Black Broadway Artists Make History While Challenging Racial Norms in Theater



“Chicken and Biscuits” at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway. Photo by Gabriella Maestri

As the theater district reopens after going dark in March 2020, seven African Americans plays will debut, marking the largest number of Black productions to ever open on Broadway at the same time. 

“I can’t wait to open the show,” said Alana Raquel Bowers, an actor in Douglas Lyons’s family comedy “Chicken and Biscuits.”

“I’ve been doing what I never thought was possible, which is not only being able to make art, but also to activate my own activism within it,” said Bowers. “There’s a certain beauty in being able to be that representative on stage for little Black girls, but also for the little Latin girls, White girls, or Chinese girls looking at me, and seeing themselves somehow.”

In an industry that has historically lacked diversity, Broadway is garnering much attention right now. After a summer of racial reckoning during the Black Lives Matter protests, this theater season is not only a history-making moment for Black playwrights, but also for African American actors who are finally back on stage amid the pandemic. With safety protocols in place, Black performers are hopeful the reopening will be a success, drawing crowds that are eager to see more African Americans represented in the theater. 

According to Playbill, “Chicken and Biscuits” first debuted in February 2020 at Queens Theatre in Flushing, but only got to run for a month before shutting down after the city’s mandate. The play’s opening night is October 10, at the Circle in the Square Theatre on West 50th Street. 

Bowers, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is playing the role of “Simone Mabry” in the play directed by Zhalion Levingston, the youngest Black director ever on Broadway at age 27. Bowers, also 27, said Livingston told her that she had left her imprint in the role ever since she started the readings in 2018. 

“I’ll never forget that moment because it really validated me not only as an artist, but the choices that I make and how I choose to move throughout this industry, regardless of how many no’s I get or how many almost opportunities there were,” said Bowers, adding that performing during a revolutionary movement in Black theater is beyond anything she could have ever dreamed up.

African Americans cast in lead roles is uncommon on Broadway. The Visibility Report, an analysis of racial representation on New York City stages, released by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, showed that people of color were less visible than white actors in the 2018-2019 Broadway season. Of all roles cast in Broadway plays, 6.9% of lead roles went to Black actors, in comparison to 89.7% of white actors. 

But some members of the theater community are addressing the disparities. Groups like the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, founded in 2016 by theater artists, were created as a direct response to the country’s racism and police brutality. The organization, which received a special Tony award this year for diversity advocacy, uses storytelling and artistry to combat systemic racism. 

“The foundation of Broadway is the great white way; it’s spoiled rotten, and we are working to plant seeds to foster a new garden of equity and safety so humans can be seen as humans,” said Dria Brown, chief of staff at the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

The coalition partners alongside the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia School of Law to offer a course where artists, law and policy students, experts and activists come together to discuss social and racial inequities. 

“We can’t change if we don’t know how,” said Brown. “We can only move through the world in a certain way, so we wanted to make sure we build the capacity to be well informed of how to engage in policy and advocacy.”

Oliver Reid, an adjunct professor, who teaches graduate acting programs at both Columbia University School of the Arts and the Tisch School of the Arts at N.Y.U., has over 20 years of experience working on Tony-award winning Broadway shows. In 2019, he helped found the Black Theatre Coalition, to help increase employment opportunities for Black theater professionals.

Reid said both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement provided individuals the opportunity to sit back and actually pay attention to what was going on in society, following the murder of George Floyd. 

“It puts us in a great place where, not only, Black and Brown bodies were using their voices, but our white counterparts were listening and in a way that they had not needed to or maybe wanted to listen before now,” said Reid, adding that the heightened awareness should come with “making sure that we are supporting these shows that are here.”