Let’s Talk About Representation
Let’s talk about representation in the Broadway community. This is, after all, the perfect time to be discussing this topic – so many communities are now being positively represented on the Great White Way in ways they have never been before.
There is the incredible production of Spring Awakening that recently opened at the Brooks Atkinson for a limited run. It is more than a run-of-the-mill revival of the 2006 show – it is an innovative experience for a community that, until now, has very rarely been represented on Broadway: the ASL community. Deaf West Theatre has assembled a company of talented deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors, creating a version of Spring Awakening that is truly inclusive. Several cast members have spoken about the importance of the production, especially as it opens doors for many deaf and hard of hearing actors that until now have never really been given a fair opportunity in the theatre world. Already, the show is proving to aspiring deaf and hard of hearing actors that they can and should pursue their theatre dreams.
Then we have Fun Home, a powerful, honest show that is an important representation of the gay community. It tells a positive story of self-discovery and self-acceptance while remaining truthful to the struggles Alison Bechdel faced and how her choice to come out impacted her relationship with her family. Fun Home is something that has never been seen on a Broadway stage before – adult Alison is the first butch lesbian protagonist to lead a Broadway musical. There is also the stunning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, which features an autistic protagonist. Even with the discussion that has arisen about casting an autistic actor vs. a neurotypical actor to play Christopher, this show is sparking positive and truthful conversation and representing an experience never before seen on Broadway.
We have shows like The King and I, which features a predominantly Asian cast (and for which Ruthie Ann Miles won a Tony Award this year, making her the first Asian actress to win a Tony since Lea Salonga in 1991). We have shows like Hamilton, which has likely the most diverse cast on Broadway today. We have performers like Kyle Jean-Baptiste, may he rest in peace, playing the first African-American Jean Valjean on Broadway, and Norm Lewis playing the first African-American Phantom on Broadway. All in all, it is a wonderful time for diversity in the Broadway community.
But why is this so important?
For the longest time, Broadway was an all-white club, no matter how hard the industry tried to pretend it wasn’t. It was nearly impossible to be cast unless you were caucasian, and the few roles there were for people of color were small or informed by stereotypes – not to mention that positive representation of the disabled, gay, and other marginalized communities was nearly non-existent. But theatre is supposed to be a universal language; it is supposed to be a means of connecting with everyone, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or ability. Without that representation, we turn theatre from an art form for everyone to an art form for a certain niche. Is that the kind of message we want to be sending to the young people who visit theatres all around the world – that unless you look and think a certain way, the world won’t welcome you and you aren’t free to pursue your dream?
That has never been what theatre was meant to be about. The diversity that we are only now seeing is so important because it sends the message that everyone’s stories are valid and worthy of being told onstage. I am sad that it took so long for Broadway to catch up to the times, but this upcoming theatre season shows a definite shift in the right direction. I am so excited to be around during a time when the theatre industry is finally starting to live up to its reputation – a community that welcomes all. The diversity that I see on Broadway right now – already miles ahead of where we once were – makes my heart soar, and I know that there is some young performer in an audience somewhere that is finally seeing themselves, their community, represented on Broadway in a way that is truthful and powerful. And isn’t that what we want theatre to do – to touch and inspire people?
Broadway, you are on the right track. Let’s remain on the right side of history.