As the protests against police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor spread around the country, several black actors, writers, and others working in the New York theater have come forward to share the stories of the racism embedded in the industry. Many of them described hearing subtly or overtly racist language from powerful white people within the industry and described their frustration with producers and theater owners currently issuing boilerplate statements (like many brands) about the Black Lives Matter movement. Griffin Matthews, who co-wrote and starred in the musical Invisible Thread (also titled Witness Uganda) and recently appeared on the third season of Dear White People, went into great detail in a video he shared on Monday about the racist treatment he received while developing the show. Matthews compared many of the people in power on Broadway to Amy Cooper, the white woman caught on video calling the cops on black birdwatcher Christian Cooper for telling her to leash her dog in Central Park.
In his video, Matthews describes incidents where a producer tried to force him out of the show, which was based on his own experience; where a casting director said an actress didn’t seem “black enough” to be in the show; where the theater company Second Stage asked the show’s cast to perform for free at its gala while promising a donation to their charity, without delivering on that donation; where reviewers described the show and cast in racist terms, without the producers defending the show; and where the show’s director (Diane Paulus, though Matthews does not name her directly) shouted that she did not work for him. “White people literally need not one black person to become a Broadway sensation,” Matthews said, adding that Broadway is filled with racist, Amy Cooper–like white people who believe themselves to be allies. “I may never make it to Broadway for simply speaking out against the horrific treatment that I received, and all the Amy Coopers will be fine … They do not need black people to reach the pinnacle of success, and that is why I say, burn it down.”
In a Facebook post on June 1, Cody Renard Richard, who worked as a stage manager on the Broadway runs of Motown, Hamilton, and Freestyle Love Supreme, described “just a FEW” of the incidents that he has had to deal with working in the theater, including a stagehand calling him “Trayvon” while he was wearing a hoodie and hearing the “never funny joke of ‘smile, so I can see you’ when standing backstage in the dark doing my job.”
Many of those who came forward were responding to messages put out by theater companies and productions over the weekend about the Black Lives Matter movement. In a May 30 tweet from Hamilton’s main account, Lin-Manuel Miranda apologized for not directly showing support for the movement in the past. Other productions were less direct and criticized for being vague. (Wicked, for instance, posted a photo of a white hand holding a green hand, before deleting it and posting a tweet specifically about Black Lives Matter.)
Schele Williams, who made her debut in Disney’s production of Aida and is set to direct its touring revival of the show, made a statement that addressed the vagary of the language some productions and companies put out over the weekend. “I have sat in rooms where my presence is your victory. Where my hard fought achievements are seen as a representation of your growth,” she wrote. “If you mean the words in your statements / Show us your values / Live up to your mission statements / Give us space to breathe and speak without fear of reprisal.”
Warren Adams, choreographer of Motown, posted a statement on Instagram describing how black creatives in theater “have been wearing masks for a very long time; out of fear of rocking the boat.” “Some of you expressed your heartache this weekend after the Black Broadway community demanded it of you,” he wrote. “The words you wrote were very powerful and we thank you for it. But, those are only words. Your actions regarding this matter is what will really count. When you have an all white producing team, CHANGE IT. When you have an all white creative team, CHANGE IT. When you have an all white staff at your organisation, CHANGE IT. When you have an all white board, CHANGE IT. When you’re pitching a narrative steeped in ethnic culture with an ALL WHITE TEAM - DON’T! JUST DON’T. When you have an only white ANYTHING, CHANGE IT.”
American theater as a whole is currently on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the recent protests have already led producers to shift plans for various remote theater events. The Drama Desk Awards postponed their event planned for Sunday, May 31, while the Public Theater postponed a gala planned for June 1. Both Broadway On Demand and Broadway.com have also postponed their events scheduled for June 7, originally intended to replace the night the Tony Awards were going to air on CBS.
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