“Welcome to the August Wilson Theatre, for tonight’s first preview performance of Pass Over! You are the first audience back to see a REAL Broadway play!”
This was how our audience was greeted back to Broadway. Finally, after 16 months without an audience in the space, the theatre was filled with this incredible energy. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced; a moment met with explosive energy from our audience that will forever be etched into my memory. It felt like an ode to the return of the art form we all love and greatly appreciate, and the reminder we needed of how much people miss the theatre and value the connection between audience and actor, and audience and stage. Theatre is so essential, and this audience was hungry for live entertainment.
You could feel their energy all the way backstage. It was infectious—when our playwright, Antoinette Nwandu and our director, Danya Taymor entered the theatre they were met with a standing ovation—and the energy of the crowd did not let up for the rest of the night. It was in that moment my nerves turned into excitement; hearing the outpouring of love for our beloved creatives let me know we were OK. So, I took a deep breath and proceeded to deliver the live announcement of the curtain speech. (That disembodied voice you hear at the beginning asking people to turn off their phones? That’s me!) I couldn’t even get through the first part without the audience going crazy—they even gave the curtain speech a standing ovation!
The impact of what we were doing didn’t really hit me until later, when I received a message from a friend that said simply: “You were the first voice that we heard on Broadway.” Just like that, I was reminded that we’re a part of history.
I AM A PART OF HISTORY!
There’s a renaissance happening all around us. My friend bought me a shirt that says “I am Black history” and I opened it and cried. I AM Black history! We read about moments like this that feel so far removed, but in reality, history was people just living their lives. I look around and realize we’re making history right now—not because we’re trying to, but because we’re living it.
One of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from the last year is how much we need each other in the theatre industry. This past year has given us the momentum and space we’ve long needed to uplift voices typically overlooked; by creating space for Black and brown voices and understanding the value in each one, we gain the freedom to uplift each other without butting heads. When we value more voices, we don’t feel the need to speak over one another. When there are only so many slots allotted to persons of color in this industry, it pits us against each other rather than encouraging us to work together—a scarcity mindset versus an abundance mentality.
White supremacy thrives on pitting us against each other, and when we rebel against that—when we insist that all of our voices be heard instead of infighting to be one of the chosen few, the stories we tell are richer in experience and perspective. That is the beauty of community and collaboration in the theatre industry, and is what we are starting to see in this current moment: the space to think less about the “me” and more about the “we.”
The demands made by the “We See You, White American Theater” collective were a huge part of this shift in culture. Upon first reading, I was immediately struck by the impact this would have and how universal our experiences were—I knew I needed to sign my name alongside other community leaders. We all know someone who has experienced racism and disrespect at work for the color of their skin; the theatre world is no different. Ours are demands—not requests—intended to not only get the attention of people in power but make clear how many people are affected, many of whom won’t return to work if these issues remain unaddressed. First, there were 300 signees; now, signatures are in the thousands.
I’ve been fortunate to be at the table for pivotal meetings and conversations, and structural changes and institutional shifts are happening. More Black and brown leaders are being recognized—and being given more resources to succeed, which is imperative because change requires resources. On the outside looking in, it may not look like a lot; change takes time, but it is happening. In the decade I’ve been working on Broadway, we rarely talked about these issues, which is how things stay internalized. Now, with open conversation, we are driving dialogue to create real solutions.
Some of the change is already evident with seven shows coming to Broadway this season, all written by Black playwrights. That is astronomical, considering Broadway’s history. Additionally, organizations like Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC), Broadway for Racial Justice, Black Theatre Coalition, and Black Theatre United have all built platforms to not only help cultivate this changing culture but sustain it by offering resources and support systems that cultivate longevity—so we can survive what is to come, and don’t have to wait for another global tragedy to remind people of the value of Black voices and Black stories.
In fact, BAC, the nonprofit that helps to facilitate the Cody Renard Richard Scholarship Program for global majority theatre students pursuing a degree for offstage theatre work, will be honored with a special Tony Award this year. It is wild to think that a five-year-old organization started by a group of Black actors frustrated with various disparities within this white-led industry has evolved into an advocacy organization the industry now looks to for guidance. An effort borne of the love and hurt of a few is now receiving the highest commercial honor within that industry.
That’s a big deal. That’s us stepping into this world and saying we will continue to fight for what we need. It is a cultural shift in making the theatre industry better. These groups, and others not mentioned here, are fighting for us when we can’t.
This is also the power of Pass Over. It’s historic and monumental. Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu is the first Black playwright to have a play in the August Wilson Theatre since it was renamed for our most lauded Black playwright, and this is the first play to welcome audiences back to Broadway—a play written by a Black woman, starring two Black men (Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill). This is a moment to honor and celebrate; one to be proud of because this is where we’re supposed to be.
Early on in the process, our director Danya said to us: “I want you to be able to bring your full self to the room. We’ve been through a lot in the past year and if we need to hold space for something, we will.” We didn’t have to hide any part of ourselves; instead, we were given access to our full selves in every situation. That’s the key. We have to keep putting people first and that’s what this show is doing, right down to the creative team.
It was my first time working with an all-Black stage management team and I was very intentional in this, wanting to ensure both the show and I were supported by extremely talented Black artists—in this case, John Moore and Angela Griggs—on and off the stage. Historically, shows hire people they know or who come recommended by someone close to the production, but everyone supported me in this decision: the general managers, the producers, and the director. It was a beautiful opportunity to give someone who may have been overlooked time and time again a chance to make their Broadway debut—and what an incredible experience to make their debut on the first show back to Broadway; one which celebrates Black life with an all-Black stage management team. This is monumental.
This is how we usher in new people and give them the tools to succeed. It’s how we make permanent change in a white-led industry—so the next time these talents interview for a Broadway show, they’re on the same playing field as their white counterparts.
Naysayers may continue to cast doubt, speculating that all of these shows will oversaturate the market, or that Black audiences won’t know what to go to—but that is never said about white shows. A big part of the work is shifting the narrative we’ve all internalized; we deserve to take up this space, and we can’t let fear keep us from realizing and enjoying the history we are watching play out in real time. It feels right.
When a show makes it to Broadway, it means that show offers someone something they can believe in. Pass Over does that. The shows that are coming forth now are works people want to give voice to, and this rebirth can reform how new shows make it to Broadway. Change was already in motion, but we made the most out of the catalyst that was last year. I’m excited to continue being a part of the forward motion—of the changing tide—and the Broadway renaissance that honors and uplifts Black voices.
Pass Over runs through October 10 (with a possible extension) at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre. Tickets are available now.
Cody Renard Richard is the stage manager of Pass Over on Broadway. His previous production credits include NBC’s Hairspray: Live!; Cirque du Soleil, the 2019 Tony Awards; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme and Hamilton; Motown the Musical and Kinky Boots. He is also the namesake of a scholarship offered in partnership with Broadway Advocacy Coalition.