(The Root) — Having never won one in her legendary career, Cicely Tyson was a sentimental favorite to take home a Tony, American theater’s highest honor, this year for her critically acclaimed performance in The Trip to Bountiful. So when Tyson’s name was announced for best actress in a play, it was not a total surprise (particularly to those of us who have seen her performance, which was a revelation). But there were plenty of surprises that evening, and many of them involved performers of color. Black performers swept the major acting categories.
Billy Porter took home the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his star-making turn in Kinky Boots, which won a total of six Tony Awards. Patina Miller won Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for Pippin, while Courtney B. Vance won for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for Lucky Guy.
The fact that four black performers won in one evening is noteworthy, particularly when one considers that a total of 14 Academy Awards have been awarded to black actors and actresses since 1939. By comparison, 49 Tony Awards have been won by black actors and actresses since 1950.
The success of black actors at this year’s Tony Awards will only further heighten speculation that the so-called Great White Way may be a much more welcoming place for black performers than Hollywood. Other facts that seem to reinforce this notion include the lengthy reign of Audra McDonald, arguably the most powerful actress working in the theater today, a distinction she has held for nearly a decade. McDonald, who is black, has won a total of five Tony Awards, tying her with legends Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris, both of whom are decades older than she, leaving many to predict that McDonald will ultimately set the record for Tony wins during her career.
With last night’s Tonys firmly distinguishing the theater as a more viable option than the screen for black performers seeking opportunities, the obvious question becomes, why? As an avid theatergoer, I have my theories.
The first and perhaps most important reason that black performers are more likely to thrive on the stage is that theater allows for a measure of imagination and suspension of disbelief that other mediums do not. For instance, McDonald won her first Tony for her performance in the musical Carousel, set in the 1800s.
It is highly unlikely that a casting director would cast a black woman in a major movie or TV role in the 1800s unless the project specifically tackled a topic having to do with race. Casting a black woman to portray Carrie Pipperidge (McDonald’s character in Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic) would strike some Hollywood casting directors and executives as preposterous as casting a black woman to portray one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in a remake of Gone With the Wind.