Only one African-American woman has ever earned the Academy Award for Best Actress. One. (In fact, you can see all of the African-American Oscar winners for acting and most of their speeches in this video that’s less than five minutes long.)
Meanwhile, Broadway has celebrated actors, writers, choreographers, and directors of color on the stage for decades, with several big names earning multiple awards in their lifetime — a feat few Hollywood actors of color have been able to achieve.
Here are three easy lessons Hollywood can learn from Broadway.
Because if the Great White Way can make money telling stories by and about people from traditionally underrepresented groups, then why can’t Hollywood?
1. White, straight Americans aren’t the only ones living the human experience.
It seems obvious, but sadly, many Hollywood insiders still don’t get it. Broadway is winning by sharing and celebrating the rich stories, traditions, and cultures of traditionally underrepresented people.
Whether it’s the cruel injustice faced by Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, as depicted in George Takei’s biographical musical, “Allegiance”…
Or the story of five women during Liberia’s civil war in the upcoming “Eclipsed.” Written by Danai Gurira (who you may know as Michonne from “The Walking Dead”) and starring Lupita Nyong’o, it’s the first Broadway production to boast an entirely black cast and all-female creative team.
Coming to #Broadway February 23rd. Tickets on sale today. #eclipsed #eclipsedplay @lupitanyongo @ladyzjah @vintagepopsoul @danaijekesaigurira @liesltommy @clintramos Photo: Joan Marcus
A photo posted by Eclipsed on Broadway (@eclipsedbway) on
Even seeing a familiar story through a different lens can be quite revolutionary. That’s how Lin-Manuel Miranda made American history come alive in his hip-hop infused musical “Hamilton.”
While the experiences may look unfamiliar on the outside, all of these stories hit themes that are deeply personal and universal: perseverance, love, and hope. And contrary to movie previews, white, straight people aren’t the only ones who experience these things.
2. Challenge the status quo, rake in the dough.
(This one rhymes so you know it’s true. )
While originality, writing, and creating new stories are important, Broadway has a long history of reviving older musicals and plays to offer a fresh take on these well-loved stories.
One way to breathe new life into long-running musicals and plays is with color-blind casting.
In 2014, actor Norm Lewis took the stage as the 13th actor to play the phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway. It was the 10,936th performance of the show, and Lewis was the first African – American in the role.
And in the summer of 2015, actor Kyle Jean-Baptiste became the youngest and first African – American actor to play the role of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.”
Before and after shot. Today is my last performance as Valjean on Broadway. What an incredible experience. I’ve learned and grown so much. Grateful for the people I’ve met and this opportunity. I will never forget it. Dedicating this performance to someone special to me. They know who they are. Also sending love to everyone who supported me. Family friends etc. Until next time ..Kyle signing out…saudade❤️✌🏿️ #onedaymore#valjeanout#24601 @lesmizbway
A photo posted by Kyle Jean- Baptiste (@baptistekyle1) on
Sadly, just days after the end of his historic run, 21-year-old Jean-Baptiste died after falling from a fire escape.
Color-blind casting for these eminent roles is a great way to broaden the talent pool and opens up opportunities for actors of color. Plus it freshens up these long-running shows and gives customers new reasons to see them again and again. Or, in Hollywood terms, “cha-ching.”
3. There’s no such thing as niche. A good story can appeal to anyone.
The true story of a lesbian cartoonist telling the tale of her dysfunctional family, including her closeted father’s suicide.
A coming-of-age story based on a 19th century German play that touches on abortion, child abuse, and other tough themes, performed in English and American Sign Language.
Rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing (and more rehearsing!)
A photo posted by Deaf West Theatre (@deafwest) on
A musical based on the real story of a young man who turns his dead father’s shoe company into a place to make stiletto heels for drag performers.
These aren’t small productions. These are synopses for “Fun Home,” the revival of “Spring Awakening,” and “Kinky Boots.” “Fun Home” and “Kinky Boots” have both recouped their investments and cleaned up at the Tony Awards. And all three shows have or will soon begin national tours.
Considering the average ticket holder for a Broadway production is a middle-aged white woman from outside New York City, this is no small feat. It’s a reminder that people don’t need their characters to look or behave just like them because at heart, good stories are universal.
It’s not hard, Hollywood.
All you need is a great story, millions of dollars, and a few people willing to take a chance on storytellers, actors, and creators who want to bring unique offerings to life. They won’t all be hits, but that’s a risk you’re already taking.
At least this way, we’ll get compelling stories; see representations of different cultures, traditions, and populations; and open ourselves up to greater empathy. Oh, and better movies. We’ll definitely get better movies.
Now who’s in?