Diversity Takes Center Stage on and Off-Broadway in 2013

By Karu F. Daniels
31 Dec 2013

Beth Malone in Fun Home.
Photo by Joan Marcus

"For years straight people have been taking for granted the notion of watching a relationship on stage that's easily accessible to them," Curio's artistic director Paul Kuhn told The New York Times. "But gays and lesbians have had to take a leap. We want heterosexuals to see it through their lens."

Feminism roared loudly with shows presenting fierce female personalities in their full form. Diva deluxe Bette Midler made a splashy return to Broadway as legendary Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers in I'll Eat You Last, which got rave reviews and played to sold-out audiences. Debra Jo Rupp took on the full likeness and candor of famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Mark St. Germain's Becoming Dr. Ruth at the Westside Theatre, former home to Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. Jeannette Bayardelle, whose Broadway credits include The Color Purple and Hair, empowered herself and wrote and starred in an ambitious one-woman, multi-character play entitled Shida, which played Ars Nova. Channeling some of the drama and sadness brought to light by Ntzoke Shange's iconic For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf, Bayardelle took audience members on a roller coaster ride of emotion with her best friend's trajectory — involving molestation, addiction and terminal illness — all while singing powerfully in between her poetic prose.

Though it was only for one night, New Heritage Theatre Group's presentation of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice, featuring an all-female cast, could signal what's ahead in gender-bending theatre. With recent Broadway shows starring Alan Cumming (Macbeth), Bertie Carvel (Matilda The Musical) and Mark Rylance (in the all-male Twelfth Night) playing female roles, well, why not an all-female version of a legendary play? Directed by Lisa Wolpe, who also played Iago, and co-starring Debra Ann Byrd as Othello, the special presentation was the closing night performance of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival at City College of New York. The burgeoning Brooklyn theatre scene also saw London's Donmar Warehouse bring its courageous production of an all-female Julius Caesar, set in a prison equipped with a live trash metal band.

Ray Fisher and K. Todd Freeman in Fetch Clay Make Man.
photo by Joan Marcus

Religion's light was shone in a few shows like the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Bad Jews, a comedy about two Jewish cousins feuding over their grandfather's necklace. In Will Power's magnificent New York Theatre Workshop production of Fetch Clay Make Man, the untold relationship of boxing champion Muhammad Ali and much maligned Hollywood actor Stepin Fetchit is explored in its totality — and the role the Nation of Islam played in its demise. And then there was Soul Doctor, a non-stop, event-filled musical romp (equipped with heartless Nazis and Holy hippies) telling most of the life story of rock star Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who became a folk music icon during the 1960s. A romance with civil rights activist and singer Nina Simone had a brief arc in this short-lived Daniel Wise production.

And then there was race. Often treated as window dressing on Broadway, racial dynamics (or the look and feel of them) sprouted up in 2013. Theatregoers were excited to see a multiple Emmy Award-winning film and television actress return to Broadway after more than three decades; not only in an American classic, but with a mostly black cast. Cicely Tyson led a troupe which included Condola Rashad, Vanessa Williams and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. in the revival of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful. The well-reviewed Michael Wilson-helmed play about an elderly woman and her final wish to return to her rural hometown roots was extended and netted Tyson a battery of theatre accolades, including the Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Play. On television, it was nice to see five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald portray Mother Abbess in NBC's live musical production of The Sound of Music.