During the COVID lockdown, and impelled by the murder of George Floyd, Black professionals on Broadway— including actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers, and stage management—decided that it was time to take a stand for Black people to have opportunities in all phases of the industry, from onstage to behind-the-scenes work. Out of these conditions, three years ago, the non-profit Black Theatre United (BTU) was born. The organization put out a call to action and started mentorship and paid internship programs for Black students. The organization came up with “The New Deal,” an agreement with theater owners, producers and unions, setting down rules for making sure that Black theater workers have access to a range of opportunities, including company management, public relations, and jobs connected to Broadway shows. The founding members of BTU include Lisa Dawn Cave, Carin Ford, Vanessa Williams, Audra McDonald, LaChanze, Billy Porter, Capathia Jenkins, Kenny Leon, Michael McElroy, Wendell Pierce, Anna Deavere Smith, Allyson Tucker, Tamara Tunie, Schele Williams, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Darius de Haas, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Lillias White, and Norm Lewis. Lewis recently spoke with the AmNews about the work that BTU has done to create more opportunities for Black students, and talked about the BTU inaugural gala happening Monday, October 30 at the Ziegfeld Ballroom at 141 W. 54th Street.
The principles of BTU’s New Deal are equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging, Lewis explained the purpose of this incredibly important document. “The conversation started during the pandemic and we were all home online. The New Deal is talking about accountability. We created a mentor, mentee situation where people in school could learn from different aspects of the industry. People didn’t know they could be administrators, someone in public relations. A couple of our mentees did so well they were offered jobs in public relations. The students are doing casting as well. BTU also works with regional theaters as well to give opportunities to Black students. Since BTU started, 20-30 students have come through and benefited from the mentorship programs,” Lewis said.
When asked why people should support BTU, Lewis said, “Now that we’re back into our lives and people have other things to think about, we don’t want the momentum for BTU to stop. We have relationships with corporations and we’re trying to build more. Ernst & Young is one of our major benefactors. We want to make people understand that we keep a presence in this industry. Equity, inclusion, and diversity is something that is just needed. We’re here saying it’s important how people are treated. There are opportunities as well in many different facets of this industry and a lot of people don’t know about these. We want to make sure that we stand strong. Support[ing] this organization through our gala is vital to our continuing our mission to look out for Blacks in this industry. We’re calling ourselves the NAACP of Theater.”
The theme of the gala will be “A Salute to Broadway Legends: Past, Present and Future.” Performers will include Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis, Andra McDonald, LaChanze, and Billy Porter. The evening will honor Kandi Burruss, Common, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robyn Coles, Dr. N. Anthony Coles and Dr. Indira Etwaroo. Presenters for the event will include Andrea Burns, Nicholas Christopher, Lorna Courtney, Wilson Cruz, Seth Rudetsky, and Josh Groban. The honorary co-chairs for this gala include Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Cookie Johnson, Al Roker, Deborah Roberts, Blair Underwood, Congresswoman Ayanna Presley, Tommi A. Vincent and Troy Vincent Sr.
For info about the gala and to purchase tickets, visit www.BlackTheatreUnited.com.