Last night was a holiday in our house, one celebrated with champagne and excitement. Yes, it was the annual telecast of the Tony Awards, Broadway’s equivalent to Hollywood’s Oscars. While our kids are still too young to stay up until 11 pm on a school night to enjoy the dazzling pageantry and sometimes embarrassingly strange production choices, my husband and I sipped our bubbly and set the DVR to record so we could relive the evening with our children today after school.
While there are certainly aspects of the show that awaken my inner-gay biznatch, things that made my husband and I cringe and criticize, there are some significant aspects that I cannot wait to share with the kids later today. This weekend, we showed our African American daughter a CBS Sunday Morning piece featuring Audra McDonald’s portrayal of Billie Holiday on Broadway this season, and it featured portions of her 2012 acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Musical. She talks about being “a little girl with a pot belly and afro-puffs” and how she found a home in the theater that allowed her to flourish. At seven, our daughter has developed an adorable pot belly and looks amazing in afro-puffs, and I hope she sees the connection, even if she doesn’t choose to pursue a life in theater (although would be pretty fantastic).
Tonight, we’ll show the kids the awards ceremony, and they’ll see lots of examples of people who look like them, including a few significant wins for Audra McDonald, Sophie Okonedo, Kenny Leon. While the industry itself is still run predominantly by white (gay) men, I am consistently struck by the ways in which the theater has provided opportunities for my kids to see versions of themselves in a variety of roles, and not necessarily the ones that are strictly “ethnic.” Far more often than in other performance art storytelling media like television and film, the theater has provided audiences the opportunity to see people of color in both roles that speak specifically to their historical experience and roles that more broadly speak to the human experience and are not necessarily “racial.”
Our kids have come to expect the racial diversity that we celebrate in our theater-going adventures. When our daughter was four years old, we succumbed to her begging to see Les Miserables on its 25th anniversary tour, partially because we knew that the cast included black actress Chasten Harmon as Eponine. We talked it up with her, and she was adorably perturbed when we saw an understudy on the cast board upon our arrival at the theater. She crossed her arms and pouted through “On My Own,” telling us, “She doesn’t have skin like me.”
It’s this sense of color brave casting that I’ve come to enjoy in recent years during our many excursions to the theater. “Color brave” is a term I’m stealing from Mellody Hobson’s terrific recent TED Talk; if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now!
Now black Eponine’s are almost expected in professional theater productions of Les Mis, including the current Broadway revival starring Tony Award winner Nikki M. James in the role, and while these productions are essentially asking us to be color blind, to look beyond the skin color of these actors and actually believe that these people would have been running around leading a revolution in nineteenth century France, someone made the bold decision to be color brave in the casting of these actors. Especially in the musical theater, when material is good and the actors are effective, we believe in the spontaneous outburst of song, so why shouldn’t we believe in the person of color transcending what would have been the historical norm of Western history?
I love seeing this sort of bravery with my family. We recently attended a production of Into the Woods at Lyric Stage in Boston, and the four of us were beyond excited to see an Asian Baker’s Wife, a black Little Red Riding Hood, and a black Prince Charming. It’s casting like this that provides all audience members, not just those of color, examples of ways in which the theater can explore the human condition of all people, not just whites. And this in tandem with race-specific productions like A Raisin in the Sun, a big winner last night at the Tonys, can help provide multiple perspectives, points of view can speak to both the shared racial experience and the individual ones.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has a great TED talk of her own called “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she details the perils of relying solely on a single story to inform us of people who are different. She even highlights the ways in which no one would question whether the serial killer at the heart of Bret Easton Ellis‘s novel American Psycho was somehow representative of all American white men, and this is simply because of the power of white culture in the media we consume. In my experiences though, we consistently believe the opposite of stories from people of color and other marginalized groups. My students read one story of the African American experience and believe they can check off the box; we read The Color Purple, so they now know what it was like to be an African American in the Jim Crow South. I consistently try to emphasize the elements of the story that are representative of the shared historical experiences and highlight the aspects that are specific to these individual characters. This is why we need color brave casting and authentic stories about oppressed histories. I’m hopeful that theater directors will continue to embrace this kind of theatrical heroism, and perhaps it will even spread to film and television.