Broadway is under a massive overhaul. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Central Park incident in which Amy Cooper placed a false 911 call to threaten black birdwatcher Chris Cooper (no relation), and modern-day lynchings that have taken place across the U.S. have prompted a nationwide revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement and a call to anti-racism. A call that the American theatre now answers.
In the past week, we have heard public statements by members of the Black theatrical community about racist experiences in the casting process, in audition rooms, in rehearsal halls, and backstage at shows—from amateur and educational programs to Broadway. Industry figures like Griffin Matthews, Mykal Kilgore, Cody Renard Richard, Warren Adams, Dominique Morisseau, James A Pierce III, Schele Williams, and more shared accounts of racism on Broadway.
With theatres shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to rebuild the system, and actor Brandon Michael Nase has one idea of where to begin. Nase founded the new grassroots organization Broadway for Racial Justice, which officially launches with the #WeAreNotATrend campaign June 19. Joining the ranks of organizations like Broadway Advocacy Coalition, BOLD, and Broadway Black, Broadway for Racial Justice (BFRJ) aims to aid Black artists at every level of their career financially and emotionally.
Nase created BFRJ on two pillars: an emergency fund that artists of color can apply to for financial assistance regardless of credits or union affiliation, and a hotline where BIPOC and POC can report racism in the workplace to a fellow person of color and be assigned an advocate to resolve the issue on their behalf.
“I've always felt like there needs to be a Black-run organization that is a direct line,” Nase tells Playbill, “so that people can come and say, ‘This is what has happened’ and that we could work together with Equity. But also for those people who are not involved in the union to be able to have a place to go that is an organization that can help them.
“There needs to be an organization that can speak to that theatre directly and say, ‘Hey, this is what's going on. How can we come together to fix this and to make this person of color feel safe in this environment?’” Nase continues.
Nase, who has performed with such shows as the Cats national tour, knows firsthand the need for this. “I reported racism in my last contract and what I was met with was [that] a lot of people were appalled that I would even say that,” he says. Following the complaint, the company did not have a protocol in place to handle the situation, so Nase suggested the teams undergo racial bias training. “First of all, I did work that I didn't need to do. I came up with a plan for them,” he says. “And then it's the unspoken tone shift, that everybody's mad that a Black person spoke up and called it out and now it's uncomfortable.”
This situation sounds all too familiar to Black performers. Indeed, this insidious—often called “covert”—racism remains pervasive in the theatre. “We have to understand that Black people saying something is racist—you need to listen to them and assume that it is racism,” he says. “We have got to progress and move on from this idea that you're only racist if you say the N-word and believe in slavery.”
BFRJ has called upon Actors' Equity Association, along with previously-established advocacy groups, to collaborate in creating a protocol for dealing with racist incidences in the workplace—one that likely involves the hiring of an outside firm to establish. “How are [the theatres] looking at these experiences? Are they looking at these experiences through their white gaze? Do they have somebody on their team who is Black, who is looking at it in that sense?” Nase posits.
Nase hopes to get rules in place that would assure two things: “A sincere apology given to this actor, and then, what are the steps you're going to take to make sure that doesn't happen again for him or for anybody in your theatre?”
And though Broadway is in BFRJ’s title, Nase uses it as a beacon for the overarching theatre community; BFRJ will serve non-union workers, and that goes for emergency financial assistance, as well.
“I want to give money to Black people, to Black creatives, and I want to give a space for them to come and be able to be heard and to be loved and to be seen in times of deep trauma and deep stress regardless of their union affiliation, their credits, etc,” Nase says.
Nase, his board of directors, and his advisory committee are in the midst of establishing their official non-profit status and, along with it, a fund to which BIPOC can apply. Applications will be reviewed by the board and approved, similar to the operations of The Actors Fund—which supplies emergency financial assistance and grants to all professionals in the entertainment industry. The big difference, however, is in regards to eligibility.
The Actors Fund requires proof of five years of earnings in the industry. “I'm not attacking The Actors Fund in any way; I am a recipient of The Actors Fund,” says Nase, who recognizes the need for their qualifications. But it’s also why he recognizes the need for a fund without the same eligibility requirements.
“[There is] systemic racism that leads to black people coming to the city to [work in theatre] and not having any kind of a safety net to fall back on,” he says. Not to mention that “because of racism in casting and not as many Black people getting the opportunities, that then creates this issue of people who don't have the credits and who were just hustling and hustling and hustling, and sometimes need help financially and 100 percent need help emotionally, mentally… just help.”
In forming BFRJ, Nase consulted the history of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Seeing that the AIDS epidemic was just unfathomable, they thought, ‘We need to form something to be able to help these people.’ I was like, ‘That's exactly what I'm doing,” he says. “This racism, white privilege, and white supremacy in our country is unfathomable. It is an epidemic. It is a pandemic of its own. So I said, ‘Let's do it.’”
Nase hopes to join forces with Broadway Cares, the organization that—earlier this week—pledged a $50,000 contribution to Broadway Advocacy Coalition as well as The Bail Project, Color of Change, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (The latter three have been added to the National Grants Program to ensure annual grants in 2021.) And BFRJ hopes to take Broadway Cares’ lead and implement its own kind of “red bucket collection” in February for Black History Month.
Most important to Nase and BFRJ is the continual prioritization of these anti-racism efforts. Casting Black actors is not a trend. Standing up for racial injustice is not a trend. Producing works by Black creatives is not a trend. He hopes that on June 19, with the launch of #WeAreNotATrend, as BIPOC artists will share their stories, white theatremakers, industry members, and audiences will listen, and the movement will continue with vigor.
“I think we're all learning and understanding that white people cannot fully comprehend and understand what it is like to experience racism or just to walk through the world as a Black person,” Nase says. “I think that is a heavy burden to bear.” With BFRJ, BIPOC will not have to do it alone.