While the movie business should be ashamed of its lack of diversity, the theatre world deserves a standing ovation. This is, not so surprisingly, true off-Broadway, which is known for edgier material. But it is also happening on what can no longer be called The Great White Way. In the last few weeks alone, I reviewed two shows, Dot and Familiar, (both in prestigious Off-Bway venues) which specifically deal with African American families gathering for special occasions. The issues involve aging--and ailing--parents, sibling rivalries, immigrant histories, and stuff that may be specific to the on- stage characters but surely resonates with audience members in some way.
The stories are not all family-related. But I Cld Only Whisper, at the Flea Theatre, deals with a Vietnam Veteran and his demons upon coming home. It could be about any war and the fact that the Vet is African American -as is most of the cast--is almost incidental. On the other hand, Dead Dog Park, playing at the city's popular 59 E. 59, takes us up close and uncomfortably personal with the mysterious incident of a young black teen who was either pushed, or fell out of, a four story window. This one has Trayvon and all the other sadly contemporary names written all over it. The Royale has just opened at one of Lincoln Center's venues and deals with a black heavyweight champion who "fights for equality in and out of the ring." Smart People fetaures four actors: three are non-white and the fourth (portrayed by Joshua Jackson) is a Harvard professor trying to prove that we are all embedded with the racist gene.
On the big stages, as well, the productions reflect the multi-ethnic rainbow one sees on our own streets. Oscar winner Lupito Nyong'o stars in Eclipsed, about the mistreatment of women in Libya. The Color Purple is enjoying a fantastic and highly successful revival. Audra MacDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell soon open in Shuffle Along, which is an update of a 1921 musical. Forest Whittaker is playing the role previously portrayed by Jason Robards and Al Pacino, in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie. (That one is closing early, due to poor ticket sales.)
And of course, color blind casting has taken on new meaning in Hamilton, where virtually every Founding Father, and the women in their lives, are played by a non-Caucasian. (Only the King of England is the hilarious exception) The biographer who wrote the book on which the musical is based--Ron Chernow--recalls seeing the first rehearsal of the show. (After being convinced by Lin Manuel-Miranda that Chernow's 800 page book was great material for a hip-hop telling) Chernow confesses he was rather stunned when he walked into a studio and saw a black George Washington and Aaron Burr, Hispanic Hamilton, and so on.
"I have to admit I was stunned at first," said Chernow, this week in New York. "Then I heard their voices and saw their talent and was blown away. And finally it all made sense, that these people absolutely understood and could best inhabit the revolutionary spirit." Of course, it should not be considered revolutionary to have this tsunami of diversity, since theatre has traditionally been more open-minded when it comes to embracing talent of all color. Those putting on these shows and telling these stories may not compensate for the still- largely white and male film business--but they deserve a loud shout-out and a heartfelt thank you.