History has been made as Black Theatre United (BTU), along with the leading people from Theatre–writers, directors, producers, owners, unions, creatives, casting directors, created a New Deal For Broadway. This New Deal is a detailed document that outlines what Broadway theaters have to do to ensure that the situation for Blacks in Theatre changes. It’s always been the case that Black people in theater didn’t get the opportunities that their White counterparts did, when it came to all facets of theatre, but this document lays out industry-wide standards and reforms that will facilitate Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility and Belonging (EDIAB). The New Deal was developed within six months from March to August 2021 during a summit that BTU held. It had to be ready before Broadway reopened.
The wording for the New Deal was an effort lead by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, both from the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law. These men trained all the participants in what EDIAB means and they drafted the New Deal. The New Deal contains a list of commitments by different important groups, when it comes to theatre. There are commitments by theatre owners, producers, union, creatives—including directors, choreographers, music teams, designers, casting directors, composers and playwrights. Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility and Belonging are principles that all should be entitled to experience. The New Deal is something that all parties involved agreed to abide by and make part of the climate of their shows. These principles were advocated for on the same high level as laws against discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying. All the fields of theatre mentioned earlier agreed to conduct mentorship and sponsorship programs for Black talent across the industry. The document contains marvelous passages like Section 1, part G, which states, “We will not discriminate against anyone due to hair texture and will ensure all hair needs are addressed with respect and care.”
There are plans for a new digital EDIAB training program, which will be rolled out industry-wide. This document strives to have EDIAB also apply to Tony Award nominators and voters. The document calls for abolishing unpaid internships. The Broadway League will have its Chief Diversity Officer available to EDIAB resources with theaters and production companies.
Another part of this document that truly dealt with something I don’t think people normally think about is Part C of Section 2: “We acknowledge the lack of adequate diversity in our vendor relationships, including…ad agencies, accounting firms, publicity offices and law firms. We will each use best efforts to diversify our vendor relationships, urge existing vendors to diversify their own staff, and share EDIAB resources with smaller vendors to give them the tools to succeed.”
Regarding the commitment of theatre owners, Section 3, part E declares, “We will add standard clauses to all new contracts with producers: (i) requiring producers to offer their own training on EDIAB issues to all cast and crew members as a condition of being allowed to use the theatre; and (ii) requiring the show to work with theatre staff (including box office, ticket takers, and ushers) to welcome everyone to the space in a warm and inclusive manner.” Theatres will also adopt a EDIAB policy, Code of Conduct, that will include a way to express complaints and concerns.
Section 4, Part E focuses on producers. “We will make best efforts to ensure true racial diversity on all future productions (including creative teams, management, cast, crew, and staff) with a critical mass on Black professionals.” In part J casting directors agreed to look for diverse talent “outside of traditional channels (such as placing ads in community papers and by exploring HBCUs, the National Black Theatre Festival, churches, and cities outside of New York and Los Angeles.”
There is a great deal more to this document. Reading it is like a dream come true. It says that it is time to let Black professionals have a seat at every table connected to Theatre.
Everyone who was part of the summit signed the document. In addition to members of BTU it was signed by top organizations including Actors’ Equity Association; The Broadway League; The Shubert Organization, Inc.; Nederlander Organization; Jujamcyn Theaters; Disney Theatrical Group; Front Row Productions, Inc.; Lincoln Center Theatre; Roundabout Theatre Company; Second Stage; Circle in the Square Theatre; Manhattan Theatre Club; Arizona State University Gammage; Broadway Across America; Broadway.com; John Gore Organization; Junkyard Dog Productions; Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Local 798, MUSE—Musicians United for Social Equity; SimonSays Entertainment Inc., Stewart/Whitley LLC, Tara Rubin Casting; The Telsey Office; Tom Kirdahy Productions; and X Casting.
For a listing of the individuals with these organizations and working theatre professionals that were signatories on this historical document you can go to BTU’s website and read the New Deal in its entirety.
Now, if you’re not familiar with BTU, it is an organization begun after the murder of George Floyd and it’s members are the crème de la crème of Broadway Theatre including actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers and stage management. Their names are beloved and familiar to us all and include: Audra McDonald, LaChanze, Kenny Leon, Norm Lewis, Tamara Tunie, Lillias White, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Vanessa Williams, Billy Porter, Anna Deavere Smith, Michael McElroy, Lisa Dawn Cave, Darius de Haas, Carin Ford, Capathia Jenkins, Wendell Pierce, Schele Williams, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Allyson Tucker.
Recently Brian Stokes Mitchell (BSM) and Allyson Tucker (AT), his wife of 26 years spoke to AmNews about the New Deal For Broadway and what it means. A Q&A follows:
AmNews: How was the topic of the treatment of Blacks in the theatre industry first approached by BTU?
BSM: It started because of the murder of George Floyd. Audra and LaChanze were mad and they started calling more people–Anna Deavere Smith, Norm Lewis, Kenny Leon. We called all our friends and we were upset and we said we needed to do something to make things better for Blacks in the theatre. Each of us have different gifts, there are so many places that came out. Broadway Theatre Coalition, each group has different talents, skills and abilities. We were going with our strengths, because it will take all of us together working in collaboration. Wendell Pierce said, we are working in concert with other groups. We have producer friends, writer friends, theatre owner friends and we were all looking for the answers to this problem.
AT: We were a community and we wanted the community to do better. We learned from watching our history, how previous movements were successful. There’s no competition, how do we fit in, what’s my strength? Mine was looking at spreadsheets, someone else was working in the front house. We are all friends and colleagues, how do we uplift each other? Each of us is bringing something different and we have to work together. How do we work with each other link up and say you have that covered, I believe in you? If I don’t believe in BTC’s work, why would I expect anyone else to believe in it. George Faison said, is it about you or the movement? There is not just one person and one way to do it. We all have incredible gifts. We want to make the world better and the industry better. There’s a lot of excitement here.
AmNews: What were the initial reactions of people in the industry to your organization saying enough is enough, it’s time to give us equal treatment, opportunities and pay and do it in every facet of the business?
BSM: What I found is people are very grateful. This is an historic gathering of people. All these groups have never been gathered together for one common goal. Usually, we’re in a room and we are in competition with each other, for contracts and negotiations. Broadway–we are all these individual groups that form with each show being done. Sometimes theatre owners, designers talk, but we’ve never had everybody talking to each other to solve a problem. Because of the death of George Floyd, a lot of people were shocked and we realized that we had a door and people are ready to listen and they want to do something about it. We said let’s take this opportunity.
AT: People were afraid at first. But creating the climate for change, people want to solve problems. They want to be part of a solution when they understand what the problem is and how they contributed to the problem. People had to come into their own self-realization to see what they had to do to make things better. There’s only one way to do it, which is through it. We’re going to have grown, honest, conversation through it. Let us trust each other to have grace, thoughtfulness and intelligence. Don’t just trust us to put on a show, people are asking for something, you can change things. The positive is the freedom to create change, the everlasting change, that’s what we need. If we are going to make change, what is the next we are going to change. Back it up with action and this is the first step. For the last year we sat down and had the discussions, the meeting to lead to change that we are all hungry for and that we all want.
BSM: The most important thing was the freedom to have the difficult conversations and do it in a respectful way where people felt safe. It was about learning from each other as well. We made it an open table, a safe space.
AT: People really wanted to share and that was beautiful. We just started, we’ll be joining forces. This document is the beginning of moving the needle. It is critical to the changing of the landscape, keeping it relevant, and refreshed.
AmNews: What was it like taking these six months to come up with the parts of the New Deal For Broadway?
BSM: It was rewarding. We felt very fortunate to team up with Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, NYU Law School and they helped guide us, gave of EDIAB training and set up the rules of engagement. Kenji was a great adviser, David compiled the document. It was really rewarding, we’re working with a lot of friends and colleagues and everybody was interested in looking into what we could do. Daniel J. Watts, who stars in ‘Tina: The Tina Turner Musical’ said, Broadway can’t come back, it has to come forward. There was really a sense from the vast majority of the people that that’s what Broadway needed to do. They saw how the systemic racism in this country has come to Broadway. When you’re putting on a Broadway show, it’s different people, from different countries, writers, producers, all working for a common project. This is how Broadway people work together for a common goal. We’re really good at listening to each other and thrashing the problems out.
AT: It’s not a getcha moment it’s a get to moment. Kenji and David are anti-discrimination law experts and they could tell us. They built upon laws that already existed. So there was a comfort level, these people could say this rules against the law. There was not a judgement of that’s right or wrong, people want to do right. Everybody came into a consensus that we can and will do better. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We cannot reopen the same. But, we agree to the short term, midterm, long-term goals. We’ve seen what it is to be marginalized and we’ve gotten past that. We can get across the finish line, we need you to join us. It’s about thoughtfulness building and infrastructure. We will only be moving forward. It was quick to do because that’s what everybody wants. We are going to meet each other where we are, call each other in, not out. We need you to be across the line. Everybody’s demanding this. We all bleed red.
AmNews: Broadway has always been a place to entertain, inspire, give hope and educate people, but what has it been like behind the scenes for Blacks in the business?
BSM: It’s different for everybody, most people have horror stories. When Blacks are in a show they are the only in the room and there’s an insensitivity to that. Some people have horrible experiences. You may go to perform in a town that has no Black people in it. You’re having to go out and shop and eat and dealing with the locals that don’t want you there. It’s the same in the theatre. It depends on your status in the cast. Everybody’s got a story of something that happened to them. It’s what gave life to the We See White American Theatre document. It shocked the upper echelon of the industry. This very much prepared the table for groups like us to be able to do our work as well. It came out with a document of lived experiences. That group is an anonymous group. Let’s take the charge from there as performers, stage managers, directors. We are trying to find out how we can use our skills, our talent to do this. We rely on each other as we stood on the shoulders of our ancestors.
AT: We take a moment to have a social justice reckoning. To take stock of each other as the human beings we are, from the front of the house, corporate side, front stage, backstage. To come together and say how can we do this better? People said this is not how we do this. We write about this to remind people of their own humanity and there was a deeper connection. How do we help each other, how do we connect? We got to salute each other, but we had to listen to the pain that has been caused and say we’re no longer going to do this. This is a better moment, the only way to it, is through it. Through it is we link arms. United we stand, divided we fall–that is the creed of this nation, how is it not the creed of this industry? Right now the important thing is to say it. When you solve the problem you will find the healing.
AmNews: It’s funny when you realize all that goes into a Broadway show happening, from the people on stage, to the people who work in the theatre, to the producers, writers, directors, marketing and press agents, so now according to this document all of those should have opportunities for many Blacks moving forward, correct?
AT: That is the whole intention of this document. It’s holistic. We took the holistic view of what theatre is for a community. Theatre can uplift and revitalize a community. You have to look beyond, if you have contract for catering, how do you not share that wealth. Let’s expand the table. If we rebuild a community that means more opportunities, then the next community looks and says they did it there, how do we do it? How do we allow art to thrive and touch lives? How do we do that? Embrace the fact that difference leads to a better nation. Our nation should salute and celebrate everything that everyone comes to the table with and not be afraid of it. We want to increase opportunities to those who are coming aboard. This is the beginning.
BSM: One of things we’ve been talking about, is we didn’t want to do interviews until we had something to show. We feel we are a very fortunate group of people, we worked hard to get to where we have gotten. We reached a particular level of success, what we are trying to do is to train the next group of people. That is the whole purpose of this group. Give the next generation the opportunity to get those jobs. We stand on the shoulders of others and we’re trying to pass our good fortunate forward. Hopefully BTU will be around for our grandchildren, great grandchildren. It’ a community.