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Friday, June 13, 2008

The End of Tokenism?

posted by on June 13 at 13:03 PM

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.”

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.)
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:
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.

RSS icon Comments

1

It seems really weird to me to have a nationally televised award show for regional theater.

Posted by Jason Josephes | June 13, 2008 1:27 PM
2

Shit, I'm disappointed. I thought this titled, "The end of Tolkienism" and meant the viewing public wouldn't be subject to anymore films involving fucking hobbits...

Posted by michael strangeways | June 13, 2008 1:29 PM
3

I saw Broadway's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last week, and it was fucking terrible. NO way should it have been nominated for a Tony. Bad production, boring set design, a saxophonist for no particular reason, and shitty lighting. The acting wasn't so bad, but don't even get me started on the audience.

Posted by MK | June 13, 2008 2:23 PM
4

YES! Mothafuckin' YES! It's about time.

Posted by Rachael F. | June 13, 2008 2:31 PM
5

Brendan, I will sell my cat if I have to to see Passing Strange. It has everything I love in an art form: Berlin, Amsterdam, lots of weed, busting class/race stereotypes and great music (and me, SOOOO not a show tune fag). I also love the fact that it's told from the POV of a middle- to upper-middle class black guy. Finally, out of the "ghetto..."

The thing is, didn't the production just get one Tony nomination (for the music)? And didn't dumb ol' YF get a bunch?

Don't get me wrong -- it's awesome they even got one and that the house is still lit and that the original soundtrack is on iTunes. But this show, from what I can tell, deserves a lot more recognition.

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | June 13, 2008 2:40 PM
6

OK
first off
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF was nominated for ZERO Tony Awards. It was bad. They know and no one gave them a nomination JUST because they were a Token show...

Now.

As to the history of Minorities on Broadway...

I do have to say that the NY Theater scene has been leaps and bounds ahead of the film and television industry.

I should mention that i make my living working in the Bway community

but

really

there have been people of MANY colors playing on Bway stages for DECADES in LARGE roles

think of West Side Story
sure the movie had Natalie wood
but
the original production featured MANY Latino performers.

Flower Drum Song had MANY original cast members who were embraced in the NY theater community while hollywood still had Mickey Rooney playing Asian for laughs

YES

Jonathan Price was hired over Asian actors for the original production of MISS SAIGON but he was playing someone of mixed race and that show ran for years hiring HUNDREDS of Asiain performers. Also... he had won an Olivier award in London and was a HUGE star.

ALL of the shows I have mentioned were not looked at as TOKEN minority productions

Pearl Bailey played Dolly Levi in 1975. The role originated by Carol Channing in Hello Dolly.

Can you think of anything like that in film or TV?

Sure minorities are not always portrayed well onstage but i think the NY theater and Bway community has much to be proud of.

August wilson RIGHTLY has a broadway theater named after him. He was a writer of color who made a HUGE impact on the modern play. Did Hollywood ever get around to making that film version of his incredible play FENCES? not even close and when Hollywood had to wait YEARS inbetween oscars for people of color, there is a VERY rich history of minority performers being recognized for their contribution to Broadway. i have yet to think of one of them who one an award because they were the TOKEN minority and they felt it was time to give them an award.

and

we may be a nationally televised regional theater awards show
but

you must realize the power of the Tonys and Bway

I was a little gay living my life every year WAITING for them to be presented. My mother still refers to it as my high holy day. that telecast has made more men find a career in theater...

IN FACT

my partner of 10 years realized he was gay watching Jennifer Holiday perform on the Tony Awards... and decided to move to NYC while watching a performance by the cast of THE LIFE in 1997... both of these shows were full of minority performers and neither was pigeonholed into being considered a TOKEN play

Also... we may be regional but think of the effect that Bway has even in Seattle... SHREK will open there... you will be able to see them in your town and then again next year on the Tony awards...

sorry...

was this the longest slog response in history?

Posted by ian | June 13, 2008 2:54 PM
7

OK
first off
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF was nominated for ZERO Tony Awards. It was bad. They know and no one gave them a nomination JUST because they were a Token show...

Now.

As to the history of Minorities on Broadway...

I do have to say that the NY Theater scene has been leaps and bounds ahead of the film and television industry.

I should mention that i make my living working in the Bway community

but

really

there have been people of MANY colors playing on Bway stages for DECADES in LARGE roles

think of West Side Story
sure the movie had Natalie wood
but
the original production featured MANY Latino performers.

Flower Drum Song had MANY original cast members who were embraced in the NY theater community while hollywood still had Mickey Rooney playing Asian for laughs

YES

Jonathan Price was hired over Asian actors for the original production of MISS SAIGON but he was playing someone of mixed race and that show ran for years hiring HUNDREDS of Asiain performers. Also... he had won an Olivier award in London and was a HUGE star.

ALL of the shows I have mentioned were not looked at as TOKEN minority productions

Pearl Bailey played Dolly Levi in 1975. The role originated by Carol Channing in Hello Dolly.

Can you think of anything like that in film or TV?

Sure minorities are not always portrayed well onstage but i think the NY theater and Bway community has much to be proud of.

August wilson RIGHTLY has a broadway theater named after him. He was a writer of color who made a HUGE impact on the modern play. Did Hollywood ever get around to making that film version of his incredible play FENCES? not even close and when Hollywood had to wait YEARS inbetween oscars for people of color, there is a VERY rich history of minority performers being recognized for their contribution to Broadway. i have yet to think of one of them who one an award because they were the TOKEN minority and they felt it was time to give them an award.

and

we may be a nationally televised regional theater awards show
but

you must realize the power of the Tonys and Bway

I was a little gay living my life every year WAITING for them to be presented. My mother still refers to it as my high holy day. that telecast has made more men find a career in theater...

IN FACT

my partner of 10 years realized he was gay watching Jennifer Holiday perform on the Tony Awards... and decided to move to NYC while watching a performance by the cast of THE LIFE in 1997... both of these shows were full of minority performers and neither was pigeonholed into being considered a TOKEN play

Also... we may be regional but think of the effect that Bway has even in Seattle... SHREK will open there... you will be able to see them in your town and then again next year on the Tony awards...

sorry...

was this the longest slog response in history?

Posted by ian | June 13, 2008 2:54 PM
8

Passing strange has been nominated for 9 Tony Awards and is in serious contention for best musical against IN THE HEIGHTS which was written by a group of 20 something latino friends

Posted by ian | June 13, 2008 2:57 PM
9

@8 -- Thanks. I have to admit I haven't kept up on that -- I am sure I confused another set of theater award nominations Brendan had posted here a month or so ago. I remember being sad that PS only had one of them.

I am so happy to hear they are being recognized. It looks like a great show, and Stew is astounding.

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | June 13, 2008 4:22 PM
10

Yeah I thought it was Tolkienism too and I almost started crying.

Posted by nerd | June 13, 2008 4:56 PM
11

Being at the Seattle Center around Christmas season, watching so many old white season-ticket holders file into "Black Nativity"...it's like a 20th/21st century minstrel show.

Posted by Garth | June 13, 2008 11:02 PM

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