Post-“Hamilton,” Broadway Diversity Is Flimsy

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Broadway Hamilton
President Obama greets of the cast of Hamilton. Photo credit: Wikimedia.

The most recent Broadway season was hailed as a triumph of diversity. As host James Corden proclaimed at the 2016 Tony Awards:

Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity.

During a roundtable hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, the Tony-nominated actors expounded on the forward-thinking nature of Broadway and its superiority over Hollywood’s racism. “Broadway has always done stuff before [Hollywood]… Hollywood has always shied away from anything that was challenging in that way,” said Reed Birney, who went on to win a Tony for his role in The Humans.

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With shows like Hamilton, Shuffle Along and Eclipsed featuring casts and creative teams of color, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening breaking down barriers for disabled and deaf actors, the all-female creative teams behind Waitress and Eclipsed, and all four musical acting awards going to actors of color, it would be hard not to notice the remarkable achievements made by people of color, women and disabled theater makers on Broadway last season. Media coverage of the Tony Awards was, on the whole, effusive in its praise of this year’s diverse slate of nominees.

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Many thespians celebrated Hamilton, in particular, as a bellwether of Broadway’s natural progression towards increased participation and representation of people of color. While I marvel at the creative genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda (and remain as eager as any self-respecting theater lover to snag a Hamilton ticket), I am uncomfortable with how theater makers are reveling in the breakthrough success of a show that succeeded not because of the theater system but in spite of it.

On the subject of Broadway’s diversity and inclusivity, the praise from Miranda himself was notably tepid:

I think our incredibly, amazingly diverse Tonys season that just ended was a fluke… We lucked into one of the most extraordinarily diverse seasons we’ve ever seen… That being said, next year could be a very different year, depending on what comes in.

The power of gatekeepers is diminishing — in TV.

Indeed, as Diep Tran pointed out in American Theatre magazine, the 2016–17 Broadway season already looks pretty abysmal in terms of diversity: of more than 20 shows confirmed to open, the only ones with casts primarily of color are August Wilson’s Jitney, the short re-engagement of the 2013 production of Motown: The Musical and Miss Saigon — which will open just in time for Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King and I to close. Of the 32 shows listed by playbill.com as announced for the next Broadway season and an additional 31 productions “In the Works,” and other than Wilson and Robert Lopez (of Frozen fame), I can’t identify a single person of color among the writers, composers and/or lyricists.

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In the same Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Leslie Odom, Jr., who won one of Hamilton‘s 11 Tonys, commented on the dearth of roles for him to play, even after his award-winning turn as Aaron Burr. For him, it illustrates how the exclusion of dramatists of color is linked to authentic roles for actors of color:

I imagine if a white actor was having a similar situation as I am having right now with this show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows that you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.

The notion that Broadway is in any way a riposte to Hollywood’s rampant racism is a flimsy one. While this year’s Tonys were an exception, the rule still pervades — it will continue to pervade so long as the relatively few gatekeepers continue only to permit white dramatists to depict the stories of communities of color, and so long as the roles for exceptional actors of color, like Odom, continue to remain sparing and too often one-dimensional.

Where is there hope for actors of color? In between the Oscars and the Tonys is the Emmys — people of color have fled to TV. Createquity’s recent story “Why Don’t They Come?” – which attempts to suss out why “socioeconomically disadvantaged” people have such low arts-participation rates — found that TV was the one sector bucking the trend. Not only were people of color and poor folks more likely to watch TV than participate in the arts, those who didn’t participate in the arts watched even more TV than their peers.

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Is Hamilton a bellwether of growing Broadway diversity?

Yet if TV, too, is far from perfect in its portrayal of race, in that end of the industry people of color are experiencing more of a burst of creative freedom, critical acclaim and self-determination than ever before. People of color on the small screen exert an increasing proportion of presence and influence with shows like Empire, Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat, Jane the Plain, Underground and pretty much all of Shondaland. It’s not just casts of color: people of color have been increasingly ascending to higher prominence within the industry, such as Channing Dungey, ABC’s first black woman president, and Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Latino chief content officer. I can’t help but also view the rise of people of color in the decision-making apparatus of TV in the context of an increasingly diffuse sector. With the advent of Internet-based TV content — Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu — the number of channels for original content has vastly multiplied. With the ability of viewers to watch virtually everything on demand, a TV show’s survival is increasingly possible with a much smaller, niche, devoted viewership. As the power of gatekeepers in TV diminishes, the opportunity for people of color to control their own stories, to control their own destinies, inevitably grows.

If the theater really wants to become more racially diverse and equitable, it needs to figure out how to translate a single season’s worth of work and recognition on Broadway into an ongoing and sustained industry-wide trend. Either promote people of color into positions of leadership in the field, or split up the theater field into more numerous and niche channels. Diversity and inclusiveness in the theater must never be a “fluke.”

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Jason Tseng
Jason Tseng makes plays, comics, illustrations, and games -- mostly about queer people and people of color. He splits his time working for Fractured Atlas, a national nonprofit technology organization that helps artists with the business side of their creative work, and as a community organizer with Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), a 25-year-old organization serving the Queer API community. His work has been featured in GeeksOut’s LGBT comics anthology Power, Sub Rosa magazine, and Nonprofit Quarterly. He produces the podcasts Play x Play -- featuring the best plays you’ve never heard of -- and Queer and Present Danger, a queer nerd pop culture podcast. Find more at JasonTseng.com. *The views and opinions which appear on this blog are his alone and in no way reflect the views and opinions of any organizations he is involved in.