The Breakout Season and the Evolution of Diversity on the Great “White” Way | Playbill

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Special Features The Breakout Season and the Evolution of Diversity on the Great “White” Way A dozen actors and creatives—including Kenny Leon, Alex Lacamoire, Audra McDonald, Sophie Okonedo, Ruthie Ann Miles and more—weigh in on the season that challenged the status quo and raised new questions on Broadway’s “new normal.”

When the 70th Annual Tony Award nominations were announced May 3, it cemented the fact that the 2015-2016 Broadway season has been one of unprecedented diversity. Of the 40 acting nominations in eight categories, 14 went to actors of color, and there’s a strong possibility that all four acting categories on the musical side could be won by a nonwhite actor.

Only a year ago, to see such a wide variety of roles being written for diverse actors in starring roles on Broadway seemed unimaginable. With long-running Broadway productions like The King and I, The Book of Mormon, Beautiful, Kinky Boots, and Disney classics The Lion King and Aladdin, commercial theatre on the Great White Way continues to provide opportunities for multicultural and multiethnic actors in traditional roles. However, while many of these productions present diverse representation of the broader fabric of American life and abroad, there could still be room for improvement: Nonwhite actors everywhere are often typecast into playing certain ethnic groups, cultures or class of people.

Challenging the stereotype
“My first professional gig was in Charlotte, NC,” says Filipino-American actor Conrad Ricamora, who is currently starring in The King and I on Broadway and the Shonda Rhimes primetime phenomenon How To Get Away With Murder on ABC. “I had no clue what I was doing, it was Anything Goes—and on the first or second day the choreographer came up to me and said, ‘Can you be more Chinese?’ and there was no in-depth character to be had, they just wanted me to be Chinese! To come from that to doing the work I am doing now, I am so blessed and just so grateful.”

As Lun Tha, the scholarly star-crossed lover of Tuptim in Lincoln Center’s hit revival, Ricamora shatters stereotypes, redefining the Asian leading man as unabashedly masculine, sexual and desirable.

“It’s extremely embarrassing to ever be confronted with someone telling you that you’re playing a part in being sexy,” Ricamora laughs. “I do think that that is cool though. Because growing up, I didn’t have any role models who were Asian men to look up to, and I definitely—still to this day, and through years of therapy—am still dealing with loving the way that I look. Loving my skin tone, not being angry and wishing that my eyes were a different shape or that my nose was a different shape because that was the standard of handsome or beauty growing up for everyone… [being] white.”

Such a lack of visibility and dearth of opportunities to play multidimensional characters could be the reason why nonwhite actors typically find it difficult to be honored with accolades come award season.

Born to a Korean mother in Arizona and raised in Oahu, HI, Ruthie Ann Miles made history when she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Lady Thiang in The King and I in 2015, becoming only the second actress of Asian descent ever to win the trophy—24 years after Lea Salonga won for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Miss Saigon in 1991. (David Henry Hwang previously won for Best Play and B.D. Wong for Best Featured Actor.)

Ruthie Ann Miles Photo by Paul Kolnik

“In school, I spent a couple of years in a Shakespearean conservatory-type training school and we never really talked about diversity in theatre. I felt very empowered to play Queen Elizabeth or Lady Ann and that’s what we would work on in class,” Miles says. “Then when I got my master’s at NYU. Again, it wasn’t something we talked about. It wasn’t anything we talked about in business skills class or auditioning for this or that show, it was never on my radar of, ‘Oh, I look different so, therefore, I’m going to be treated differently in the real world,’ and I don’t know if that was a benefit or a detriment.”

According to the Broadway League, as of the 2014-2015 season, 80 percent of theatre-going audiences are Caucasian, and according to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, 70 percent of all roles on Broadway and non-profits went to white actors that same year. Because the vast majority of lead roles are not offered to nonwhite actors, many diverse actors feel the pressure of representing their culture in a positive light. But Courtney Reed, an actress of mixed heritage who plays the role of Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin, says she didn’t think of ethnicity or race when pursuing the role; however, her interaction with audiences and fans has illustrated the need for representation and the responsibility that comes along with it.

“I do feel the responsibility when I am at the stage door,” says Reed, recalling experiences meeting her youngest fans. “I know what that means because it’s not only a responsibility to carry on [Jasmine’s] legacy as an animated character, but also as her being the first ethnic Disney princess.”

“I never even thought of [race] as I created the role,” admits actor Adam Jacobs, who originated the the title character in Aladdin. “I was just trying to tell the story the best way I can, but the fact that I happen to be half-Asian, it didn’t come into my thought process. It’s just who I am. But I think if we can all get to that place, then that’s great.” Born to a Catholic mother of Filipino descent and a Jewish father of Russian, Dutch and Polish descent, Jacobs has racked up a variety of diverse roles on Broadway, including Marius in Les Misérables and Simba in Disney’s The Lion King, but says he’s proud “to have the support of Kababayans in the Filipino community.”

When their co-star James Monroe Iglehart won the 2014 Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for the role of Genie, he became the first actor of color to win the title in 17 years, after Chuck Cooper won in 1997 for his role in The Life.

Iglehart points out change that happened on Broadway in between: productions confronting race relations, Hairspray and Memphis, won the prize for Best Musical in their eligible years; Norm Lewis became the first African-American to don the iconic mask on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera; Keke Palmer became the first African-American to headline Cinderella; Patina Miller took home the Tony for her performance as the Leading Player in Pippin (a role traditionally cast as male); the 2015 revival of Les Misérables tapped nonwhite actors to play pivotal roles; and theatre legend Audra McDonald made history, winning a record-breaking sixth Tony. Perhaps the biggest game-changer of this season is Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, which became the first show in Broadway history to be written, directed and performed by black women.

However, even with such strides on the Great White Way, Iglehart says there are still lingering stereotypes and expectations in the casting room.

“They are looking for someone to sing the highest notes possible and to scream the gospel-est sounds you could possibly scream, because that’s what black guys do…. Not all of us are tenors from a Church of God in Christ church,” Iglehart says. “Some of us are baritone with real R&B voices, some of us have legit musical theatre voices. When I was coming up there were three voices that changed that for me and they were Chuck Cooper, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Norm Lewis.”

“I think we’re having a banner year this year,” says Audra McDonald, who currently appears in Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, “but it’s not always like that, and I don’t want people to be lulled into a false sense of security that this is what it’s like every single year.”

Bringing diverse stories to Broadway
Theatre-makers have provided an invigorating abundance of opportunities this season for nonwhite actors with diverse perspectives to tell African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Latin-American stories as well as stories led by women and the Deaf community. Shows like On Your Feet!, Eclipsed, Allegiance, Shuffle Along, Amazing Grace, revivals of The Color Purple and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as Deaf West Theatre’s revival of Spring Awakening all brought new narratives (and authentic reimaginings of old ones) to the Broadway stage. Spring Awakening, in particular, integrated Deaf and hearing cast members and featured the first actor in a wheelchair cast in a role not written for a disabled person in a commercial production. The seemingly radical concept pierced the heart of the show, bringing an astounding and authentic depth to the story as though it had been waiting to be uncovered all along. The varied perspectives portrayed on the stage made this one of the most exciting seasons on record.

Before composing Allegiance, which played earlier this season at the Longacre Theatre, Jay Kuo worked for the Asian Law Caucus, so it’s no surprise that he first took on the subject of Japanese American internment as a legal question. Inspired by the personal experiences of Star Trek alum George Takei, Allegiance follows a Japanese-American family forced to leave their farm in Salinas, CA during World War II and sent to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in the Wyoming rural plains. Kuo, a Chinese-American musical composer, says American culture tends to pool Asians together and he wanted to write a specifically Japanese-American story that had not been depicted before in theatre.

“This was an opportunity for Asian Americans to tell an Asian-American story,” says Kuo. “When you come to this country, we come from different cultures, but once you land here, whether you’re Japanese, Chinese or Korean, it’s like boom! You’re the same, and so you wind up adopting a similar cultural lingo and cultural connection, or lack of, sometimes.”

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Ana Villafañe understands where Kuo is coming from. She stars as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet! According to a 2013-2014 theatrical season report by Actors Equity, Latino and Hispanic actors account for merely 2.9 percent of active membership, forcing such performers to compete in a limited work pool. “It’s funny to me because if you look at our cast, everyone has on their resume some production of West Side Story, some production of In The Heights, because that’s all there is,” says Villafñe.

“Now we are seeing these [new] roles being written, and it’s very refreshing to be a part of that new generation of actors that are getting a chance to tell our real story,” says the classically trained Miami-bred actress-singer of Cuban and Salvadoran heritage. “In our case, On Your Feet! is a story about the American Dream, and it’s incredible to play a Latino story where no one has a gun in their pocket or a knife and there are no gang crimes.”

Looking at classics in a new light
While social media campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite articulated the need to cultivate and also recognize multicultural casts and stories about people of color on screen, #TonysSoDiverse sparked a powerful national dialogue on the progress commercial theatre is making. No doubt, that’s because theatre-makers are leading the charge on non-traditional and color-blind casting, fueling a growing discourse on representation in the gargantuan $1.37 billion Broadway industry, which reached 13.3 million ticket buyers this year. Four shows in particular fueled the conversation: The Gin Game and Hughie, works originally cast with white performers were revived with actors of color, as well as Hamilton and the Ivo van Hove-directed revival of The Crucible, which push the limits of colorblind casting. Even classics like Les Miz recognized and embraced the need for colorblind casting, putting actors on stage who are representative of the musical’s diverse global audience.

“[Producer] Scott Rudin offered me that part of Elizabeth Proctor just as I was at the end of the run of Raisin in the Sun,” says Tony winner Sophie Okonedo, now Tony-nominated for her work as Proctor in The Crucible. “He didn’t say anything about the color of my skin, he just said that, ‘I want you to be Elizabeth Proctor because you are right for the part.’ To be honest, that’s the kind of world I want to live in, where I get a given part because I’m the best person for it at that time.”

Without a doubt, the show that has gotten the most national attention, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, advocates this. The show boasts a company of multi-ethnic actors who are notably black, Latino and Asian, playing white historical figures. Spawning what writers have called “The Hamilton Effect,” the show influenced New York City Center to cast a multiethnic ensemble for an Encores! production of 1776.

Alex Lacamoire, a Tony and Grammy Award-winning first-generation Cuban-American orchestrator and frequent collaborator of Miranda’s, attributes the show’s success not merely to its diverse casting, but Miranda’s musical authenticity. Lacamoire states that in order to see more diverse shows with diverse actors, theatre-makers must have more of an emotional intelligence, not only in the casting room, but also in the storytelling and musical process.

“I feel that when the source understands the music intrinsically and instinctively, it’s going to be a great experience,” says Lacamoire. “No offense to Paul Simon, an amazing songwriter who [wrote] the music for The Capeman; that was his take on Latin music or his take on what that era sounded like, it was a show about Latino people, but I don’t know if that had the same kind of emotional impact that In The Heights had for Latino people.”

He continues: “Look at On Your Feet! I mean, they are doing fantastic right now, and the music that is in there is expressively written by people who understand Latin music and the feel and the rhythm and it’s like second nature to them,” Lacamoire says. “When you are not trying to research stuff that you might not be familiar with [and] you’re not trying to imitate something… I’m not saying one is more successful than the other, it depends on what you are trying to do, but for me I feel more invested when the songs are written by…someone of that ilk.”

Tony-winning actress Tonya Pinkins also agrees that it’s about authenticity, not just to the story but also to the people who are telling it. Pinkins made her mark starring in politically-charged productions of Play On!, Radio Golf, The Wild Party, The Hurt Village, Rasheeda Speaking, Caroline, or Change and Jelly’s Last Jam. Pinkins made headlines this season after leaving a production of Mother Courage at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company due to creative differences with the production’s director.

“Coming to New York, I would say, was very difficult for me because I was classically trained and raised Catholic; most of my jobs in my early career, doing them felt fake and shameful,” says Pinkins. “I was always asked to do riffs and runs and that’s not my culture. But I can sing some Latin hymns for you.”

In terms of authentic storytelling, the actress applauds John Doyle’s inspired work on the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, but Pinkins notes that there are still issues that often persist in the industry when white directors take on stories about people of color. “My experience of most plays [with] black artists that are directed by white directors—and this is most, I’d be hard-pressed to find one that is different—is that their idea of what black is, is just inaccurate and so they ask black actors to be a caricature of themselves,” she says. “I’ve gone to see some of my most favorite actors do work under a white gaze that is just inauthentic. And I’ve had that experience myself where I just have to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’ and if that makes me difficult then don’t work with me. But I will not do caricatures of my people.”

Making the trend the norm
Theatre-makers working on Broadway still have a long way to go and a lot of doors need to be kicked open.

Director Kenny Leon believes change must first happen behind the scenes. “I think America has a diversity issue, but I think we are seeing more diversity [on Broadway] than in years past,” says director Kenny Leon. “You have to look deeper and see who’s on the creative team, how many designers are African American, Asian, Latino—and if you look deeper, you’ll think that we can do a better job of inclusion, but I do not believe in my heart that [the community of] Broadway is, by any means, racist.”

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The Tony Award-winning Atlanta-based director won praise for his work on NBC’s The Wiz Live! when it aired last December. Set to direct NBC’s upcoming musical Hairspray Live! later this year, Leon staunchly supports non-traditional casting for the first-ever Broadway revivals of Children of a Lesser God and Proof, of which he will be at the helm in the 2016-2017 season. But Leon urges young artists of color, especially young black theatre-makers seeking greater positive change in representation on Broadway, to go back and look at classic works by multi-ethnic playwrights that aren’t revived often. The director co-founded the non-profit theatre company True Colors with Jane Bishop in 2002, which produces world-premiere plays by diverse playwrights and preserves African-American classics.

Leon says fellow director George C. Wolfe did just that on this season’s star-studded production of Shuffle Along, a telling of the history behind the original 1921 musical. More than an exploration of the African-American artistic experience, Shuffle Along serves as a cultural testament to the artistry of those who came before, introducing new generations of theatregoers to the monumental achievements of black artists whose work was nearly lost to history or cannibalized into other cultural narratives.

“We all can do what we can do individually,” Leon says about fostering mentorships with young talent, noting the dearth of black directors working on Broadway. “I have a wonderful assistant director that works with me, Kamilah Forbes, that I demand work with me on every project, and now she’s starting to direct shows on her own. In a year or so, the commercial world will know she’s out there and capable. We also have to spend time at our universities and connect the dots to people learning about how to get to the next step.”

If the 2015-2016 Broadway season is the future of theatre and all of its complexity, we will be better for it. Will theatre-makers continue to produce complex works of art with diverse actors and stories? Might we see more by way of transgender representation, opportunities for actors with disabilities, Muslim stories and more? Only time will tell.

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