As Broadway returns, shows rethink and restage depictions of race

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As Broadway returns, shows rethink and restage depictions of race
Kim Exum, center, as her character, Nabulungi in “The Book of Mormon,” at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York on Oct. 21, 2021. “The Book of Mormon,” “The Lion King” and “Hamilton” are among those making changes as theaters reopen following the lengthy pandemic shutdown. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- “Hamilton” has restaged “What’d I Miss?,” the second act opener that introduces Thomas Jefferson, so that the dancer playing Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore him multiple children, can pointedly turn her back on him.

In “The Lion King,” a pair of long-standing references to the shamanic Rafiki as a monkey — taxonomically correct, since the character is a mandrill — have been excised because of potential racial overtones, given that the role is played by a Black woman.

“The Book of Mormon,” a musical comedy from the creators of “South Park” that gleefully teeters between outrageous and offensive, has gone even further. The show, about two wide-eyed white missionaries trying to save souls in a Ugandan village contending with AIDS and a warlord, faced calls from Black members of its own cast to take a fresh look, and wound up making a series of alterations that elevate the main Black female character and clarify the satire.

Broadway is back. But as shows resume performances after the long pandemic shutdown, some of the biggest plays and musicals are making script and staging changes to reflect concerns that intensified after last year’s huge wave of protests against racism and police misconduct.

“We’re in a new world,” said Arbender J. Robinson, who was among the actors who expressed their concerns in a letter to the “Mormon” creative team. “We have a responsibility to make sure we understand what we’re doing, and how it can be perceived.”

Although classic shows are often updated to reflect shifting attitudes toward race and gender when they are brought back to the stage as revivals, what is happening today is different: an assortment of hit shows reconsidering their content mid-run. They are responding to pressure from artists emboldened by last year’s protests, as well as a heated social media culture in which any form of criticism can easily be amplified, while taking advantage of an unexpected window of time in which rewriting was possible, and re-rehearsing was necessary, because of the lengthy Broadway shutdown.

“To me this feels like nothing ever before in theater,” said Diane Paulus, director of “Jagged Little Pill,” which just last month won the Tony Award for best book and has revisited its book to refine the references to race. “This is different. This is saying the world has changed, and how can we embrace that?”

Some of the changes are readily apparent, and others subtle, likely to be noticed only by the most detail-oriented audience members. There has been little pushback so far, either from those who might see the revisions as insufficient, or from those who might see them as an overreaction.

The changes, big or small, are significant to performers — especially Black performers, who have become increasingly willing to speak up about concerns on and offstage.

The letter from the “Mormon” actors, some from the original cast and some from the current roster, was sent in July of 2020, four months after the pandemic had closed Broadway and two months after George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis. They warned that “when the show returns, all of our work will be viewed through a new lens.”

The musical has faced criticism for years over its depiction of Africans, but some cast members were prompted to reflect again when an actor unaffiliated with the show denounced it on Facebook as “racist.”

“I never felt this show was racist — never — but then I started hearing some concern from people in the show, who don’t know the intentions, and are saying, ‘Oh my God, am I doing a racist show?’” said Derrick Williams, who has been in “Mormon” since 2014 and also signed the letter. “There’s a fine line between satire and being offensive, and you have to be on the right side of that.”

The creative team was unsettled. “There was a moment where we weren’t sure — we thought, ‘Maybe this show has run its course,’” said Robert Lopez, who wrote the show with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of “South Park.” “But that’s not what anyone was asking for, so we braced for the hard work of what we would have to do.”

So this summer, after a year of quiet conversations by phone and video, the original creative team gathered with the current cast — some meeting for the first time — and, for two straight weeks, went through the show scene by scene, clarifying their intent as they reviewed the plot, the comedy and the staging. The goal, Stone said: “Make sure everything works and everybody feels good.”

Throughout the show, which will resume performances next month, moments were tweaked to sharpen the satire of Mormonism (already cringe-inducing for many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and to give the Ugandan villagers more agency. A gag in which the villager Nabulungi tries to send a text using a typewriter is gone; now she has an iPad, and the joke is no longer about her lack of sophistication, but about the unreliability of social media. Also: toward the end of the show, it is Nabulungi, not a white missionary, who scares away a warlord.

“It’s putting Uganda at the center,” said Kim Exum, the actress playing Nabulungi, “instead of the Mormon boys.”

Disney, which reopened “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” last month, not only replaced the references to Rafiki as a monkey (first used in the 1994 animated movie, when the character was not depicted by a live actor) but also made a few changes to “Aladdin.” Among them: the word “barbaric” has been deleted from the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” and replaced with “chaotic,” reflecting a change previously made for the 2019 live-action film.

“The 18-month hiatus gave us a chance to take a fresh look at ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ and make surgical changes to the books,” Disney Theatrical Productions said in a statement for this story, “informed by all that’s occurred since we’d last performed these shows.”

At “Hamilton,” which broke ground by casting people of color to play the nation’s founders but has faced criticism for what some historians see as its misleading depiction of the title character as an abolitionist, attention during preparations for its reopening last month focused on Jefferson.

Jefferson has become an increasingly controversial figure — the New York City Council earlier this month voted to remove his statue from its chambers — and “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail said the cast and creative team concentrated its revisions on Jefferson’s big number because of “the shameful distance between the liberty he wrote about, and the life he lived as a slaveholder.”

There was another factor, too: the song contains the only moment in the show when an enslaved person is named — Hemings. “When you invoke the name of an enslaved person, you have to give some kind of respect,” said James Monroe Iglehart, who plays Jefferson.

Hemings has no lines, but is represented through dance when Jefferson, saying “Sally be a lamb,” asks her to bring him a letter from George Washington; the choreography, Kail said, is now “quite different,” with “a different tone — one that is more respectful to Sally’s point of view.”

In the pre-pandemic staging, Hemings would dance around Jefferson flirtatiously, performing a battement; in the new version, she still kicks her leg, but she faces away from him, arms forming a cradle as if to remind viewers of the children she bore him. “Rather than the playful, romantic energy that the previous version had, I’m now playing a person that had no claim over her own life and her own body,” said Justice Moore, who dances the Hemings role.

There are changes for the ensemble, too. Gone are the white gloves and the pantomimed motions of slaves at work as Jefferson arrives at Monticello; now some members of the ensemble stand at a distance, and don’t even join in the singing. “The gloves automatically put you in a servant place, in a minstrel show sort of place, and the more we dug deeper, the more we asked why we need that weight on the story,” said Shonica Gooden, a member of the show’s ensemble.

At “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a stage adaptation of the classic novel about a white lawyer’s unsuccessful effort to defend a Black man falsely accused of rape and then killed by law enforcement officers, the final scene was restaged before this month’s resumption of performances. A specter of the accused man, Tom Robinson, now returns at the end. “My goal is to not lose track of Tom’s story,” said Bartlett Sher, the director, “and to keep the impact of what happens to Tom more present.”

“The Lehman Trilogy,” about the rise and fall of a financial family, added new references to the businessmen’s relationship to slavery after earlier versions of the play were criticized for playing down that connection. “Everything that was built here was built on a crime,” a character now warns.

Broadway is addressing concerns about race in a variety of ways as it reopens — the current season features a record number of plays by Black writers; many shows are creating new diversity-related staff positions; and industry leaders have pledged to create more opportunities for artists of color. But race, although the primary focus of the protests last year, is not the only subject being reconsidered.

“Jagged Little Pill,” a musical adapted from the blockbuster Alanis Morissette album, has simultaneously tried to deepen its discussion of race (the show centers on a white family with an adopted Black daughter) and gender identity. The show had been criticized when a character who appeared to some to be nonbinary before “Jagged” reached Broadway was more clearly portrayed as female once it arrived. In response, the producers said last month that they had hired a new dramaturgical team, including nonbinary and transgender members, “to revisit and deepen the script.”

The writer of the musical's book, Diablo Cody, said that she welcomed the opportunity to take another look at the material: She works primarily as a screenwriter, and of course once a movie is done, it’s done. But during the shutdown, she was able to update the musical’s family argument about transracial adoption. “When I wrote this, it was 2017 to 2018,” Cody said, “and it just feels like there has been such a cultural sea change since then.”

Are the changes enough? Maybe not — although “Lehman” opened this month to raves, some critics once again faulted the play’s treatment of slavery.

And are the alterations finished? Again, maybe not, at least for long-running shows.

“We used to say a show was frozen, but the show is never frozen now,” said Iglehart, the “Hamilton” actor. “The shows are evolving, and they will evolve as the world evolves.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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