Six star Brittney Mack had only been in her dressing room at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for three minutes, just hours before the scheduled opening night of her Broadway debut, when Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a shutdown of New York theatres due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With her theatre filled with flowers and gifts, Mack was brimming with excitement and then, suddenly, confusion.
“In those three minutes, it was the best feeling ever. And then I had to shake it off very quickly because I knew that my phone was about to blow up. Everyone's asking, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ And I thought, ‘I just heard [the news] like you did. I don’t know what I’m feeling,'" Mack recalls. "The thing is, it didn’t just happen to Six. All of Broadway shut down. And not just for the people on the stage but for [everyone offstage]; you’re talking ushers, dressers, sound engineers, bartenders… I immediately felt the weight of our entire community.”
In many ways, though, Mack was better suited than other theatre professionals who were reeling from the news—she was surrounded by family and friends, a community who came to New York City for Six’s opening.
“I don’t know if it was because I was full from the support of my family being here right at the top of the shutdown,” she ponders, reflecting on the strength it took navigating the first few days of the pandemic in New York City. “We had some really great prayer and meditation and conversations. My circle, we’re big into pouring into each other, which can be a bit different than just being encouraging. That pouring in has some staying power. We did that quite a bit and then when they left, I was okay. I had enough fuel to get through it.”
But when you uproot your life for a show that ultimately was not able to open, the question is not necessarily how to get through it. The question becomes what to get through. Carving a space for yourself on Broadway is challenging enough in normal circumstances. Not only was Mack tasked with building a career in an industry that was no longer functional, she also needed to build a foundation in a city that was largely locked down. Six marked a significant life change for Mack, one so new that even much of her furniture from her home in Chicago hadn't arrived before the pandemic took hold of New York. She was left to plant roots in a version of Manhattan that was just as new to most long-term residents.
“I was like, ‘How am I going to eat? How am I going to pay for this apartment?’ People thought Broadway people were okay. No. The stimulus came around the time as taxes, so it seemed like you had something that you didn’t. And if you’re just living off your unemployment—it’s not enough. Every day, you’re living with the mentality, 'It’s not enough.'”
Still, Mack persisted by establishing daily routines while sheltering in place in Harlem, from calls with her mom to forging mental self-care habits to creating crafts in order to occupy her time. And then, like the rest of Broadway, she began taking steps to navigate the great unknown of her career, adapting with technology and the moment. She has spent her time teaching online through workshops, private lessons, and more. “I’m not very technology savvy, but honey, I had to learn!” she jokes. “Every day I try to have some sort of lesson, but it’s hard.”
But perhaps the biggest ongoing task is creating happiness during a time marked by mass unemployment with no anticipated date for Broadway to return. “I’m not going to lie, it takes work. It takes effort. It is so much harder to appreciate the good than it is to dwell on the bad. Things are what they are, and they’re going to be this way for a while. And, it’s going to be alright. The work is to choose joy.”
While Mack is making the most of the current moment, she also relishes the experience with Six: the show, the fandom, the life-changing adventure. Especially in a time in history in which the world reckons with race, she doesn’t take her experience for granted. “I’m a Black woman from Chicago playing a German woman. And I see Adriana Hicks playing a Spanish queen, looking like a Wakandan bumble bee. And I see a Filipino woman playing a French-British queen—this is the Broadway we are striving for. Real life stories can be told by anyone. There are no boundaries.”
And, of course, she is looking to the future. “This quarantine has reminded me of time—how much time you have to make an impact. When I come back to Broadway as Anna of Cleves, everyone is coming! I want Gabrielle Union, Blue Ivy, Ariana Grande! The Tonys, the Grammys, the Oscars, EGOTs: I’m here for all of it!”