Why did I launch a podcast that explores the intersection of blackness and performing arts?
Because the 2016 Tony Awards made history as the first time all four musical acting awards were awarded to black performers.
Because in 2015, Misty Copeland became the first black American Ballet Theatre principal dancer in the 75 years of the company’s existence.
Because I’ve only met three black women publicists during the last season.
Because I only know of one lead black Broadway producer.
Because I was confused for Lynn Nottage at Sweat’s opening night (being only one of three black women in the room, I counted).
Because the only time I saw black celebrities at opening nights this season were at Sweat and Jitney.
Because at other opening nights, the bartenders or security guards are sometimes the only other people of color I come into contact with.
Because so many of us felt neglected by the industry after last summer’s police brutality incidents.
Because after Alton Sterling and Philando Castille’s shootings, I made a “Raise Your Voice” playlist of black Broadway artists and shows, and it lifted my soul up in a very particular way.
Because the soundtrack to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations always lifts my soul up in a very particular way.
Because there is a rich and deep history between black culture and performing arts; the two being so interconnected, I can barely see where one ends and where the other begins.
Because of the recent The Great Comet casting controversy.
There’s a quote by renowned neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, “I’m not a black artist, I’m an artist.” On some level, I get what he’s saying. Why marginalize himself more than he already is? Why not hold himself to the same standards as artists of all colors?
However, until we have full equality, I think it’s necessary to uplift and recognize black theatre artists. Until we have full equality, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge artists who have succeeded in the institution (ironically) labeled The Great White Way. Until we have full equality, let’s celebrate those who have climbed -- or perhaps in our industry, kick-ball-changed -- their way through the system that might be (unintentionally) holding them down.
Conversations this past year have been peppered with buzzwords like “diversity,” “representation,” and “inclusion.” But what are the proactive steps we’re taking?
And like Michael R. Jackson, my episode 4 guest, questions, how do we even define diversity? We often immediately think of casting -- we try to satisfy the representation quota with just the number of brown bodies on the stage. But what exactly are those bodies representing onstage? The white lead’s sassy best friend? The wise sage that serves as some spiritual guide? The violent villain?
Like Kirsten Childs notes in her interview with The Interval, “Back in the day, most of the time that African Americans did shows on Broadway or Off-Broadway, they were either the all black version of a show that was created for white people; the token black person in a pretty much all white musical; or revues.”
And have we thought about the casting of folks behind the scenes? Who chooses the stories we tell onstage? Who chooses those who choose the stories onstage? Who crafts the messages for shows? And who chooses who crafts the messages for the shows?
What about producing new work written by new voices? You know, new work from a perspective we haven’t heard, but should be hearing? What about creating a mentorship program that specifically focuses on cultivating young people of color to become producers? Why not have more than one person of color on the opening night red carpets?
Diversity and inclusion can not be just a flashy attempt to make more money. Like Adrienne Warren, my episode 2 guest, notes, “Black people are really trendy right now. Black is trendy. In two days, it could not be.” It needs to be inherent to the work. I understand The Great Comet has bottom line -- and I understand that the job of a producer is to meet that bottom line. As it stands now, Oak’s blackness felt like an icky marketing ploy that went awry. This is not the first time we’ve seen black artists discarded due to the possibility of losing money, and maybe that’s why we were so quick to react.
It’s true that social media can lend itself to a mob mentality -- with folks hopping on trains where they don’t even know the destination; they don’t know what they’re standing for or what they are claiming to believe in. But to me, the fact that a few raised their voices in concern, which may have led to the proposed mob mentality, means that maybe we should stop and listen. Maybe we should stop letting whiter, louder voices drown them out. Maybe we should realize that we as an industry could be doing more.
What does this look like? I’m glad you asked. This is not choosing “And I’m Telling You” at karaoke and imitating Jennifer Holiday’s vocal prowess or executing excessive neck swivels under the guise of representation. This is not telling your black friend that you wish you could be black because they have such good rhythm. This is not asking the black woman you know if she decided to wear her hair natural after she saw a compelling performance of The Color Purple because of the women’s wigs in the show.
It IS actively listening. It IS having a willingness to learn. It IS recognizing and accepting that not everything is about you. It IS making sure that people of color not only have a seat at the table, but feel comfortable enough to use their voice at it. It IS using your privilege and resources to amplify the voices of others.
And that’s what I’m trying to do with the Call and Response podcast.
A question I constantly asked myself between the Alton Sterling and Philando Castille shootings and November 9, was, “How am I using my platform to spread important messages?” I’ve attended rallies and marches, but those didn’t exactly “click” with my inner-activist. It was after an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance at New York City Center in December that I decided telling the stories of the thriving black performing arts community would be my act of resistance. Maybe it would be a blog -- interviewing Broadway performers about what it’s like to work in the industry. Then I realized -- why only Broadway? Then I realized -- why only performers? Then I realized -- why am I not letting the artists going through it tell their own stories? After all, I wanted to give a platform to amplify their voices. Why not actually amplify their voices?
In several of these call and response interviews, the artists have referenced Leslie Odom Jr.’s interview where he cites that we can’t be so quick to praise one season of diversity on Broadway. How do we make sure last year wasn’t an anomaly? How do we keep the momentum going? How do we make sure it wasn’t the only banner year for diversity on Broadway?
Last year cannot be just a colorful (excuse the pun) fever dream of diversity. It can’t be a blip on the Broadway radar. It can’t be just a petty fight over the metaphorical TV remote of diversity with our older Hollywood sibling that we just happened to win this time.
I hope that this podcast inspires young artists of color to rev the engine of opportunity, kick their artivism into high gear, and put action into overdrive; to feel confident as they kick-ball-change their way through the system.
It feels right -- chronicling these important black stories through this oral storytelling tradition; through the call-and-response ritual that has long-standing ties with black culture. There are plenty of black actors, musicians, dancers, creatives, writers, administrators, and hopefully, more than just the one lead Broadway producer I know about, who are ready to share their experiences and push the meaningful dialogue in the direction of equality, diversity, and inclusivity.
Listen to the call and response podcast here.