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On Broadway, Black artists push for racial equity


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As the Black Lives Matter movement gains more momentum, there are calls for equity in all sectors of life, including Broadway.

Jeffrey Brown looks at efforts black artists in particular are making, with hopes that, when the curtain rises once again, more diverse faces will appear on and behind the stage.

The story is part of our ongoing coverage of Race Matters and our series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It wasn't the renowned Tony Awards, the annual ceremony honoring Broadway's best, but the brand-new Antonyo Awards.

Man (singing): It's true we have been ordered to stay at home.

Jeffrey Brown: A play on words, a streamed show with a virtual red carpet, original music numbers, and star presenters.

Ben Vereen: Welcome to the Antonyo Awards. Are you in for a treat.

Jeffrey Brown: The purpose, to honor Juneteenth, the date that marks the freedom of enslaved black people in America, and to celebrate the achievements of black theater artists on and off stage.

Audra McDonald: As we continue to move forward and fight for equality and fight for justice and to fight for our lives, it's important to have self-care and celebrate all that we are fighting for.

Jeffrey Brown: Renowned theater star Audra McDonald added to her Tony, Grammy, and Emmy awards with an Antonyo for best actor in a play on Broadway for her performance in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

Nicolette Robinson: The nominees for best actor in a musical Off-Broadway are...

Jeffrey Brown: The award show was conceived amid the pandemic, as Broadway and theaters everywhere were closed, but before the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few weeks.

Now the push for change was even more urgent.

Audra McDonald: There's a desire and a want to sort of be together and celebrate in any way that we can. And because of this horrific time that we're in, where there's so much grief and pain because of what's happening racially in our country, we can do both. We can celebrate and we can rally to make change.

Jeffrey Brown: To that end, McDonald and an all-star group of black theater artists, Phylicia Rashad, Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and many others, have also launched a new effort called Black Theater United.

Man: We need every voice lifted.

Woman: And we need every heart...

Man: ... opened, aligned with ours to fight against racist ideologies...

Man: ... that have divided us by devaluing our lives.

Jeffrey Brown: It's focused on the larger society. The coalition is partnering with groups like Fair Count and Fair Fight to promote greater voter participation and protect voting rights.

The theater itself is the other focus. Among other projects, the group wants to create mentorship programs for aspiring young black artists and bring attention to inequities within the theater world.

African-Americans make up just 7.5 percent of membership in Actor's Equity, the labor union for live theatrical performance. A recent study showed that members of color have fewer work opportunities, just 7.5 percent of principal roles, and earn 10 percent less when they do find work.

And according to TheaterMania, an industry site, in the current season, out of the 37 shows that were on stage before COVID, eight cast no artists of color. Black Theater United is just one among several new efforts.

Another, called Dear White American Theater, a multiracial group, called on arts institutions to -- quote -- "examine, change and dismantle their harmful and racist practices."

Jeffrey Brown: Actor Drew Shade founded Broadway Black in 2012 to celebrate black theater achievements. His group produced the Antonyos.

Drew Shade: We contribute and give of ourselves and of our talents and of our bodies, eight shows a week, just like any other performer, just like any other artist. And I think that the contributions that we have given haven't been equally recognized or equally held up in the same manner.

Jeffrey Brown: Is it an institutional bias? Is it an overt racism? Is it a just, this is how it's always been done by the people who do control such things?

Drew Shade: Is always just the way it's been done, when it comes to black bodies and black stories that, if certain people cannot relate, then it doesn't feel as though it's valued, because it's not their experience or something that they know to be true. So, it's all of those things.

Jeffrey Brown: Audra McDonald has had one of the most successful and acclaimed careers in theater history, but she too sees the need for profound changes.

Audra McDonald: There's not a lot of black stage managers. There's not a lot of black people in the hair union and wardrobe, on the crew, in casting offices. So, many of us are oftentimes the only one in the room.

Jeffrey Brown: There's also a desire to address the issue of who goes to the theater, who theater is seen as being for.

Drew Shade: It's also about, how you create your marketing materials? Who do you advertise to? And there has been an implicit bias to make the theater, the American theater, an older white type of craft, or older white type of experience, which is why I have come into the industry to sort of shake that up, to market to black people, to market to people that would not normally think the theater was for them.

That's the whole reason why I'm here.

Jeffrey Brown: The theater world, says McDonald, reflects the larger society.

Audra McDonald: The larger house is on fire right now. We have got to save our lives first. And we need to engage civically to do everything we can to effect change, to just protect our lives and our communities and give ourselves a greater voice, and then, at the same time, concentrate on what we can do to change the theatrical landscape as well.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, the actual shows are on hold now at least through Labor Day.

While theater artists wait for the curtain to rise again, the hope and work for change on Broadway and beyond goes on.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Can't wait for Broadway to come back.

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