In a remarkable series of big, first steps into this new era of protest and pandemic, black theater artists in recent weeks have taken hold of a historic moment to demand a reckoning over racism within their industry. Among the most visible efforts: The open letter “Dear White American Theater” signed by more than 300 people of color within the theater industry; the creation of Black Theatre United, a nonprofit group whose founding members include, among others, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Phylicia Rashad, LaChanze and Vanessa Williams; and the inaugural Antonyo Awards honoring black Broadway and Off Broadway theater artists (streaming tonight).
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And in a three-day virtual forum June 10-12 titled Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, created in 2016 by producers and actors of color in support of Black Lives Matter, brought together thousands of actors, stage managers, producers, writers and other industry players to, in its own words, “heal, listen, and hold itself accountable to its history of white supremacy while moving towards becoming an anti-racist and equitable space.” Since the end of the third session, more than 5,000 non-black members of the theatrical community, including many instantly recognizable names, have signed the “Public Accountability Pledge,” promising to commit to specific steps to address racism in the theater. (Read the Pledge and see who signed here.)
Deadline recently spoke to two of the forum’s organizers and Coalition co-founders – Warren, an all but certain Tony nominee when the awards finally roll around, and Britton Smith of Broadway’s Be More Chill and Shuffle Along – about the project’s creation, goals and accomplishments, and why it was and is necessary.
The following was compiled from separate conversations with Warren and Smith, and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
BRITTON SMITH: I was deeply pained by what I was watching on TV and allowed myself to watch just enough to not feel numb, and then I got a text from our Broadway Advocacy Coalition cofounder, Amber Iman, and she was like, Britton, what is BAC going to do during this time? So I sent a text to our executive director saying, what if we did a Zoom forum with just the industry, a few hundred folks, and just talk about some healing, and maybe we could find a therapist to talk to black people about how to deal with all of the anxiety that we feel right now. I basically was trying to create an event for my own needs and just know that my needs would reflect the needs of those in my community. It became much larger than I anticipated.
ADRIENNE WARREN: Britton, our BAC president who is also a really great friend of mine, reached out to me in a text and said, We have to do something, this is why we’re here and our community is hurting. We have to do something. That’s how it really started. We realized that a forum creating a space to start having these conversations was probably the best thing we could possibly do at the moment.
SMITH: For Day One of the forum, our goal was to create a space just for black folk in our industry to feel seen by one another. There is very rarely a chance where black people get together without the ears of our white allies and our white colleagues, and there’s something unique that happens in our freedom with one another. So that day’s goal was to gather and support one another in knowing that we all deal with racism in our lives and in our industry, and what can we do to stop shifting around white supremacy and stop changing ourselves to exist in this industry. What will we need to support being black in the industry, something that feels more inclusive of our fullness, when theater returns after the shutdown?
Day Two was, Now let’s let our white allies and institutions listen to some of our stories, when there were times that we were like, wow, that was racist, but we didn’t get the opportunity to tell our producers or tell our directors. And not because we didn’t want to, but because historically we’ve been punished for it. We’ve lost jobs for being an “angry black woman” or we’ve been gaslit to think that it wasn’t about race, that it was about this or that.
So we asked our white allies and institutions to actually take a back seat. We said this is not a chance for you to speak or say you’re sorry. This is just a chance for you to listen to folks who you know in our industry, even big, huge names like the director Liesl Tommy and LaChanze, who are going to speak and explain to you that even at the top of their game, they experience racism from you. It was a chance for black artists to put themselves at risk to be truthful to our white allies and white institutions.
Day Three was about institutional accountability, framed around “Now that this has been unearthed, now that the racism has been pulled from underneath the carpet, what do we do to support the cleaning up of this mess? What steps can we take in being held accountable, and what does accountability look like?”
WARREN: There’s a lot of pain and people need help with the healing process. Day One was specifically for our black community, where we could say I know you’re hurting, I’m hurting as well, how can we help take care of ourselves in this moment while also realizing that we’re about to go to battle, so to speak, with making changes and putting protocols into place to create a more equitable community? We wanted to say, hey, BAC is here to be of service for the black community, and we are also here to be of service to our industry by having these conversations, to start providing tangible steps and tools towards a more equitable community.
SMITH: My favorite day was Day One, man. I’ve never been in a space that was just for the black experience, and it was really special. Really special. We learned a lot of things that day. The program was 90 minutes, and we left 30 minutes in the middle to have people share their stories. Well, sadly, that’s not enough time. A story was brought up that was so traumatic, about sexual assault and racism experienced by a certain man in a certain cast with a certain white lead. It was so traumatizing for him to even share it that you could tell he was still processing all that had happened to him, and he never received justice. To share that with 800 people of color in your industry is not only brave but also re-traumatizing. I knew, as a leader, that if we’re going to ask people to share their stories, we have to set up an infrastructure of support, we need to have a therapist to do this work with us moving forward.
After each day, we did have two therapists that were available to anybody who wanted to speak further, and they held beautiful space. I mean, they made it clear that this was a space for all thoughts, all feelings, all ideas. I was able to say to a therapist on Day Two, I feel triggered, I feel like people think I’m Martin Luther King, and I ain’t shit, you know, so please help me figure it out. As a leader, it’s important for me to be transparent about my own fears.
WARREN: One thing that I definitely learned is the importance of community and network. The importance of having someone to talk to who has been in this industry like an Audra McDonald, like a LaChanze, like a Brian Stokes Mitchell, like a Tonya Pinkins, to say hey, I feel pain and you have been here longer than I have, can I talk to you? As someone who wants to do the work to make this better how can I help take what you experienced and maybe couldn’t speak up for in your time, how can I speak for you? How can I speak for us?
SMITH: We have a unique opportunity right now. We have about a month and a half to really move with this momentum. There are over 5,000 people who signed the Pledge with us on Day Three. There’s a moment right now, while we’re all paused from our normal daily obligations that blind us to some of these realities, now that we’re sitting at home, forced to see, forced to think, forced to feel without just having our normal day-to-day things keeping us from seeing the truth. Because we know for a fact that when we return to work in January on a Broadway show or a film set or a concert venue, there will be new health protocols because of the coronavirus. A new normal. So let’s make a new normal of anti-racist behaviors in our workplace. Let’s make a new normal for what our police officers are allowed to do. It’s an opportunity that this virus has, really strangely, given us.
WARREN: The pandemic amplified this moment. Normally this would have been the middle of awards season, peak time when everybody is losing their minds and everyone is unbelievably busy. But now we’re all home and we are watching the news and we are seeing the protests outside and we cannot get away from it. You can’t turn away from it. There is only before this moment and after this moment.
SMITH: When you’re thinking about equality, yeah, there are things that should be done right away, and we need to have people of color in the makeup of the fullness of our industry, and not just casting. I don’t know one black casting director. I don’t know one black agent in the industry. There aren’t enough black people on the faculties teaching students how to exist in this industry. I don’t know enough black producers. Those numbers tell you who they want in the room and who they don’t. Why don’t they want black people in those rooms?
WARREN: Diversity is a tricky word for me because I think diversity in some ways is a way of meeting a quota by casting a black actor when the rest of the cast is white. By putting in that black actor you can say you’re a diverse company. Well, that’s not the case. We’re talking about our stages and the stories they tell representing the community that they’re serving. When you walk down the street people look different, people have different skin tones. Why is that not represented in the theater? It’s not just about casting. It’s also about our creatives, our producers, as high up in the industry as you can go.
And why do our audiences not look like us? I’ve been conditioned as an actress to know that every time I go on stage, the audience I’m going to look at will not reflect me. I know that. And that has to change.
SMITH: Our first goal is to share the fact that more than 5,000 people have signed this Pledge of Accountability, and some of those people are big, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, like full companies on our Broadway stages, like big producers. So I would love to take this information, this data, this pledge, to our unions and say that on a first day of rehearsals, when everyone is sitting down at a table, they sign a contract that says, This is a space where we will not put up with sexual harassment, we will not let racism whisper and creep into this process, and if it does creep in, we will all say we understand that while it may be a part of our nation’s makeup, we, in this room, in this rehearsal process, in this production, will be accountable to making sure it doesn’t grow and fester here. As it does if you do not call it out.
And we want to move methodology to our industry that says, hey, producers, hey, white leaders, hey, white institutions, if you really want to make new policies, those who are most directly affected by racism have to be at the table and writing those policies with you. We want to make a space with the stakeholders of our industry, the big producers, the big institutions. That table has to include the people who are most directly affected by racism, and that’s black people, and they’re never at those tables.
WARREN: What we’re learning more and more is that the tools have been there, they just haven’t been used, especially relating to marketing. I have done so many junkets where I rarely see black media represented, and that’s very frustrating. What that shows is the lack of effort to go out into our community, and that’s painful because as black artists we’re telling black stories but we don’t actually share those black stories with the people that they reflect.
But we can’t talk about marketing without talking about ticket prices. We can’t talk about systemic racism without talking about systemic poverty. These are all things that impact who can actually walk into those theaters, who can actually pay for these tickets, and things won’t change until ticket prices go down because our economy does not support our communities.
SMITH: How long is it going to take? I think that this type of work is like yoga or a practice of enlightenment: You never reach a point where you’re like, aha, I’m enlightened, I got it, I understand life. It’s a journey of wanting to continue to understand, like I want to get to this mountain peak in my yoga practice and then go to the next.
WARREN: I don’t know that everything I’m talking about will happen in my lifetime, but I know that it is my responsibility as a black woman to do what I can while I’m here. And all I can do is continue to have these conversations, and all we can do is continue to find ways in which we can take the initiative to go out into our communities and invite them into this experience. Theater can no longer be an elitist experience. It can’t. We have to do more, we have to do better.
SMITH: I think there are many things that can happen in this next month or so, and then there are many things that will continue to have to be a part of how we work from now on. It won’t have a start date or an end date. It’ll be a new standard of equality, how we implement that in our practice of creation, how we make people feel safe in the rehearsal process from now on.
WARREN: Yes, I am a star of a Broadway show, but I am a black woman first. When I leave my Broadway theater I am still a black woman. I still experience microaggressions. I still experience racism. I have been woken up in the middle of the night and had to go to bat for someone I love because someone has threatened to call the police.
It’s also my job to leave that behind and walk out on a stage of white people who may not understand that I feel pain. So when I have these opportunities to be in the spotlight, when I have these opportunities to be as transparent as possible, I do so even when it is very painful for me. And to bring my brothers and sisters along with me if I have opportunities to talk to producers, to talk to my director. We need to talk about the fact that we need to bring a black associate director into our theater, we need to bring a black associate choreographer into our theater. That is how we support our community, by bringing people with us, and I try to do that in everything I do. It’s my job to support black theaters and black businesses and to amplify their voices because I have that spotlight. As a woman who went to a majority white college and majority white high school, I have been conditioned to shift and change to live in white spaces, to assimilate. And I have to shake that off of myself, to raise my voice for what I believe in.
BAC is in talks with major institutions and producers and I think there’s a willingness to listen and a willingness to learn and a willingness to sit back and reflect and analyze and try to take steps towards progress. We can only truly know the impact of that within the next few years, but right now I see the movement happening, I see the wheel moving forward.
SMITH: I would love to be in a conversation with them letting them know Adrienne Warren is amazing. I mean, we all know she’s a star. We all know that she is Tina Turner. What the hell, we all saw it! But if you really want to understand more about Adrienne Warren than just her being a black woman on your stage that you cast in your show, you have to understand her history and what she brings into a room. You have to understand and be willing to do your own process of research and think about what it must feel like for her to hear that a George Floyd has been murdered and then have to go to work and shine in front of a mostly white audience, and how that must affect her and how a part of her job is to push past her trauma. I think folks will argue, oh, all women feel that, or gay man feel that, but it’s different for Adrienne Warren to go onstage every night knowing that people who look like her and her brother and her dad are being targeted and murdered.
I have a funk liberation band called Britton and The Sting, and a lot of that work is about me coming to my fullness as a black queer man in America and how I exercise that freedom through music. I don’t feel alone as a black queer man because of my music, and I don’t feel alone as a black man in our industry because I have now seen so many people who were, like, “I had the same experience as you.” I have hope in those numbers.
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