They've come a long way, but there's much more that needs to change.
The 2022 Tony Awards was billed as one of the most diverse Tony Awards in history. And that’s not totally untrue. The show saw its first nonbinary winner, “Six: The Musical” writer Toby Marlow. Additionally, there were seven plays written by Black playwrights during this Broadway season, a fact that host Ariana DeBose pointed out in her opening number/monologue. She quipped that it was nice to see that “‘The Great White Way’ is becoming more of a nickname as opposed to a how-to guide.”
And this year was absolutely a benchmark year when it comes to Black representation at the Tonys. As someone who is an avid theater fan (the Tonys are to me what the Oscars are to film people), I love watching the beauty and spectacle of the show. But as a Black woman, I am always aware of the conversations around diversity. They’re incredibly important conversations to be having, and while the Tonys used much of DeBose’s opening monologue to proclaim how diverse Broadway currently is, most of the winners didn’t reflect the sudden push for diversity, more specifically, Black creators and performers.
In the categories of Best Play, Best Director of a Play and Best Featured Actress in a Musical, there were multiple Black nominees, including Black women, but all of the winners were white. Not only white, but white people who have already won before and are critically acclaimed. For most of the show, it would be Black nominee multiple times over a category, only to have a white winner. Watching the show unfold became increasingly more frustrating.
After the national protests and conversations about race in 2020, a group of theater performers and other creatives, including Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sandra Oh, wrote an open letter, “Dear White American Theater.”
“We see you. We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us,” the letter reads.
“We have watched you program play after play, written, directed, cast, choreographed, designed, acted, dramaturged, and produced by your rosters of white theatermakers for white audiences, while relegating a token, if any, slot for a BIPOC play. We see you.”
““A Strange Loop”(@StrangeLoopBway) by Michael R. Jackson (@TheLivingMJ) bills itself as a “Big, Black & Queer-Ass American Musical.” Days before he and the show each won Tony Awards, Jackson talked to me about the spectacular show he spent 18 years writing https://t.co/vkf5S0MSSt”
\u201c\u201cA Strange Loop\u201d(@StrangeLoopBway) by Michael R. Jackson (@TheLivingMJ) bills itself as a \u201cBig, Black & Queer-Ass American Musical.\u201d Days before he and the show each won Tony Awards, Jackson talked to me about the spectacular show he spent 18 years writing https://t.co/vkf5S0MSSt\u201d— Jonathan Capehart (@Jonathan Capehart) 1655236835
One of the biggest issues with diversity on Broadway, at the Tonys or otherwise, is that the people in positions of power are still largely white. Take, for example, the new Broadway musical “A Strange Loop.” It has garnered a lot of buzz since it opened, and it picked up Tonys for Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical. When the show won Best Musical, the award was accepted by its white female producer (Barbara Whitman) along with its Black writer (Michael R. Jackson), despite its performance being presented by Black producers RuPaul Charles and Jennifer Hudson earlier in the broadcast. (Fun fact: Being a producer of the musical scored Hudson an EGOT, making her the second Black woman, and youngest winner overall.)
Clearly, Black producers exist, but they are not the lead producers, and as we know, the lead producers are the ones who become the face of the show in certain aspects. I’m not saying that white producers shouldn’t exist, but to create a more diverse playing field, they should be partnering with BIPOC producers, especially when the show is about a marginalized group. It may not seem like a big deal, but optics really do make it a big deal. It would have been way more impactful to the conversation to see all those Black faces on stage and have a Black person making the speech.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Tony’s, steering committee members of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition Christine Toy Johnson and Pun Bandhu talked about diversity on Broadway—the strides that have been made and areas that still fall short. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition is a group of AAPI theater folks who for the last 10 years have worked to increase opportunities for mainly Asian and Asian American creatives, but also to helping BIPOC communities as well.
Bandhu pointed out that over the years, there’s this swinging pendulum when it comes to representation. He refers to it as a “scarcity model,” where only one marginalized group can be having success at any given time. For example, after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit “In the Heights” opened and won Tonys in 2009, there was a boost in interest surrounding Latino representation. After a show like “The Color Purple,” a boost in telling Black stories. He also added that the amount of diversity on Broadway never “went above 20 percent for marginalized and underrepresented groups from year to year over the course of 10 years.”
“"A Strange Loop is a story that centers the queer Black experience in the Broadway space which very well hits a chord when it comes to the creative process and navigating the world while being queer -- specifically Black and queer." @DinoRay https://t.co/IYqVu0bzwm”
\u201c"A Strange Loop is a story that centers the queer Black experience in the Broadway space which very well hits a chord when it comes to the creative process and navigating the world while being queer -- specifically Black and queer." @DinoRay \nhttps://t.co/IYqVu0bzwm\u201d— GLAAD (@GLAAD) 1655213902
“Thinking that there’s only so much ground that can be given to marginalized groups … leads to this oppression Olympics, a system by which the power structure benefits from having all the marginalized groups competing against each other. What our statistics help to prove is that it’s a larger problem that has to do with centering white narratives and artists at the expense of all else,” Bandhu explained.
While this year was a record year for Black representation on Broadway, that meant that other marginalized racial groups got little to no recognition at all. There were only two Asian nominees this year, for lighting design. And while wins for either of them would have been historic, where is the visible Asian representation?
“I think that there’s been this ongoing myth about [AAPI talent] not existing, which is why we’re not represented,” Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter.
In a 2016 Forbes article, writer Lee Seymour stated that only 12 people of Asian descent have won a Tony—three producers have won more than once. David Henry Hwang was the first—and only—Asian American to win best play, back in 1988.
This is the perfect example of the “scarcity model,” and it feels ridiculous that it’s still a thing in 2022. But again, that leads to my earlier point of having marginalized producers. They will be more diligent about seeking out marginalized creators, actors and others. You have to have equity at the top to have equity at the bottom.