Changing Cultures With #BroadwaySoDiverse

A thin cultural point of view for diversity needs to change for Broadway

The central theme of the Tony Awards this year seems to have been about celebrating a multicultural outlook, post so much criticism directed at an absence of colour at the Academy Awards. A majority of the shows nominated had a racially-mixed cast this year; the only prominent exception to this would be the regal story of Hamilton, and it’s plethora of white actors. From Shuffle Along to On Your Feet!, the experiences highlighted on-stage have largely been about Latinos, Blacks and Asians, and the shows have even boasted household names, such as George Takei, Lea Salonga and Lupita Nyong’o.

Diversity should not be looked upon as a responsibility worth attaining because we live in a multicultural world after all and thoughts along any other lines seem very lost and out-of-place. But that is not what everyone always experiences and perhaps nowhere can this be felt more than for people of colour who work in Broadway: Pascale Armand, one of the actresses in Eclipsed, is a former psychology major at Georgetown University, who decided to dabble in black theatre with her time then, and was even the lead once in an important production at Georgetown. Working with minor shows aside, Pascale has also taken a class at NYU, but after it she recollects that colourblind casting was the only possible way she could be cast in major plays.

Personally, Pascale identifies with black stories that have a more universal theme, and talk to the audiences about tales like, how a black garbage collector is important to the white scene because despite his job, he goes through the same feelings and emotions as any other human being in the world. Pascale feels that championing diversity should not be an insincere cause and that it’s not tough to look past colours when there is a good story worth telling. Furthermore, the young actress is adamant that progress is happening on the diversity-front but highlights that some far-reaching shows (such as those from Shakespeare) should expand further than the popularised-white-castings and aim for including people of all colours too because it can then help the global audience relate to the play materials better.

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Meanwhile, Adrienne Warren (from Shuffle Along), who got inspired to join theatre after watching Nala’s on-stage performance in the Broadway edition of The Lion King, recollects that she faced this narrow outlook in casting for black women, from the moment she started out because of the trivial roles that would be offered to her. For a while, Adrienne drew inspiration from seeing fellow black actresses on stage because the experience was relatable but now she believes Broadway has the power to shape cultural change about all-black casts doing something dramatically newer, such as the one in Eclipsed.

Ana Villafane, who plays the lead in On Your Feet!, a musical about the Latin songstress Gloria Estefan (and her husband, Emilio Estefan), on the other hand, feels that Broadway is not colourblind, but that it actually has a multicultural point of view. One of her all-time favourites (for dreamcasting herself in) is A Streetcar Named Desire, as Blanche DuBois (played by Vivien Leigh in the 1951 film) and for On Your Feet! Ana plays Gloria, from her teenage years to how she manages her life’s work, despite the many obstacles, such as a very-late reconcilation with her mother and the aftereffects of a spinal injury early on in her career. Villafane’s struggles to make it also involved a much more tailored set of roles because of her Latina heritage; girlfriends of mobsters, a woman victimised in a gang crime, a maid, or a pregnant Latin woman, are some of the typecasted examples of roles that Ana had to wisely turn down and opt for nothing at all, for a change and it is a very capital potrtrait of the need to further the diversity agenda in the 21st Century.

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Author: Osmi Anannya

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