(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.
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.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.