It’s a first step in redressing an imbalance in the performing arts, and many regard it as urgently overdue. In their own research, Reid, a Broadway actor (“Hadestown,” “Once on This Island”) and choreographer Adams (“Motown the Musical”) amassed statistics that place the racial gap in stark relief. Out of 3,002 musicals and 8,326 plays since Broadway’s 1866 inception, a mere 10 directors of musicals, 11 play directors and 17 choreographers have been black.
“We actually found there was a detailed and terrifying disparity offstage,” said Adams, who founded the coalition with Reid and philanthropist Reggie Van Lee. “And if you add gender, it’s even worse.”
As a result of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, spurred by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the issue of black representation in the arts has catapulted to the top of the industry agenda. Organizations across the arts spectrum publicly vowed support for the goals of a movement seeking fundamental change in the way people of color are treated by institutions dominated by whites. In recent weeks, other groups with related missions, such as Black Theatre United, have come together. And an artists group of more than 300 black, indigenous and other people of color issued a public letter listing its “demands for White American Theatre.” It ran 28 pages.
Reid and Adams said they began having “coffee dates” well before the latest protests, to discuss what they might do to make more space available to people of color, and specifically, black people. Colorblind casting and the success of black playwrights — such as Pulitzer Prize winners Suzan-Lori Parks, Jackie Sibblies Drury and Michael R. Jackson — have expanded the vibrancy of America’s stages, but people of color in other theater spheres haven’t received the same boost. The launch last week of the Black Theatre Coalition was partly aimed at opening up entry-level jobs in the business — the positions in production offices that allow aspiring producers, directors and managers to move up the ladder.
“We realized that there was an element that no one has talked about — these are the apprenticeships, the internships,” Reid said. “We had to make sure that when people were given the opportunity, they were ready for it. When opportunity comes, you also have to be ready to be in those rooms. The connections are made in those rooms.”
Adams and Reid have been using their own connections to draw attention to the long-term goal of the Black Theatre Coalition, whose executive director is Afton Battle, formerly of the New York Theatre Workshop and the Joffrey Ballet: They are aiming for a 500 percent increase in work for black professionals across the industry by 2030. And some important Broadway hands are paying heed.
“Knowing T. Oliver Reid from the Broadway production of ‘Mary Poppins,’ Warren Adams from the Disney Parks — and meeting Reggie Van Lee through them — I was immediately intrigued by the clarity of their strategy and breadth of their vision,” Thomas Schumacher, president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions and chairman of the trade group the Broadway League, said in a statement. “Our initial conversation was incredibly exciting and I look forward to seeing them realize that vision over the years.”
Often, it seems, calls for diversity and inclusion are met with applause and encouraging words. It’s far harder to secure commitments that translate into action. In the case of the Black Theatre Coalition, a vision of concrete results started to materialize even before the group announced itself.
Chris Harper and Tim Levy, who are among the producers of the “Company” revival forced to shutter in March after only eight preview performances, got in touch with Adams and Reid recently. The shutdown, Harper said, had given him and Levy time to think about how they might increase diversity and inclusion. “There’s much work to be done, but the one thing I’m acutely aware of is, it’s very, very difficult to find black company managers, black stage managers, black general managers,” he said. “They exist, but not many of them.”
“I started my career as an intern,” Harper added. “The best way to learn about theater is to do it, being there, learning the relationships. When recent events happened with George Floyd, I thought about what can we do? We have a handful of black people backstage. I thought, that’s not enough.”
In consultation with Reid and Adams — who say there are more black candidates for front office and design positions than the industry realizes — offers are going out to fill the 10 paid internship positions for “Company.” Discussions are underway with other productions for similar salaried apprenticeships.
“We hope this will be a model for many other shows, to make sure we have a generation of creatives working,” Reid said. “It is time for the cream to truly rise.”