‘It’s the balm we need right now’: how Broadway fought its way back

The long theatre shutdown in New York has taken its toll on the industry but a renewed and reinvigorated outlook towards diversity could have a major impact

When Ruben Santiago-Hudson walks on stage at the Manhattan Theatre Club on Tuesday night, the electric charge between actor and audience will spark back to life. Then the healing will begin.

“It is the balm that we all need right now, not just on stage, but in our city,” says Santiago-Hudson, writer, performer and director of Lackawanna Blues, one of a record seven works by Black playwrights opening on Broadway this autumn. “It’s a necessity, it’s in us as human beings. Theatre has always been the great gathering place – church and theatre.”

New York theatre is emerging from the longest shutdown in its history. The coronavirus pandemic hit it far harder than the second world war or 9/11. Night after night for 18 months, lights were out, seats were empty and stages lay bare. Thousands of people lost work and audiences foraged for virtual alternatives.

But Tuesday will see Broadway’s three biggest musicals - Hamilton, The Lion King and Wicked – reopen before packed audiences. Some 18 musicals and five plays are heading to stage in the coming weeks and are allowed to play at 100% capacity. Audiences must be fully vaccinated and wear face masks, while actors and all backstage crew work under strict protocols aimed at thwarting the highly contagious Delta variant.

As Broadway tries, in Joe Biden’s framing, to build back better, there are other imperatives. New York was a focal point for last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was a wake-up call for white liberal America, including many Broadway leaders, about the breadth and depth of racial injustice.

Santiago-Hudson, 64, says by phone: “We’ve always known it. The Black community has always said it and a lot of people think we’re crying wolf at the levels of how it’s happening. People would say, ‘Well, he shouldn’t have reached for his wallet and he should have cooperated.’

A guest waves her tickets while waiting in line at the opening night of previews for Pass Over, following the 17-month shutdown of Broadway
A guest waves her tickets while waiting in line at the opening night of previews for Pass Over, following the 17-month shutdown of Broadway Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

“A lot of people cooperate. I’ve cooperated and taken a beating. We as a society had to stop and say, ‘OK, this is real and this has to stop’, and enough people felt that way for it to make a difference. And then other people just said, no more, I’m not taking it any more and I cannot go back to status quo. I cannot go back to a society that’s comfortable for some and uncomfortable for others.”

For the theatre industry it meant soul searching, difficult conversations and confronting decades of white hegemony. New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world but 85.5% of directors, 61% of actors and nearly 80% of show writers in the 2017-18 season were white, according to a report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. In the 2018-19 season, 91% of Broadway design jobs went to white people.

Numerous theatres issued statements of solidarity with the anti-racist movement. A new group, Black Theatre United, hosted town halls on activism and developed mentorship programmes for young Black artists. It also organised a summit of theatre owners, producers, union leaders, creators and casting directors who agreed a “New Deal for Broadway, a set of reforms and commitments to racial diversity, equity and inclusion.

One key to more Black plays is more Black producers. Actor Blair Underwood and former basketball player Renee Montgomery are putting money behind Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, which last month became the first play to open since the shutdown. Sheila Johnson, co-founder of the television network BET, is investing in Keenan Scott II’s play Thoughts of a Colored Man.

These are among an unprecedented seven plays by Black writers announced for the season, including Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Santiago-Hudson. He says: “I’m cautiously optimistic. I am pleased to a certain degree, the way that I see progress presenting itself, but eventually it will truly reveal itself if this is a movement or just a moment.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson in August 2021
Ruben Santiago-Hudson in August 2021. Photograph: Aurora Rose/Rex/Shutterstock

“I can speak personally from my relationship with MTC, the Manhattan Theatre Club, that there are changes I clearly see – visceral changes – and more to come. I’m very pleased with what we’re doing there but I’m not at these other theaters.

“I see what they’re saying and I just want to feel what they’re doing in the coming years so that the ground that everyone can stand on is more equal ground, a ground that truly hears your voices. I’m not so interested in policies and statements being made if attitudes don’t change.”

The pandemic upended many industries but took a particular toll on theatre, which has communal experience, usually indoors, at its core. The 106-year-old Drama League, the only creative home in America for stage directors, supports the careers of young artists, for example by placing them on their first Broadway or TV shows.

Gabriel Stelian-Shanks, the league’s artistic director, recalls: “In two weeks, the job completely changed. Suddenly, we were getting calls from people saying, ‘Gabriel, can you help me? I lost all my work and I can’t feed my family. How do I get groceries?’ People were saying. ‘I woke up with a fever of 103 and I don’t have healthcare. What do I do?’

“I had to intervene with landlords who are trying to kick artists out of their apartments because they wanted to evict them. So we became this sort of emergency social service organisation literally in less than two weeks. We developed an emergency fund for people to get them through those rough early days. We created programming to try to keep our community together because no theatre was produced in America for a year. We pivoted to a lot of online work.”

Stelian-Shanks adds: “In the best of senses it was a time of innovation and exhilaration but it was really tough: a lot of sadness and a lot of brokenness. I’m hoping that this moment turns us to something new and exciting. I hope we can not only just return to our stages, but learn all the lessons that we have been forced to learn over the last 18 months.”

The lessons are being applied across the country as theatres work to safely reopen. At Arena Stage in Washington last week ticket holders for the first night of Toni Stone were obliged to show proof of vaccination or a recent rapid antigen test before entering the building. Ushers carried signs that said, “Masks on, phones off”. Instead of an opening night party, guests were handed takeaway boxes of sweet treats.

Stelian-Shanks says: “The theatre’s back. There is no impulse right now to shut back down. We await our audiences. When I think about fragility, it’s how we do this moment. Here in New York – and it is becoming a standard across America – to come to venues like live theatre, you have to be vaccinated and wear a mask.

“We are already seeing in the early shows that have opened – Hadestown, Pass Over, Waitress – that is having a really positive effect on being able to gather safely. What we’re going to do is lean into best practices, lean into the health of our audiences and our artists, but stay open.”

About 16 Broadway shows are due to open this month, including returning musicals or plays that had been running for years before the shutdown. The effort is being promoted by a week of outdoor performances in Times Square, a video featuring Oprah Winfrey and a TV special.

The Hadestown reopening night celebration on 2 September
The Hadestown reopening night celebration on 2 September. Photograph: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Whereas London struggled with a stop-start approach to reopening with shifting capacity and quarantine rules, Broadway hopes that its long wait will be rewarded. Ken Davenport, producer of Kinky Boots and Once on This Island, told the Reuters news agency: “One of the best things that Broadway did over the past 18 months was not try to return too early. That policy has done us very well in making sure we had customer confidence that when we came back, we’d be back for good.”

Tickets appear to be selling briskly for September but the Delta variant, which has caused a huge surge among unvaccinated Americans, remains unpredictable and many international tourists – who accounted for one in five ticket sales in 2019, according to the Broadway League – are still barred from visiting the US.

Heather Raffo, an actor and writer of the off-Broadway hit 9 Parts of Desire, says: “The actors I know that are going back into rehearsal rooms are hugely excited. There’s a sacredness to a rehearsal space that we long for. We just long to be in that room.

“But with Delta, nothing’s solved. People have kids that are unvaccinated. I love all the precautions but my friends are cautious. They don’t know if they can really hope and dream yet. They’re like, oh, am I going to go into rehearsal and it’s just going to get shut down again?”

Cody Renard Richard, 33, caught the coronavirus in March 2020 and suffered body aches, shortness of breath and fever, losing his sense of taste and smell. He took just over a month to recover at home and had to turn to the Actors Fund to help pay his rent. He is now production stage manager of Pass Over at the August Wilson Theatre in New York.

He says of its opening last month: “People are looking at us to make sure we’re doing it right so they can do it right. We can’t put all of that on ourselves. We just have to do the show and experience it as it goes. That’s been the blessing of this team, they’re pretty great about that. But opening night was incredible. The energy was amazing. We were able to get over that milestone which, a year ago, I never dreamed that it would be this.”

Asked about the industry’s attempts to reform, which has included some high-profile resignations, Richard adds: “My grandma used to say what is done in the dark will come to the light and these people who are resigning, who’ve been treating people like shit, for lack of a better word, for years, are no longer able to do that … There’s enough people who are actively wanting this system to be different so I think that because of that, slowly we can shape it to what we want it to be. It’s never going to be ideal. Broadway theatre is a capitalistic model so it’s never going to be ideal for everyone but we can figure out how to make this work for what we need. That’s where we are. There are some positive changes happening.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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