by Anjali Yedavalli
New York City’s Broadway has a reputation for being inclusive—for being a space where you can find yourself and forge connections unlike any other. Yet the diversity problems that plague its L.A.-based counterpart (aka Hollywood) seem to plague it, too.
An annual study from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that during the 2016-2017 season, 86.8% of shows were written by white playwrights and 66.8% of the roles were played by white performers—which would make them the only group to be overrepresented in terms of their relation to the demographics of New York City. Another study by Actors’ Equity found that women and people of color find far fewer job opportunities on Broadway compared to white male artists. They are also more likely to land jobs in lower-paying shows.
These statistics are not all that surprising. Broadway, like many industries, was created as a “bastion of white patriarchal supremacy,” according to Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau. “It’s maddening we’re still having to express why the American landscape of storytelling should reflect the American landscape of human beings,” she observes. This requires that people of color have a presence behind the scenes—as directors and playwrights—to tell these stories in the first place. So, what are the other steps to be taken?
When actress Aisha Jackson, who played Princess Anna in Broadway’s Frozen, stumbled across a cast listing on Disney’s Facebook page, she said she “made the mistake of reading the comments.” “People were saying Anna couldn’t be Black,” Jackson notes. “People were saying, ‘Oh, I’m sure she’s good, but a Black Anna, really?’”
Actor Noah J. Ricketts, who played Kristoff on Broadway, discussed an incident where someone burned a hole through his cast picture hanging outside of the theater. “I looked over at my white counterparts… their pictures were pristine,” he recalls. “So, why me? And why aren’t there more principal roles for people of color on Broadway?”
It is not an actor of color’s job to make audiences feel more open to diverse casting, so the only way to create a world in which people of color are accepted is for the industry to make it a priority to give them equal opportunity. Thankfully, this has already begun. In 2017, Shoba Narayan became the first South Asian female in a principal role on Broadway since Bombay Dreams. Jackson and Ricketts paved the way for Black actors to make iconic Disney characters their own. Shows like Ain’t Too Proud, Tina, and the Tony Award juggernaut Hadestown feature a cast that is predominantly people of color.
Not every show with people of color can be as financially or critically successful as Hamilton, but maybe they don’t have to be. They just have to continue getting made, and spaces must continue to be carved so that all versions of all stories can be told on a Broadway stage. In the meantime, casual theatergoers can play their part too. Supporting artists of color through their social media and attending shows that embrace diversity both on and offstage can help show the industry what is really important.
About Anjali Yedavalli
Anjali Yedavalli is a senior at Dunlap High School. Aside from taking academically rigorous classes, Anjali is involved in Speech Team (IHSA State qualifier in 2020), Student Council, UNICEF Club, the school plays, Jazz Choir, and is the Madrigal Queen of Dunlap’s Madrigal choir. Anjali’s main goal in the community is spreading passion for both academics and creativity. She has organized and led multiple public speaking workshops for middle school students and volunteered her time at North South Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding underprivileged children in India. In addition, she has joined and contributed to the Dunlap Young Musicians, a student-created music group that performs at senior homes on the holidays. She is also active in her Sunday School (Chinmaya Mission) and has helped write promotional songs and plays to help fundraise for the school. Last but not least, Anjali is a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer of Mythili Dance Academy and has contributed to shows that have raised over $500k for a variety of charities.