As the lights of Broadway flicker on again after more than a year of darkness, the theater industry is beginning to grapple with longstanding issues surrounding diversity
Advocates say the theater closures amid the coronavirus pandemic allowed industry leaders to reflect, and now, ideas of how to address racial inequality are flourishing.
"Artists of color, marginalized communities of color, we have a history of creating something out of nothing," Zhailon Levingston, director of industry initiatives at the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, told ABC News. The BAC is a nonprofit Broadway advocacy organization.
"If Broadway is going to be here and proclaim to be as broad as it is then it must include us," Levingston said.
Exploring Broadway's history of racial inequality
Theater is an overwhelmingly white industry, and all of New York City's 41 Broadway theaters are owned and operated by white people, according to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.
White actors appeared in 58.6% of roles during the 2018-2019 season, despite making up only 32% of New York City's population, AAPAC's annual visibility study found.
On Broadway, representation for Black performers improved, as they accounted for 29% of roles in the 2018-2019 season, according to the AAPAC. But Latino representation dropped from 6.1 to 4.8% and Asian American representation dropped from 6.9 to 6.3%. For Indigenous actors, the number dropped down to zero from .2%.
Off-stage, the issue was even more pronounced: The study found that 80.5% of all writers and 81.3% of directors were white.
"It's been no secret that Broadway has had a diversity problem since day one, not just [racially] but [also] for gender and gender identification and disability," Christine Toy Johnson, the chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee at the Dramatists Guild of America told ABC News.
However, similar problems persist in theaters across the country, according to a study by labor union Actors Equity Association. Of almost 100,000 contracts in theatre, about 64% of them went to white workers, followed by 10.68% of Black workers. The next highest percentage -- 9.34% -- went to unidentified workers. Hispanic and Latinx workers made up 3.38%.
Stage manager contracts highlighted an even larger disparity -- with 76% of contracts going to white stage managers.
The AEA acknowledged that racial representation has improved in recent years but it can also be attributed to the multiple productions of Hamilton, a musical with an almost complete cast of color.
Across the country, theaters have taken several steps to rid themselves of the reputation as predominant white spaces.
"When you walk into most of our theaters, they are white spaces," said David John Chávez, the first critic of color to lead the American Theatre Critics Association. "Every system in the country seems to be asking the same questions: Where's the equity? Where are the voices?"
Groups including Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Broadway Black have been vital in making progress toward racial equity and inclusion, holding meetings with industry leaders and facilitating forums on racial inequality in theater.
BAC's Reimagining Equitable Productions initiative has allowed advocates to work directly with theater companies to analyze their values, their systems of accountability and their path toward progress.
"There is no human resources [department] on Broadway and so there's no uniform place where people can go to have their issues addressed," Levingston said. "The focus now should be on implementation and sustainability. How do we make this real, how do we not just talk about changing policy, but actually enacting policy?"
Inside the fight for change
Advocates in the industry say that workers of colors have long been frustrated by what they say are barriers and discrimination in hiring, racial pay gaps, and the absence of policies that could protect employees from discrimination.
Actors, playwrights and crew members are among those demanding institutions step up to allow fresh voices on stage -- which they say would attract new audiences as well. The Broadway League reports that about 76% of ticket buyers each year are white.
They also say a lack of representation behind the scenes -- in the makeup, hair and costuming departments -- has hindered the portrayal of characters of color. For example, they say having diverse workers behind the scenes allow for costume mock-ups to cater to different body types, and culturally competent hairdressers may understand Black hair better than others. Levingston said these subtle nuances create a better work environment for all actors.
This past April, theater workers took to New York City's Times Square for the March on Broadway, where hundreds of workers demanded that employers create antiracism policies in their workplaces, make therapy accessible, employ economic and pay transparency and more.
"It's never happened before," Levingston said of the march. "There is power in numbers, and if we borrow from the practices of [social justice] movements far older than ours, we can see that same level of change happen in our industry as well."
How the industry is beginning to shift
Several institutions have answered these calls. Artistic director of Off-Broadway's Ensemble Studio Theatre William Carden stepped down from his position in July 2020 to make room for new leaders of color.
"As our attention was rightfully drawn to the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that my stepping down at this time could create a vital opportunity for our company," Carden said in a statement. "If we are going to become the just and equal community we aspire to be, we have to address and change the implicit racism in the structure of our theatre, and we will be doing that as part of this process."
So far, seven of the nine new Broadway productions are written by Black playwrights, including "Pass Over," which was the first production to begin on Broadway this season at the August Wilson Theatre.
However, the spring slate of productions is less diverse so far -- with a majority white list of playwrights and directors. The fight for representation and equity, activists say, is just starting.
"The amazing thing that we've seen in film and television is that there is a market for diverse voices, diverse actors of all kinds," Emmanuel Wilson, a playwright and executive director of creative affairs at the Dramatists Guild of America, said. "We want to make sure that the great things that are happening all over the country, in regional theaters and small theaters, community theaters, actually come to Broadway."