BY KIMBERLY DODSON
The original Broadway production of The Color Purple opened in 2005. I was 15 years old. I saw the show that summer and became obsessed.
Seeing black women in leading roles on Broadway was something I had rarely experienced.
The Broadway community doesn’t like to admit it, but we are not above the racism and sexism that has always existed in this country. In many ways, we are a reflection of it. Interesting roles for women and all people of color are simply not here. Broadway has always been a white man’s game. I spent years searching for myself on the stage (and still search honestly) hoping to one day be that one black girl in the Broadway chorus.
The summer of 2005 was only the second time I’d seen a Black woman leading a Broadway show. The first was when I was 9 years old, when I saw Heather Headley and the cast of Aida. I had seen her 2 years prior in The Lion King, so I thought Heather was it! Thanks to my mother, I knew the greats: Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen, Pearl Bailey. But Heather was now! Heather Headley’s very presence made me believe maybe Broadway was somewhere I could belong.
I remember leaving The Color Purple with my mouth agape. Four?! FOUR WHOLE BLACK WOMEN LEADS IN A BROADWAY MUSICAL?! I was shocked. I felt like I’d never seen so many Black women in my life! Not just Nala in love with Simba, or Aida in love with Radames. But a Nettie and a Sofia and a Shug Avery….and a Celie. Hilarious, romantic, strengthening, and complex female relationships performed by multiple people who looked like me.
I listened to the soundtrack every night and added “I’m Here” to my list of favorites.
For years after, the voice of an actress named LaChanze sang me to sleep.
If you told 15 year-old me that I’d make my Broadway debut with that very same LaChanze and 14 other women, I would have never believed you. But, here I am, about to make my debut next to LaChanze in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day were established to celebrate the accomplishments of women nationwide and internationally across history. It is also a time of great pride and empowerment for women as we continue to work toward a more equitable existence. However, it is difficult to celebrate the accomplishments of women when I am constantly reminded how much more work needs to be done.
As a Black woman, the last 5 years for me have been exhausting. I have lived through the height of the Black Lives Matter movement; a continuous reminder that our country continues its tradition of devaluing the lives of black people. I have struggled through this past year, as all women have, being bombarded with daily reminders that our bodies are not our own. As people who look like me are still being murdered by the state, as women and men continue to struggle with conversations of sex and consent, as we keep hash-taging #BLM and #SayherName and #MeToo, as we continue to wade through the stale waters of the Trump era, I just wonder will it ever stop. And what I really wonder is what does Broadway even mean to all of this.
Bertolt Brecht said that art should not be a mirror but a hammer to be used to shape society. And I couldn’t agree more. Yes, even commercial, Broadway theatre. Broadway isn’t about to change policy. But theatre, culture, the arts have always been, and should always be, the leaders in changing attitudes. This is why representation on the Broadway stage is so important. It is important to tell stories showing fully realized women characters and characters of color. It tells women and actors of color that there is a place for us on the stage. But it also can have a deep impact on audience members. I often imagine a man from a small town visiting NYC, seeing a show, and experiencing a fully realized, multidimensional Latin American female character bringing him to tears. The theatre can have lasting impact on how audience members chose to interact with the people in their own communities and their own countries.
In order to produce real lasting change, equal representation on the Broadway stage must be recognized as meaningful and important by the greater Broadway community; its creators and consumers. And I don’t mean just placing women and people of color anywhere; I mean making a conscious effort to tell our stories. We need roles where we are presented as fully human.
We also need to move past the idea that representation on the stage is enough. Even on a production that tells a black woman’s story, our creative team is all male. All but three shows currently on Broadway are directed by men. And even the women directors with shows on Broadway are all white. It’s time to start advocating for more women of color leading the creative processes on Broadway.
Although no one show will fix Broadway, I think Summer is a meaningful first step. Just as Hamilton did not cure Broadway’s race problem, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical will not cure Broadway’s gender AND race problem.
But, in a show of 22 people, 16 of us are women. The entire ensemble is made up of just women! And to go even further, 11 of us are visibly women of color. I REPEAT. 22 PEOPLE. 16 WOMEN. 11 VISIBLE WOMEN OF COLOR. 3 BLACK FEMALE LEADS. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is blowing the expectations of my 15 year old self out of the water. I’ve never worked with so many women, particularly black women. Having come from predominantly white spaces, and, given Broadway’s history as being “The Great White Way” not just for it’s bright lights alone, I never thought this would happen. I feel very lucky to be a part of this particular cast, where I am seen and reflected in all corners of the stage, and the casting is a step out of the ordinary.
We are an ensemble of strong women. We’re opinionated and outspoken and smart and we actively encourage one another to be powerful. Some people (usually men) believe that a room of women will be one of competition and of catty behavior. This is so far from the case with the cast of Summer.
The relationships we have with one another really fuel our rehearsals and our performances. I feel validated by these women. We lift each other up with words of encouragement and positive affirmations. We have fun! We play as we work. I feel respected and I feel as though I can be challenged by these women and feel safe. We work through issues without ego, with the goal of simply completing a task.
Watching these women work has been empowering. I have been in too many rehearsal rooms where women were encouraged to “smile more” and remained silent in the face of disrespect -- fearful of losing out on the next gig. Seeing these women in leading roles asking challenging questions, pushing the men behind the table for clarity, taking charge of their roles, offering suggestions and demanding respect every day has been amazing to see. I think we all feel emboldened by the current climate of this country. With these women next to me I am reminded I am not the only one exhausted. We are all exhausted. But we are not alone.
There are also practical advantages to being in a cast of women that inevitably takes on a political dimension. We loudly and proudly talk about our periods. There are 4 mothers in the company, so we talk childbirth, child care, pumping and breastfeeding pretty regularly too. We praise a beat face and a naked one. And with 11 black women in one room (a first for many of us) we take advantage of talking about natural hair. There is safety in numbers, and I have never felt more at ease knowing this particular company is behind me.
Every day we tackle the life of a strong black female icon. One who’s life reflects the issues our country is in desperate need of discussing today.
It’s a very powerful sisterhood. One that recognizes the challenges we face as women, as women of color, as an ensemble, and as women on this planet. And the men in our company feel it too. We have 6 of the best and most supportive men in our company. I never wanted to do Broadway just any way. I wanted my Broadway debut to really feel like something that mattered. Not everyone is going to be excited about a Donna Summer Musical. But what everyone should be excited about is the possibilities this show opens up for representation on the Broadway stage. The 16 of us represent strong and powerful women (and men!) in this show. It is exciting to be in a company representing the life of such a powerful female force in music.
What excites me about this casting is the young person in the audience, dragged by their parents to see a show about a woman they’ve never heard of, taking place in a time they weren’t alive for, but who finds themselves on the stage. Not just in the back corner alone, but scattered throughout the stage, moving in and out of the spotlights. My hope is that that young person sees themselves in me, in all of us, and is inspired to join the arts and pursue their passions. Seeing someone who looked like me on a Broadway stage allowed me to pursue this dream. My hope is that all people can look to the stage and feel seen. I hope Broadway works to become a place we all can belong.
“The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” - Gloria Steinem
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” - Bertolt Brecht