Adding Color To 'The Great White Way'

Sep 21, 2014
Originally published on September 21, 2014 9:15 am

Sharp observations about race, class and gender plus pure passion for the theater: That's what you get when you ask a distinguished panel of playwrights whether "The Great White Way" is still too white.

Award-winning dramatists David Henry Hwang, Lydia Diamond, Kristoffer Diaz and Bruce Norris are some of America's most critically acclaimed contemporary playwrights. Their work captures the tensions and aspirations of an increasingly diverse America, but they all acknowledged that it was a challenge to bring a more diverse audience to theaters.

Tony award-winning actor Stephen McKinley Henderson raised the curtain on the event, A Broader Way, at WNYC's The Greene Space. He began by thanking "playwrights everywhere, for actors everywhere."

It launched a night of memorable moments, but here are my top 5.

1. Stephen McKinley Henderson

Stephen McKinley Henderson performed a monologue from August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come And Gone, a piece that he believed "resonated for writers finding their voice and that unique identity that they bring to their work." Henderson brought to life the character of Bynum, who relates what happened after he encountered a mystical figure whom he calls "the shiny man":

"My daddy called me to him. Said he had been thinking about me and it grieved him to see me in the world carrying other people's songs and not having one of my own. Told me he was gonna show me how to find my song.

"I asked him about the shiny man and he said he's the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way. Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I know my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life. On the way people cling to each other out of the truth they find in themselves."

2. Kristoffer Diaz

Kristoffer Diaz was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 for his play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. It's a comedy about professional wrestling that asks big questions on what it means to be American. He explained where he comes from as a playwright, and what's important as he goes forward:

"When I moved into the city from Yonkers, I was an 18-year-old Puerto Rican kid who used to go to Broadway shows in Timberland boots, big baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and I was never sitting next to anyone else like that. I would find myself sitting next to the Broadway audience, which tends to be, you know 60-year-old white women with some money ... So I'm aware of that, and I'm not going to write a play that's alienating the folks who are going to be there in the room. But I'm also not going to write a play that makes [the] 18-year-old kid in the hoodie feel alienated either. I want that kid to feel as safe and sound in that room, and accepted into that room as I wanted to when I was 18 years old, and sometimes did and sometimes didn't."

3. Lydia Diamond

Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly has won many awards and was hailed as a break-though in modern drama. Diamond is one of an elite group of black women who have been produced on Broadway, so I felt I had to ask her "the girl question" — i.e, if she felt her gender had affected her career:

"It's so interesting, because in these conversations I don't often actually get to be a woman. Usually, it's women, or people of color, but I don't get to be a part of a conversation that's about what is it like to be a woman playwright, because I fit in the person of color thing. So I've never actually thought of myself as a woman — that's why I wore a short skirt, because lest they don't know, it seems I am a woman playwright. And it's grim, the statistics on that, we know are so, so awful."

4. Bruce Norris

Bruce Norris has won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Tony, and an Olivier award for Clybourne Park, a play that draws inspiration from Lorraine Hansbury's classic A Raisin in the Sun. He offered some tart and funny reflections as the only white person on the panel — a minority in that room, but still the vast majority of the theater audience:

"I think, in a sense, I am irrelevant to the conversation, and it's a good thing that I am. The more diversity that we can encourage, you know, the questions of writing plays that are about political topics, and plays about gender — that I tend to write — things about the dominance of white men in our culture, hopefully no one like me will have to exist anymore to write those plays. I'm trying to write myself out of existence in a way."

5. David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang has been writing for stage and screen for more than 30 years. His play M. Butterfly won a Tony and ran on Broadway for two years. He ended on a positive note:

"This is a fantastic time to be a playwright. Because the digital age ... has made theater more valuable and more attractive to people. Anything that can be duplicated has less value right now than the live experience ... And yes, there are economic issues that need to be faced; there are certainly diversity and gender issues that need to be faced. But, you know, people pay a lot of money to go see Beyonce and Jay Z. If people feel the experience is worthwhile, and it speaks to them, and they're part of it, they will come."

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Broadway has long been synonymous with the best of American theater. But is what's playing on Broadway telling the story of what America looks and sounds like today? This past Friday, NPR's Michel Martin gathered four critically acclaimed playwrights at The Green Space - a performance venue at New York Public Radio's headquarters. She has this look at the sound and sensibility of today's Broadway.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: One thing is clear - on today's Broadway, revivals are king. Take this year's revival of "A Raisin In The Sun." Fifty five years after Lorraine Hansberry's play first ran on Broadway, it won three Tony awards and became one of the season's must-have tickets.

But a new play based on songs written by the late rapper Tupac Shakur lasted only a few weeks, leading some to wonder whether Broadway is more interested in works by dead black playwrights than living ones of color.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Broadway tends to be more interested in dead playwrights in general.

MARTIN: That's David Henry Hwang. He's the author of more than 50 plays, musicals and scripts for screen adaptations. He's probably best known for the Tony award-winning "M. Butterfly" that ran for two years on Broadway.

Hwang also won notoriety back in 1990 when his complaint that a white actor was cast in a pivotal role as a Eurasian man in "Miss Saigon" set off a bitter debate about so-called race-faced casting. Since then, Hwang says things have changed for both playwrights and performers. Recent Broadway seasons have featured three new plays by African-American women, for example.

But opportunities for many others are still few and far between. Hwang cited numbers from a study of five years' worth of major shows conducted by the Asian-American performers acting coalition.

HWANG: Roughly 80 percent of the roles on Broadway and in these major New York theaters were cast with white actors. And so I think in any industry that would be considered a pretty lousy diversity figure. So therefore we run the risk of theater becoming just - drawing from a talent pool and an audience that's becoming an increasingly smaller percentage of the population.

MARTIN: That desire to create stories and characters that more closely resemble their own lives and the lives of people they know is precisely what made the panelists start writing plays to begin with.

Kristoffer Diaz has had his work featured off-Broadway. In 2011 he won the Obie Award for Best New American Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 for his play "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity."

KRISTOFFER DIAZ: The world that I know is very, very, very mixed. My wife is Philipina, my son is a Philorican, like Bruno Mars.


DIAZ: You know, one of my best friends who comes over to our house for Thanksgiving every year is Israeli. And he comes in the middle of this Puerto Rican Thanksgiving that we have every year. And those are the stories that I know how to tell. And that's the story that I think is a little bit unique.

MARTIN: Lydia Diamond agreed. She's won many awards for her play "Stick Fly," a drama about an upper-middle-class African American family that raises interesting questions about class as well as race. Diamond said the playwrights with diverse backgrounds don't just create roles and opportunities for performers of color, they also attract more diverse audiences.

LYDIA DIAMOND: If I'm going to a play, I want to see myself on the stage. And it's not rocket science that the more you put people who look like other people on stage, the more they will come to the theater.

BRUCE NORRIS: I wish there was vastly more diversity on Broadway, but I don't think there is until it becomes a lot cheaper.

MARTIN: That's playwright Bruce Norris. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony and the Olivier Award for "Clybourne Park," an edgy drama that could be described as a prequel and sequel to "A Raisin In The Sun."

He said that as a straight, white, middle-class man writing plays about people like himself, his desire for more diversity came out of his artistic ambitions, not economic ones. But he said the economic pressures of Broadway cannot be overlooked - that ticket prices have skyrocketed, even as the salaries for actors and writers have stagnated. And that affects everything about the Broadway experience. That was a subject that came up over and over again, especially with budding playwrights who participated via our live Twitter chat around the #nprbroadway.

EMILY CRAYTON: She is studying to become a playwright.

DIAMOND: Oh, be a playwright, be a playwright. I feel like - I'm afraid that we made it sound like...

MARTIN: After the event, Emily Crayton, a student playwright from Harlem, and, like Lydia Diamond, an African-American woman, made a point of stopping Diamond. Crayton said that despite all the frustrations, Crayton and her group of theater-loving friends planned to keep at it.

CRAYTON: Theater is not dead. It's so vital. The conversation - the human conversation is just so necessary. Like, your story is represented. I think it's possible that theater can become more diverse.

MARTIN: Playwright David Henry Hwang also ended the playwright's conversation on an optimistic note saying that diverse audiences will show up wherever they feel welcomed. Afro-Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca reinforced the point when he took the stage to perform his composition "A Las Millas."


MARTIN: The audience - both those in the room and those following via live stream were mesmerized. As one tweet suggested, art is the only language that transcends separateness. Michel Martin, NPR News, New York.

GOODWYN: To take part in the social media conversation on diversity and theater use the hashtag #nprbroadway on Facebook or Twitter. And you can follow Michel on Twitter. She's @nprmichel spelled M-I-C-H-E-L.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PERFORMANCE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.