “Well, I’m from the suburbs. So I can’t do it.” And the thing is “Well, you play a character.” And I think “Yes, that’s fine. And if I get cast as a character that has a completely different background than me, that’s great. But if that is all I’m allowed to do based on the stereotypes that you’ve decided black people are supposed to be, that’s when it’s racism, you know what I mean? Because I can play a valley girl That’s not the point. It’s the lack of versatility. And most of the time, it’s being asked to sound less educated and less like you have your stuff together.
So do you think that this opportunity that you got, Denée, is a one-off? Or is this going to be more frequent going forward?
DB: For me personally I think it’s less about being allowed to play white women as it is as being allowed to play roles that are really good, that I can do really well. And I think that I’ve been a little spoiled and fortunate that the roles that I got to play over the last year, this and Ruby, and even Nabulungi in the Book of Mormon were just really good roles. And I have a feeling that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder now. And I won’t really want to settle for anything less or I’ll just have to write my own things and get very rich and produce them myself.
NL: Plus you’ve been nominated for a Tony.
DB: Yeah, that too. But it just means a lot. I think it pushes social justice forward. It’s all a manifestation of the same problems that our country perpetuates in every industry. And so for our industry, we can’t go backwards. Will this happen again? Is every team like Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy and the Comet producers? Probably not. Might it be another five years before another black woman really stars in a Broadway show that’s not the same five roles that have been redone for the last 50 years? I don’t know. For me, Denée, I really hope it changes. Because it’s a different form of oppression to be kept from it, in my opinion.
Norm, do you see things shifting?
NL: I mean, Hamilton helped a lot, because—
DB: Because it made so much money, too. So nobody can argue that.
NL: You can’t argue with the color green. I mean, no one’s gonna argue with that. Because even 1776 that they did at Encores! They did a reconstruction, if you will, because of Hamilton. And so I think there’s a shift that’s happening. But, you know, Denée being so visible and having the accolades that you’re getting, I think a lot of people are going to change their minds. You know when Audra came out, there were a lot of people writing shows for her and seeing her as this person who could play anything. And they put her in a lot of different things in that way. So I’m hoping that that continues on that path. And the success of your show helps.
DB: Whenever there’s a black girl in the audience, I stare at her extra long. I’m thinking “You can do it.”