Show and tell: #TonysNotSoWhite

Anna Hollingsworth 25 May 2016

I think everyone was fairly shocked when, after such a dynamic year in race relations and opening dialogues about diversity in work places and mainstream media, not one black actor was nominated for the 20 available Academy Awards for acting. Not surprisingly, this sparked outrage, boycotts of the event, and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

The implication was that the Academy was suggesting that none of the black actors that appeared in films last year gave particularly exceptional performances, at least not exceptional enough to compete with the white faces that seem to appear every year. However, I don’t want to focus on the frustrations surrounding race in film awards. Instead, I want to shed light on the nominees for this year’s Tony Awards and the racial diversity among them that can tell us a lot about what Broadway is doing right that Hollywood isn’t.

The Tony Awards, to be aired on 12th June (post-exams = totally acceptable to stay up to live stream), recognise excellent achievements in live Broadway theatre. After the whitewash at the Oscars in February, it is incredible to see that the two frontrunners for the Tonys feature almost entirely non-white casts: these are Hamilton (boasting a record-breaking 16 nominations) and Shuffle Along, which tells the story of the first major production to be produced, written, and performed entirely by African Americans back in 1921 (nabbing 10 nominations this year). Anyone who has read my column in previous weeks or is at all tuned in to what is going on in the theatre world will know all about Hamilton, so I’ll refrain from gushing about it again. Suffice it to say that it really is an enormous step for diversity in mainstream theatre (and song writing for that matter).

This year 18 of the Tonys can be won by someone of African American, Hispanic or Asian ancestry, and many of them will be. So what is it about theatre today that is conducive to increasing diversity and enhancing opportunities for talented people, regardless of their background? Firstly, Broadway doesn’t have the same toxic star system as Hollywood. Granted, many shows will employ a big name to boost ticket sales, but you don’t go to the theatre expecting to recognise the entire cast, something that has become somewhat of a prerequisite for big films. I am totally guilty of being more likely to see a film with actors I know, but Hollywood’s structure as a star machine means that it takes years for newcomers to rise up, something people from less privileged backgrounds cannot afford to do.

Of course, underprivileged is not synonymous with non-white, but the reality is that in contemporary Los Angeles, the people able to break into the film world by working for free are unlikely to be from the poorer areas of the city which tend to have a larger black population. In contrast, Broadway functions on an almost entirely meritocratic basis: if you’re good, you’re in. For instance, two years ago Cynthia Erivo was singing in musical theatre cabarets in London and now she is the star of The Color Purple in New York and a strong contender for this year’s Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award, purely because of her phenomenal talent. In the movie industry, on the other hand, it can take up to a decade of small, low-paid jobs to finally be recognised.

Not only does the fairer casting process in theatre allow for a wider variety of talent to break through, but there is also a richer black history in the world of live performance that is being rightfully recognised by producers and theatregoers and the nomination panel for this year’s awards alike. Whilst the mainstream world of cinema we know today originated in the hands of those who had money in a small area of California, a platform from which to entertain the wealthy, white upper echelons of society, theatre always has been and always will be universally accessible: it can be performed anywhere, by anyone, for anyone.

Whilst historically oppressed black people would have been denied access to the resources of Hollywood, nobody could take performance in its purest form away from them, and they did not. I’m not going to claim to fully understand or speak for the intricacies of black history, but it is well known that singing and dancing have long been prevalent parts of black culture, which has evidently and thankfully been handed down through the generations to the actors and actresses who are now leading Broadway through this age of modern theatre.

But me musing on why black people should be successful in theatre is arbitrary; the plain fact is that theatre managers and producers are programming and funding shows that represent the diversity of modern society, that are cast fairly, and that sell and become widely acclaimed works of art for their creatively and culturally enriching impact. Broadway and the Tonys are in the fast lane to becoming among the most prominent institutions where you no longer need to point out when something is ‘ethnically diverse’, because a) that should be the norm and b) entertainment is fundamentally about talent, not skin colour or background.

This is something that Hollywood needs to learn to get past its current state of ‘black parts’ and ‘token’ black characters. Yes, the Academy is made up of mostly white people, but in all honesty did they really have many black actors to vote for? #OscarsSoWhite is part of the fallout from errors at the casting stage. So, let us shout from our diverse, theatre rooftops and hope they hear us in Hollywood: if Broadway shows and their black casts can still draw in thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of dollars every week, doing the same probably won’t go too badly over in Hollywood.