Broadway power brokers pledge diversity changes as theaters reopen

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Broadway power brokers pledge diversity changes as theaters reopen
A block party to celebrate the first performance of “Pass Over,” outside the August Wilson Theatre in Manhattan, Aug. 4, 2021. Fifteen months after the George Floyd protests called renewed attention to racism in many areas of society, some of the most powerful players on Broadway have signed a pact pledging to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices as theaters reopen following the lengthy shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Jeenah Moon/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Fifteen months after the George Floyd protests called renewed attention to racism in many areas of society, some of the most powerful players on Broadway have signed a pact pledging to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices as theaters reopen following the lengthy shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The agreement commits Broadway and its touring productions not only to the types of diversity training and mentorship programs that have become common in many industries, but also to a variety of sector-specific changes: The industry is pledging to forgo all-white creative teams, hire “racial sensitivity coaches” for some shows, rename theaters for Black artists and establish diversity rules for the Tony Awards.

The document, called “A New Deal for Broadway,” was developed under the auspices of Black Theatre United, one of several organizations established last year as an outgrowth of the anger Black theater artists felt over the police killings of Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Black Theatre United’s founding members include some of the most celebrated performers working in American theater: Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Wendell Pierce, Norm Lewis and LaChanze.

The signatories include the owners and operators of all 41 Broadway theaters — commercial and nonprofit — as well as the Broadway League, which is a trade organization representing producers, and the Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union representing actors and stage mangers. Their pledges are not legally enforceable, but they agreed to “hold ourselves and each other accountable for implementing these commitments.”

The document was negotiated at a series of virtual meetings that began while theaters were closed because of the pandemic; the changes are being announced as two Broadway shows have begun performances this summer, with 15 more planning to start, or restart, in September.

“We convened all of the power players in our industry — the unions, the theater owners, producers and creatives — and had conversations about changing habits, structures and creating accountability,” said director Schele Williams. “We knew that before our theaters robustly started opening in the fall, everyone deserved to know who they were in the space and how they would be treated, and that’s something none of us have known in our careers.”

One of the key changes being called for is that creative teams — which include directors, writers, composers, choreographers and designers — should be diverse. A section signed by directors and writers vows to “never assemble an all-white creative team on a production again, regardless of the subject matter of the show,” while a section signed by producers says, “We will make best efforts to ensure true racial diversity on all future productions.”

The meetings, which started in March, were funded by the Ford Foundation and facilitated by Kenji Yoshino, director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at New York University School of Law.

“Everyone came in ready to make change,” producer David Stone said.

Among the changes that will be most visible to the public: The three big commercial landlords on Broadway — the Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn organizations — each pledged that at least one theater they operate would be named for a Black artist. Jujamcyn already operates the August Wilson Theatre, the only Broadway house named for a Black artist.

“This is a movement that is going to make change, and we’re happy to be part of it,” said Robert E. Wankel, chairman and chief executive of the Shubert Organization.

The document’s signatories are committing to changes that would affect many aspects of the theater business, from casting to hair care. But Broadway is a highly unionized workforce, and the only labor unions that signed the agreement are those representing actors, stage managers, makeup artists and hairstylists.

That leaves some conspicuous gaps — there is pervasive concern about low levels of diversity among Broadway stagehands, musicians and design teams, for example — and the leadership of Black Theatre United said that although the group has endorsements from individuals working in those areas, it will continue to work to win more organizational support for the document.

Actor NaTasha Yvette Williams said that she expected more groups to embrace the calls for change. “It’s only a matter of time before they come around,” she said.

Director Kenny Leon acknowledged frustration that his own union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, was not a signatory.

“I am disappointed that my directing union hasn’t signed on yet,” he said. “But as a Black member of that union, I’m going to keep fighting for that.”

The executive director of the union, Laura Penn, said the organization was “deeply committed to the principles” of the agreement but opted not to sign because much of it is “beyond the scope of the union’s purview.”

Jeanine Tesori, a composer, said she is hopeful that the variety of professions represented in a show’s music department will jointly commit to creating more opportunity in what can be a tough area to break into.

“We have to invite newcomers in,” she said.

The signatories pledged to create a new, mandatory, industrywide training program for equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging. And, with an eye toward further diversifying the industry, they also committed to “mentoring and sponsoring Black talent in our respective fields on an ongoing basis.”

“Everybody has a Black Lives Matter statement out,” actress Allyson Tucker said. “The words are no longer enough. What is the action?”

Among the other commitments: Remove “biased or stereotypical language” from casting notices; insist on diversity riders prioritizing inclusivity as part of director and author contracts; search more widely for music contractors, who are the gatekeepers to orchestra staffing; and abolish unpaid internships.

“Internships had a reputation of being for people who could afford to not be paid any money,” said actor Darius de Haas.

The signatories also committed to “sensitivity” steps for shows dealing with race. “For shows that raise racial sensitivities, we will appoint a racial sensitivity coach whose role is akin to an intimacy coach,” the document says. Separately, it says, “While acknowledging that creatives can write about any subject that captures their interest or imagination, we will, when writing scripts that raise identity issues (such as race), make best efforts to commission sensitivity reads during the drafting process to assist in flagging issues and providing suggestions for improvement. Playwrights and/or those individuals or entities with contractual approval rights will retain creative control to accept or reject the sensitivity reader’s recommendations.”

“We have to tell difficult stories,” Schele Williams said. “But we also must take great care.”

The document does not detail what kinds of diversity rules the group is seeking for the Tony Awards. But actor Vanessa Williams said the document’s call for diversity “requirements for Tony Award eligibility” was inspired by new rules for the Academy Awards that will require films to meet specified inclusion standards to qualify for a best picture nomination.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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