Making Broadway Anti-Racist

Tony Award recipient Broadway Advocacy Coalition tackles structural racism backstage with their new REP program.

Theater of Change Forum, October 2019 (Credit: Lee Wexler)

As Broadway slowly re-opens, I’ve been worried that the industry will simply return to business as usual. If we take into account the lessons around racial trauma, safety, and equity we as a nation finally began to confront over the past 14 months, “usual” is unacceptable. And yet, the threat of status quo looms large.

Change takes work. So who is willing to make that effort, and how?

Black Theatre United hosted a three-month Commercial Theatre Summit for the major leaders in theater (see: Broadway League reps and theater owners) to “establish industry-wide standards around Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility & Belonging (EDIAB) with a focus on Black individuals in theater as we move into the future.” Black Theatre Coalition has focused on mentorship of up-and-coming Black talent. And, as has become characteristic of the now Tony-honored organization, Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC) leads in this charge to remake Broadway from the inside. On May 21, BAC announced its newest program: Reimagining Equitable Productions (REP), “a workshop to address racial inequities on Broadway” developed by BAC co-founder and President Britton Smith, BAC Director of Industry Initiatives Zhailon Levingston, BAC Associate Director of Curriculum Leia Squillace, and BAC Vice President and Policy and Research Director Dr. Susan Sturm.

How We Got Here

From its earliest days, BAC has sought to use art to transform relationship dynamics in spaces, beginning small (say, in a classroom) and building outward.

“We call them ‘micro-spaces for justice,’ where you’re actually in those spaces doing what it is that you want to see happen in the broader world,” says Sturm, who is also a Columbia University law professor and Director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change. Micro-spaces are like testing grounds where you can then apply the lessons in other larger spaces.

Theater of Change, a joint program between BAC and Columbia University conceived in 2018 and now a full university course, is one such micro-space.

First Theater of Change Course, January 2019 (Credit: Lee Wexler)

TOC (acronyms are big here) unites three groups of people: artists, people who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration and/or structural racism, and lawyers or law students from Columbia. These three groups must coalesce to tell a story through art; during that process, the archetypes (and stereotypes) linked to the identity of each group melt away as every individual becomes viewed as a multi-faceted person.

Now, BAC applies that root methodology to the inside of Broadway with REP.

“When we started to pivot towards looking at our own backyard as a Broadway industry,” says Levingston, “we’ve really thought about taking that analogy [the groups of people in Theater of Change] and tailoring it to the experience of being on a show together: a bunch of people all with a very similar vision or approach, but varying vantage points, trying to work together.

“We have found a way of doing that to make a play, to make a musical,” Levingston continues, “but there has been less precedent for how to do that to create a sustainable culture change, and policy for the way we are together as workers in an industry.”

Zhailon Levingston, Director of Industry Initiatives at Broadway Advocacy Coaltion

What Is REP, Tangibly?

That’s why REP workshops help productions set rules that will create a safe, equitable, accountable, and joyful workplace. At its core, REP is literally about learning to interact with one another.

If it sounds basic, that’s because it is. (But don’t confuse basic for simple.)

“There’s a whole kind of literacy around one’s own interaction with oneself and with other people,” says Sturm. “How do you learn to speak up? How do you learn to, first, discern what’s happening? How do you learn from others without giving them the job of teaching you? All of these are really challenging things. How do you learn how to take action when you know that you’re going to make mistakes and how do you make mistakes and learn from them?”

“I think lots of times people who are not affected by the action don’t know what to do to help, what to say or how to support. White people, especially, are not the best at that,” says Tony Award winner Katrina Lenk (The Band’s Visit), who next leads the cast of Company on Broadway, one of REP’s first client productions. “Learning as a group how to do that and coming up with a plan specific to our company — this is what’s not accepted and when this happens we all know this is what we can do, this is how we can help — just to have that said out loud I’m so excited about it. That support, that’s how it should be. That we’ve been functioning so long without that is really unacceptable.”

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Aladdin, Frozen on tour, and The Lion King on Broadway and on tour will also engage with their own customized REP programs.

The two-day workshops engage the full companies of each production (cast, crew, creative, production, etc.) beginning on the first day of rehearsal.

Left to Right: Katrina Lenk as Bobbie, Christopher Fitzgerald as David, and Nikki Renée Daniels as Jenny in Broadway’s COMPANY (Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

“We’ve all been in situations where someone has a problem with a crew member or someone has a problem with a dresser,” says Nikki Renée Daniels, another Company principle. “I love the idea of us all starting the process together and on the same page as to what the expectations are for our group and how we treat teach other and how we can help each other to have the best possible experience on our show.

“It’s not that the company of Company was in dire need compared to any other show,” Daniels adds. “The whole idea of these organizations is that we want to make the theater, as a whole, a better place.”

First, that means understanding who makes up “the theater.”

Day One

In theater, you arrive to work as a producer, an actor, a fly operator, a wardrobe worker, a director, but (much like in TOC) the first step in REP breaks down the boundaries those roles assert and, instead, embraces the full humanity of every worker.

In the working world, we often skip over these foundational ideas. We don’t think about the environment (aka space) we want to create, we just abide by “the powers that be.” We cut off from our full selves (aka our humanity) and behave according to a single, limited piece of ourselves (aka our role). As Levingston points out, this is white supremacy culture and it is harmful to anyone who operates within it — not limited to, but especially, people of color.

“The work is: de-colonizing that belief system that that way of doing things is the right way, is the normal way, is the centered way. It is just a way. And what we have learned is: centering that way within this context can cause a lot of harm,” says Levingston.

It also harms the work itself.

“When everybody feels safe and equal and supported and encouraged to bring their whole self into their work — that’s when the good stuff happens,” says Lenk.

Through group shares, journaling, one-on-one conversations between people in the company, self-reflection, role-playing scenarios and more REP seeks to illuminate the needs of every company member and synthesize that into a plan to address those needs and establish protocols for what happens when an incident stays from that plan.

To do this, Day One of REP focuses on connection, identity, power, racial literacy, and trust-building; Day Two addresses how to make that vision a reality.

Day Two

Once you know who is in the room, you have to understand what power they have and how much is perception of power versus reality.

“We play a game called the human thermometer,” says Levingston of one particular REP exercise. People stand on a number from one to 10 that correspond to their perception of their power and influence in the room.

“Lots of people might think that the people who have authority who have a formal position have power, and the flip: that if you don’t have a formal position, you don’t have power,” says Sturm. Power-mapping (understanding who makes decisions, when, and how) illuminates opportunities for more people to participate and be heard by the people who have authority, and illuminates for those in power the pitfalls of who might get left out.

Dr. Susan Sturm, Vice President and Policy Research Director of Broadway Advocacy Coalition

The map differs at every production — just like any other office. So every REP workshop differs because each company decides what an equitable space looks like for them. And REP is not a fix in two days. Rather, the two days institute expectations and structure. After that, it’s up to the company to follow through.

Still, REP doesn’t just push the chicks out of the nest. As part of the program, every production must choose at least one company member as the paid REP liaison between the show and BAC for its full run.

The Full Run

Reshaping an entire system — the way Broadway rehearses, the way Broadway workers show up to the theater, etc. — will take time. The mark of success for the two days is: set goals and values for this production and means of accountability to those goals.

In the long run, “success does not mean that we alleviate racism. Success does not mean that we create a utopian land,” Levingston acknowledges. “Success, for us, means we create a working culture that doesn’t necessarily create safe spaces, but creates brave spaces through the community of a show working together to understand the full humanity of those who have historically been harmed by the machine that they’re all working at.”

“I’ve been in several shows when I’ve felt very unseen that I’m just here to be a brown face in the background and fill their quota for the show but they’re not really too interested in me or anything to offer to this process,” says Daniels. “I would have loved for there to have been a situation where the company could have come together before the show and know that any grievances I had could be heard and not seen as disrespectful or angry when they’re really just about basic treatment.

“I’m just excited, in general, that we’re going to be able to do theater again after this long hiatus,” Daniels continues. “If we can go back and have a richer more nurturing environment in which to work, it sounds like the best of all possible worlds.”

Enlist your production in a REP workshop or support REP and BAC via BroadwayAdvocacyCoalition.com. Find more from Ruthie at ruthiefierberg.com.

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Ruthie Fierberg

Ruthie Fierberg is an arts journalist and creator and host of the podcast Why We Theater. She is the former Executive Editor of Features at Playbill.