But creative, and at times courageous, casting is only part of the issue. Another part is that theater values talent first and foremost in a way that Hollywood ceased to do long ago. In Hollywood, talent may not be irrelevant, but it seems to be less of a priority these days than more superficial traits such as appearance, youth and even social media presence. How else to explain the number of reality stars and rappers — from Kim Kardashian to 50 Cent — who have landed roles in major films — roles that plenty of talented struggling actors could have used and would have been terrific in?
But in the theater, people sitting in the back row could not care less how many Twitter followers you have or how young you are. They can’t see you, but they can hear you and whether or not you can sing in tune or act. It is not a coincidence that Viola Davis, who has been candid about the limited opportunities available for actresses, like herself, who are not young, white former models, won her first major recognition as an actress on Broadway: a Tony for her electric performance in King Hedley the II in 2001. (Among those of us fortunate to catch her performance, it was not surprising that she emerged as a superstar.)
Another point worth noting in considering what likely makes Broadway more viable for performers of color: Broadway producers. In previous interviews with The Root, black Broadway producers lamented their small numbers, particularly given the important role they play in ultimately hiring black actors, black crew and other staff for productions. (The Trip to Bountiful, the production for which Tyson was awarded a Tony, and for which Condola Rashad was nominated, was produced by African Americans Stephen Byrd, Alia Jones, New York Knick Tyson Chandler and his wife, Kimberly Chandler, among others.)
During our previous interview, Byrd discussed the difficulties of trying to make it as a Broadway producer, but he made it — and only after tiring of how difficult he found the experience of trying to produce in Hollywood, where there is much more money at stake and the threshold for success is harder to reach. In other words, there may be more black film producers, but it’s also much harder for them to get noticed and break through in a meaningful way, and in turn to provide meaningful opportunities to performers of color.
Hollywood is like an ocean. Broadway is a bit like a smaller, more sophisticated lake, and if producers and performers have the talent, you could say that they get to be treated like swans. Ultimately, their color seems to matter a whole lot less on the Great White Way.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.