Diversity Takes Center Stage on and Off-Broadway in 2013

By Karu F. Daniels
December 31, 2013

From the Broadway and Off-Broadway revivals of Romeo and Juliet, to The Trip to Bountiful, Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Kinky Boots and Awake and Sing!, 2013 was a year of diversity in song and story on the New York stage. 



New York City — boasting to be a cultural melting pot — wouldn't be the epicenter of theatrical arts without a diverse range of shows on and off The Great White Way.

The 2013 calendar year saw what could be some of the most ambitious offerings of diversity to ever tread the boards; from a Cicely Tyson-fronted version of Horton Foote's classic The Trip to Bountiful and a nod to traditional Hebrew culture and its brief dalliance with rock music (Soul Doctor), to the "theatre event" Here Lies Love that was David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's surprising hit and an all-female take on Othello. There seems to have been something for just about everyone.

Broadway, with its glitzy star power and limitless marketing reach, saw a splash of color — the rainbow flag kind — when Harvey Fierstein's latest tuner Kinky Boots, arrived in the spring. Based on the 2006 indie drama, which helped launch the career of 2014 Oscar hopeful Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years A Slave"), the musical adaptation featured the direction and choreography of Jerry Mitchell, the songs of Grammy Award-winning pop music veteran Cyndi Lauper and the big return of underrated dynamo Billy Porter, making a triumphant comeback to The Great White Way after nearly 15 years.

The story, about how a black drag queen saves the day for a British shoemaker, translated into box-office gold at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, and Pittsburgh native Porter won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical — an honor many thought was long overdue.

"Things happen in exactly the way they're supposed to happen," Porter said in an interview, also noting that show's leading character being outwardly gay is "a move in the right direction because it makes the process of the storytelling and how the story is told resonate a little bit differently."

Gay themes were also central throughout the storylines of other works including Tarell Alvin McCraney's provocative play Choir Boy, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and starring Jeremy Pope as Pharus, a gay teen grappling with acceptance and bigotry at a historically black prep school for boys. Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper portrayed the headmaster at the school of pupils who included Wallace Smith (who will be seen in Rocky in 2014) and Grantham Coleman (last seen in Charles Fuller's short-lived One Night at the Cherry Lane Theatre).

Fun Home, the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir about her sexual discovery as a youth, was referred to by New York Magazine as "one of the first mainstream musical productions to feature a young, lesbian protagonist." And uptown at Harlem's School of the Arts, The Movement Theatre Company presented Harrison David Rivers' latest play, Look Upon Our Lowliness: a spoken word elegy for a chorus of male voices. The touching work centered around a group of young gay men of color in the big city dealing with the tragic loss of one of their closest friends. The Curio Theatre Company's production of a lesbian version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which played in Philadelphia, truly turned "The City of Brotherly Love" to "The City of Sisterly Affection."

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.

Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Broadway also saw a much-anticipated revival of Romeo and Juliet, which bowed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre starring international box-office star Orlando Bloom and two-time Tony Award nominee Condola Rashad in the leading roles. David Leveaux breathed a new life into this ancient tragic love story with Harley Davidson motorcycles and a modern scenic aesthetic, while Shakespeare's text was enlighted with warring families of different racial backgrounds. According to Rashad, the interracial romance aspect of the new version of the great bard's play was not initially on the agenda: "That wasn't [David's] intention of how it happened. He basically wanted to work with me and he wanted to work with Orlando as well, and it just happened organically."

Jekyll & Hyde, starring Tony-nominated "American Idol" alum Constantine Maroulis and R&B chart-topper Deborah Cox also had a look and feel of interracial romance dynamics; while Off-Broadway the National Asian American Theater's new production of Clifford Odets beloved 1930's classic Awake and Sing! was staged with an all-Asian cast at Walkerspace at Soho Rep. Classic Stage Company's Off-Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet also brought diversity to the bard, with a cast that featured  Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi as the doomed lovers. 

It wasn't a classic but it was fresh and new, and was a celebration of Asian culture, per se: Here Lies Love by Talking Heads mastermind and Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. The theatrical tribute to disgraced Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos originated as a 2010 concept album. The show, which played at The Public Theater, became the sleeper hit of the summer. With a pulsating dance club atmosphere, the inventive theatrical experience defied what we all know as traditional stage fare. It wasn't a biography, nor a typical book musical. And clearly not a play. It had full audience participation incorporated into the production by making the show happen around the audience.

David Jamal Williams, who was an associate producer of Romeo and Juliet, said he was "encouraged by the progress" when asked about diversity on Broadway but also noted: "... there is still more work that can be done to attract diverse audiences and ensure there is equity and parity on stage as well as behind the scenes."