Odom has earned career-making reviews as Aaron Burr, the villain of Hamilton. But he was moved to comment: “If a white actor was having a similar situation as I’m having right now in this show, the kind of success of this show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.”
This does not seem to be an exaggeration. The prospects for the next season don’t look especially bright from the perspective of diversity. Of course, announcements of new projects will continue to roll in throughout the summer and fall, but as it stands, the season is once again focused on revivals and film adaptations – Les Liaisons dangereuses, Falsettos, The Price, Groundhog Day, Hello, Dolly!, The Glass Menagerie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With the exception of Cats, which recently announced Leona Lewis as Grizabella, and Miss Saigon, shows with actors of color in the primary roles seem unlikely (though Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, one of the few original pieces announced, does have an African-American female lead and performers of color cast in other parts).
Plays and musicals take years to come together, so it may be several seasons before we experience the knock-on effects of this one. But what will be the effect, exactly, and how successful was this season in terms of diversity? Leaving aside the Hamilton juggernaut, in which actors of varied ethnicities play founding fathers, lovers and rivals, box office receipts have been mixed. Allegiance and Amazing Grace both closed quickly. Eclipsed is hanging on. Shuffle Along, On Your Feet! and The Color Purple continue to do well. In sum, this should still be encouraging enough for producers to take a chance on more daring material requiring more diverse casts and it should encourage writers and composers, too. But if significant change comes at all, it may come slowly.
Why is this? Broadway is, for the most part, a for-profit business. Stars plucked from film and TV, industries that also have mixed records in terms of diversity, are often seen as necessary to sell shows, and a majority of those stars are white. So while this season saw James Earl Jones, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita Nyong’o on the boards, it also saw Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Parsons, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Matthew Broderick, Clive Owen, Linda Lavin, Judith Light, Keira Knightley, Bruce Willis and Al Pacino.
It’s also important to note that while musicals, both new and revived, have recently shown a greater willingness to diversify their casting, straight plays have proven more resistant, whether out of a lack of imagination or a fear of alienating audiences, who expect a greater level of realism in drama, or so producers may assume. (Perhaps that assumption also holds true of musicals. During the roundtable, Zachary Levi defended the all-white cast of She Loves Me with the somewhat tone-deaf assertion that the musical “has a fully Caucasian cast because it takes place in Budapest in the 1930s, and that’s what was written”.)
Jennifer Lim, an actor originally from Hong Kong who received excellent notices as the female lead in Chinglish a few years ago, has found very few Broadway roles to audition for in subsequent seasons. In straight plays, she has found few roles open to all ethnicities. “The opportunities aren’t there,” she says, and she tries “to not get bitter about it”. She does hope that shows like Hamilton will prove a game-changer, contesting the idea that white audiences want to see mirrors of themselves or that color-conscious casting will confuse them. “As someone who did not grow up in this country and is not familiar with that era of American history, I had no problem following the story or getting emotionally invested,” she says.
When opportunities for performers of color do arise, the excitement is palpable. Craig Burns, a casting director at Telsey + Company, held open calls for the Asian American musical Allegiance last season and remembers “a feeling of celebration” during auditions. Burns describes this season as one “for the history books” in terms of its diversity and he believes its effects will last. “The industry seems to be juiced by this season and all of its variety,” he wrote in an email. “Live theatre should reflect the world in which we live.”
So what can producers and audiences do to bring that about? Isaiah Johnson, who stars as Mister in The Color Purple and is pleased “to be a part of this significant season”, believes that producers should find new writers and encourage those writers to tell a variety of stories. “The reason we don’t have more diverse programming is because we don’t have enough producers seeking new works,” he says. “The demographics of playwrights being produced, they aren’t playwrights of color.” Producers and directors can also make themselves more open to nontraditional casting and audiences can show support for productions that do assemble diverse casts.
This is essential if we want to keep talented artists of all ethnicities working on Broadway and in the theater more broadly. As Odom said in the roundtable: “I’ll take care of myself. I’ll be fine. I’ll go do music. I’ll go do TV. I’ll go do what I have to do.” He, too, clearly hopes that the success of Hamilton and shows like it will influence writers and producers further down the line, but perhaps it won’t happen soon enough. “I’d be interested to see what the next two or three seasons look like,” he said, “because I don’t hear a whole lot of stuff.”