Richard Jordan: Broadway must not rest on its laurels when it comes to racial diversity

Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple. Photo: Nobby Clark Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple. Photo: Nobby Clark
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It used to be called the Great White Way, but as the 2016 Tony nominations – announced on Tuesday – reflect, that term cannot be applied any longer. Well, at least for this year.

With multiple nominations for musicals such as Hamilton, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along, and plays such as Eclipsed, there is a celebration of diversity happening on Broadway.

The Broadway League is undoubtedly also breathing a sigh of relief at their award nominations in contrast to the lack of diversity shown in this year’s other major entertainment awards, the Oscars, with the subsequent criticism and negative press they attracted.

The League has also taken every media opportunity to make this point of inclusivity within its own industry. But let’s not get too smug just yet, because it could be argued that in this season, Broadway has got lucky and it is a coincidence that an influx of diversity-led shows were outstanding in a fortuitous bit of timing. As yet, next season hardly looks as buoyant, with a revival of Motown the only significantly non-white production announced, although this year’s hits Hamilton and The Color Purple will recast and continue their runs alongside it.

Equally, one voice cannot be the sole representative of a community. It can engender that growth, but if we are serious about diversity on Broadway then we need to be actively pursuing new voices, and have them heard by a wider commercial audience.

Artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and George C Wolfe need and must be at the start of the conversation. Their now-enhanced visibility and demonstrable artistic success will naturally make them obvious first, popular, and easy producing choices for future works. However, what’s critically important is that in celebrating what they have achieved in this 2016 Broadway season, we must also look beyond them in using the platform they have opened up to embrace and create more opportunities for other diverse new voices to be presented on Broadway, both beside and because of them.

As a result of this year’s Broadway season, there is the need to make sure its wider audience demographic is neither lost nor forgotten. Ironically, the populist musical On Your Feet that has perhaps best propelled this growth at the box office over the past 12 months in bringing to Broadway a new Hispanic audience was almost entirely (and unfairly) overlooked in the Tony nominations.

It could be argued that Broadway is currently looking at a much more diverse theatrical landscape than the West End. Yet while in this season we celebrate diversity on Broadway, we may want to consider still the significant lack of inclusion of Asian writers and artists in the nominations, and in the work produced. The Japanese-themed musical Allegiance is one of the only major Asian Broadway cast production in recent years and was entirely overlooked by the Tony nominations, while generally there is less diversity seen in casting of Asian actors across all other productions.

Asian communities make up more than 5% of the US population; yet the brilliant American playwright David Henry Hwang is perhaps still the only instantly recognisable name to many theatregoers when asked to identify any Asian playwright. Amazingly, he might still be considered a new writer, despite his 36-year career. The public might fare slightly better in naming other non-white writers, but we have to galvanise and greatly improve upon this position across all theatre sectors if, for modern America, there is to be a future for the play and musical.

Crucial to this success is the continued development of audiences across communities to support it in an ever-changing cultural landscape.

Therefore, this year’s Tonys are a significant step forward. Not least because this representation will be seen on its June 12 awards show, with performance extracts from the nominated musicals broadcast live nationally on prime-time TV. You can be sure that the Tonys will be heavily highlighting this fact on the night.

But amid the back-patting, there may be a kid watching in far-flung reaches of Nebraska who never thought theatre was for them, but finds him or herself drawn to it through the TV broadcast. That’s why the Tonys’ prime-time coverage is vital. It reflects poorly on the decision by ITV to broadcast the UK’s Olivier Awards both late at night and as a highlights show, and then also cutting the extract from the musical Bend It Like Beckham.

Amid the Tonys’ likely big winners on the night, we should remember that, even though it is 89 years since the curtain rose on Showboat on Broadway, we still find ourselves at the beginning of the journey. The 2016 Broadway season is a momentous moment in US theatre – but subsequent seasons will ultimately define Broadway’s theatrical future.