Weighing Broadway’s Diversity Pledge

The Broadway theater community is seeking not just more diverse casts and crews, but audiences that reflect the population’s diversity.

By William Ma | June 7, 2022

Nearly two years ago, protests over the death of George Floyd sparked discussions about racism across the country. As Broadway struggled with unprecedented shutdowns because of the pandemic, some customers began to focus on the types of shows being produced and the people producing them. Of the 41 Broadway theaters, 39 of them, as well as the Broadway League, the national trade association for the industry, pledged to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices as theaters reopened. In August 2021, Black Theater United, a group that advocated for change, published the New Deal for Broadway, a document highlighting commitments everyone in the industry needed to make to achieve equality. 

Almost a year later, has Broadway kept its promise?

The Broadway League had reported an unprecedented number of nonwhite theatergoers before the pandemic. Still, the majority of people who visit Broadway are white, from out of town and have a higher income than the average New Yorker

Broadway has a long history of being “entertainment for white people, by white people, about white people, aimed at white people,” said Elizabeth Wollman, a theater professor at Baruch College. This is largely what creators of The New Deal for Broadway sought to change.

The activists’ goals were meant to go beyond diversity training and mentorship programs. The industry pledged to forgo all-white creative teams, hire racial sensitivity coaches, rename theaters for Black artists, and establish diversity rules for the Tony Awards.

To some, however, these actions seem performative rather than transformative. Azad Fakhari, a New York native and Broadway connoisseur, believes performative activism is a problem that encompasses the entertainment industry as a whole – including theater. Broadway “is trying to make the audience feel as if watching something about or made by whom they perceive as marginalized means making a difference,” Fakhari said, adding that even if nothing in the industry changes, theatergoers can still “feel better about themselves.”

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition reported that “22.7% of all available roles were cast with BIPOC actors without regard to race” in its 2018-2019 Visibility Report. The number of roles being cast without regard to race has steadily increased over the years, though it’s predominantly for “less visible chorus roles.” Even if more roles are cast for BIPOC, a majority of behind-the-scenes talent is white. The report found that “80.5% of Broadway writers are White, 81.3% of Broadway directors are White, and 77.4% of Broadway designers are White.” 

Finding Broadway projects with Black creators is “rare,” according to actress Alexis Sims. She considers herself fortunate to be in “projects with Black or even just women creators behind the table.” In the theater season before the pandemic, two plays written by Black playwrights were performed. After the pandemic, seven were planned. “For Colored Girls,” one of Sims’s recent projects, has a Black female director and choreographer. It is a musical meant to highlight the experiences and joy of Black women. 

Even though protests sparked discussions about diversity, a push for inclusion has long existed on  Broadway. Jesse Oxfeld, a freelance theater critic and editorial director of the New York Stage Review, said many shows we see today were “in production before the pandemic.” Therefore, the shows premiering today with BIPOC creative people were not created in response to criticism. Rather, these shows were given the chance to succeed because of pushes for inclusion.

This may include “A Strange Loop,” a Black-written musical that won Best Musical at this year’s Tony Awards  and had 11 total nominations – more than any show post-pandemic.

“People are starting to see themselves on stage,” said Gennean Scott, the Broadway League’s first Director of Equity, Ediversity, and Inclusion. Programs such as Black to Broadway and Viva Broadway, started by the League, existed before the pandemic. The Broadway League is also fully behind the push for more diversity behind the scenes, according to Scott. By doing anti-bias and anti-racism training, the Broadway League has helped theaters become more welcoming – both backstage and in the audience.

Scott has also started the Black Business of Broadway podcast, which seeks to highlight Black talent working behind the scenes. “The more people you see in back offices, the more audiences will resonate with theater,” she said. The Broadway League hopes that more diverse audiences will go to theaters understanding that it is “also for them.”

Wollman believes that this is ultimately what will keep diversity in Broadway. In order for a “truly diverse Broadway” with people working behind the scenes from “various backgrounds,” Wollman said change is needed from the ground up. “This includes encouragement and access from all levels, bringing them into theater and making them understand that it is for everybody,” she said.

The Broadway League believes in this change as well, seeing the diversity of Broadway as something worth investing in. According to Scott, the Broadway League has created many outreach programs for youth, sometimes reaching out to schools without art programs. Far from a single trip to Broadway before they graduate, students in the League’s programs shadow and work with theater workers.

With more work, Scott is optimistic that Broadway will become “as diverse as the city.” 

Tony Awards host Ariana DeBose echoed this sentiment at the top of the award show on Sunday and said “‘The Great White Way’ is becoming more of a nickname as opposed to a how-to guide.”