Theater The End of Tokenism?
posted by June 13 at 13:03 PMon
The best thing about this year’s Tony nominees is the number of contending plays and musicals by/starring/about people who aren’t honkies: Passing Strange, In the Heights, Thurgood, a black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a South Pacific starring actual Asian Americans, and so on.
From a great article on this year’s Tony Awards in the Washington Post:
This season, eight major Broadway shows prominently feature blacks, Latinos or Asians. There’s “South Pacific,” which — for the first time in this musical’s history on Broadway — stars Asian Americans in Asian roles. (Loretta Ables Sayre, who plays Bloody Mary, is nominated for a Tony.) That’s a far cry from 1991, when there was an uproar over casting English actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in “Miss Saigon.”This year might be the beginning of the end of the “token ethnic play” phenomenon, a well-intentioned but ultimately embarrassing theater custom I’ve written about over and over again:
Ten performers of color have been nominated for Tonys tonight, including Stew, the creator and star of “Passing Strange.” (Whoopi Goldberg, a Tony-winning producer in her own right, will be tonight’s host — marking the first time the Tonys ceremony has had a lone emcee of color.)
The TBP has been a regional theater custom for years. Trying to attract dollars from the rising black middle class is smart business and a little artistic affirmative action is perhaps wise, but watching a TBP, no matter how good or bad it is, always gives me the uncomfortable feeling that the mostly white audience and mostly black artists are mutually condescending to one another.
Again from the Post:
No one tracks the number of people of color working on Broadway, but many observers say that things have changed greatly from more than 20 years ago, when Actors’ Equity conducted a four-year survey of working actors and found that 90 percent of actors on Broadway were white.
Things, obviously, are changing.
Not only are there more black artists, but more black producers, who recognize the economic valueŚnot just the social, artistic, and moral valueŚof getting away from producing a “black play” here and a “Latino play” there. This year will prove that producers and theaters should put up as much quality work by artists of color as they can. And audiences will reward them for it. Like James Baldwin said: “Black people ignored the theater because the theater has always ignored them.”
Looks like the sun is setting on those days, thanks to years of courage and sweat by artists like George C. Wolfe, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, and others.
Again, from the WP article:
“Every single day I wake up in the morning saying, ‘What are we doing here?’ ” says Stew, who co-wrote “Passing Strange” with musical partner Heidi Rodewald. “We never thought this would happen… . Not only did we not think we were going to Broadway, we didn’t want to go to Broadway.”
Stew says he insisted on making art how he saw fit — which meant, he says, that he fought with the producers at every turn.
“They can’t force us to do anything. Nobody has to sell out here… . Only artists who wimp out change their script. All a Broadway producer can do is close the show.
“This is like an experiment every night. To see if this weird curio can exist in a mass audience. I really look at it as a science experiment. Every night.”
It’s working, Stew. And sorry to sound Pollyanna about it, but your success should make everyone feel hopeful.