When Brittney Johnson wore the crown as Glinda for Broadway’s Wicked earlier this month, the actress became the first black woman to portray the leading role in the heralded, long running show.
Her Jan. 10 debut was a major milestone on the Great White Way because the Wizard of Oz-based musical has been one of the theater community’s most successful productions for the past 15 years.
“My heart is bursting with gratitude,” the Washington, D.C. area native said in a statement. “God is so good! I am so humbled to be the first Black Glinda and honored to fulfill the dreams and hopes of so many! I feel like my feet have yet to touch down.”
While long-running shows like Wicked have included actors of color in supporting and ensemble roles, Johnson—who has been under contract since last June—signals a positive change for an industry that has sometimes treated black talent as window dressing for roles traditionally cast for white actors.
“The magnitude of this moment in history continues to sneak up on me in waves of gratitude and I am truly at a loss for words,” Johnson wrote on Instagram. “I am just so honored, grateful, and I feel so blessed. And EXCITED!!”
Beneath the neon lights of Broadway, other African Americans seem to be breaking ground as well.
Last November, the gargantuan-sized spectacle King Kong officially opened at the Broadway Theatre with its leading lady, Christiani Pitts, leaving an indelible impact too. On screen, only white women have played the role of heroine Ann Darrow. Not this go-round. For the Gen Z version of the classic horror story, the Montclair, N.J.-raised brown beauty is the object of desire for 2,000-pound, 20-foot-tall silverback gorilla. Pitts is the first woman of color to do it.
“Ann is no longer a caricature of a classic American beauty with no brain, no heart, no soul,” Pitts told Bleepmag.com. “Ann is now a fully fledged woman with different layers of power and insecurity and courage—all the things that make up someone’s mind. She befriends someone who is other, like her. And I think the theme of our story is befriending otherness and not being afraid of it.”
For Disney’s Frozen, which also debuted last year at the St. James Theatre, Jelani Alladin brings to life the role of ice harvester Kristoff, which was previously voiced by white actor Jonathan Groff in the 2013 film.
And in the acclaimed theatrical staging of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, black British actress Noma Dumezweni stars as the clever witch Hermione Granger, which was portrayed by Emma Watson in the multi-billon dollar grossing film franchise.
When the casting announcement for the 2015 London premiere drew ire on social media, Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling openly defended the Olivier Award winner’s casting as Hermione. Dumezweni went on to garner a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway debut and the show is a bona fide hit.
Aaron Sorkin’s much heralded adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird’s cast includes The Wire actor Gbenga Akinnagbe and Tony Award nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson. “I just knew that for me to come do this, it had to be interesting enough for me to feel like I was doing something other than what had been done. And it is,” Jackson—who plays the family cook Calpurnia purportedly with more agency—told The Hollywood Reporter.
Show producer Scott Rudin would not allow the script to be released to the media but according to industry insiders, the role of Calpurnia has been given much more agency than what has previously been seen in the To Kill A Mockingbird film. This month, Variety reported that the production—which opened in December—has shattered sales records, becoming the highest grossing play in Broadway history.
And though progress has been made, marketing expert Marcia Pendleton cautions that there is more work to be done when it comes to diversity on Broadway.
“While there are more black actors working on Broadway, they are not necessarily working in productions where they are at the center of the narrative, or deal specifically with black life,” she told The Root.
Pendleton noted that during the 2018-2019 season, there were only three productions on Broadway that speak to the black experience: the Kerry Washington-fronted police brutality drama American Son—which finished its limited run Jan. 27; Oscar Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney’s black teen focused Choir Boy and the upcoming Motown vehicle Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.
Three black-focused productions is literally a drop in the bucket considering Broadway consists of 40 theater venues in New York City. Though it’s a very small percentage, Pendleton considers it a welcome reprieve considering there has always been a dearth of black producers, directors and designers working on Broadway productions.
Through her Walk Tall Girl Productions, Pendleton has served as a vital conduit for black audience members for on and Off Broadway productions for almost two decades. With her grassroots marketing campaigns and audience development initiatives, the Philadelphia native has worked on a bevy of shows including the Broadway productions of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones Harvey’s all-black productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, the Berry Gordy-scripted tuner Motown The Musical and the Tony Award winning revival of August Wilson’s Jitney.
She said she’s excited about The Temptations vehicle, which will start preview performances on Feb. 28 at the Imperial Theatre fresh off record breaking runs in Washington D.C., and Los Angeles before making the scene in Toronto.
And she’s not the only one.
2018 MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Dominique Morisseau will mark her official debut on the Great White Way.
A Detroit native who has won acclaim for grittier fare, including the plays Pipeline, Paradise Blue and The Skeleton Crew, the Obie Award-winning playwright is quite the rarity as a black woman writing the book for a Broadway musical.
Research from the Broadway League—the national trade association for the Broadway theatre industry—confirmed that very few black women have been credited with authoring musicals produced on Broadway. Three-time Tony Award nominated director and Emmy Award-winning actress Vinnette Carroll is recognized as the first black woman to do so—with 1969’s Trumpets of the Lord.
“You know, I feel like I better hurry up and get on that before they realize who I am and maybe they made a mistake,” Morisseau joked.
With an unapologetic and nuanced expression of blackness shooting through her prose, she promises that Ain’t Too Proud isn’t the typical jukebox show audiences have grown accustomed to.
“I’m a fan of musical theater [and] what I’ve always wanted to contribute…the kind of sound that speaks to me and that has always moved me. And that is not a sound that I often find on Broadway,” she explained.
“What the Temptations music does for me, and what it does for our cast, it allows them to be themselves,” she continued. “So the music is not asking them to shift their voices out of what feels organic to them. It is asking them to use their instrument and use the emotionality in our culture, and use that in the music.”
“I don’t know what everybody’s gonna feel. I [do] hope everybody feels the passion and the power and the special thing that we feel. But I know that black folks will devour it,” she concluded.
Also behind the scenes, Tony Award winning composer and orchestrator Daryl Waters is working his black magic at the Neil Simon Theatre for The Cher Show—a biographical musical chronicling the pop icon’s sixty-year plus career.
“It’s been a great stop on a continuing journey of working with people I trust, admire, and am happy to call friends,” Waters told The Root.
The Cleveland native’s career spans four decades with credits including great black-centered musicals such as Jelly’s Last Jam, Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, Memphis, the Tupac Shakur-inspired Holler If Ya Hear Me and the touring production of the Oprah Winfrey-produced theatrical adaptation of The Color Purple.
The veteran musical maestro believes that a current wave of diversity is a two-fold gift for the Broadway landscape.
“Producers are seeing that diversity can be their friend, so it’s encouraging that we’ll probably get even more shows of a diverse nature in the future,” Waters shared. “And audiences want an interesting story, and what better place to get one than from people whose experiences have not been told often on a large stage?”