The theater world has long been considered one of the most elite—and least diverse—in American culture. And as I've previously covered for The Root, at present there are only a handful of African-American Broadway producers, despite the fact that 46 new shows opened last season.
Over the years, though, there have been occasional African-American playwriting successes. Lorraine Hansberry was the first black female writer to have a show—the classic "A Raisin in the Sun," produced on Broadway—and it recently returned to Broadway, 55 years after its debut, with Denzel Washington now as the star.
August Wilson became the first black playwright to win a Tony Award for best play in 1987. But when Playbill, the publication best known for publishing Broadway programs, attempted to compile a list of influential black playwrights in the late '90s, the number of those with actual Broadway productions or mainstream crossover success of any kind was uncomfortably small.
The number of black playwrights whose work makes it to major stages and wins major awards has never been high, but a number of up-and-coming writers are poised to change the face, and color, of theater—and American culture—as well.
In 2010 Katori Hall became the first black playwright to score an Olivier Award for her play "The Mountaintop," a fictionalized account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s final night. In 2011 Marcus Gardley won a PEN/Laura Pels prize for outstanding midcareer playwright. In 2013 playwright and director Tarell McCraney won a MacArthur fellowship, commonly referred to as a "genius grant," one of the most prestigious prizes awarded to academics and artists in any field. And this past week, Dominique Morisseau was awarded the Edward Kennedy Prize for her play "Detroit '67," documenting the impact of the 1967 riots on her hometown.
During an interview with The Root at the official awards ceremony, Morisseau said she feels a sea change is taking place in the theater, one that is propelling her and other artists of color.
"I do think the tide is turning because there are people in the theater who care about this (diversity."" She noted the support she has received from established institutions that have provided critical support to her in the early stages of her career because they see the power in having more diverse voices represented.
"The world will soon have more people of color in it than not," she explained. "The theater needs to reflect what the world looks like. It's dangerous to have cultural imperialism." She added, "We need to change that and the theater can help do that by producing more productions by playwrights of color."
Michael Dinwiddie, president of the Black Theater Network, said of Morisseau and her peers' success, "I think there is a sea change. It's happening. I'm excited by it. You see many more of our stories being told on television, film and stage. There's an excitement. Younger generations are much more aware of diversity."
He echoed Morisseau's sentiment that having people in key leadership positions within the theater to nurture and cultivate talent of color is crucial to diversifying the stories that get told on the stage, as well as the screen.
"If you look across the country, most of the major theaters have very few people in leadership positions and artistic leadership positions, and they are starting to clamor to get different voices at the table. They are beginning to realize we can (not) be isolationist in our culture anymore, because our world is really multicultural today."
Dinwiddie also stressed that having more diversity among producers matters, noting, "The black elite will invest in certain cultural activities, but theater is rarely at the top of the list." He explained that this lack of support of theater arts results in missed opportunities for the black community as a whole. Black producers tend to hire black cast members and crew, meaning more black jobs. He stressed that this is why having more people like Shonda Rhimes succeed behind the scenes in television and more Dominique Morisseaus succeed behind the stage matters as much as seeing your favorite black actress win a major role.
Ultimately, says Morisseau, both matter. She paraphrased one of her favorite expressions from the acclaimed author Junot Díaz, saying, "I'm probably not ... going to get it perfect, but he basically says, 'Monsters have no reflections in mirrors, so if you want to make a human feel like a monster, then you deny them at every cultural level representations of themselves.'"
That's why Morisseau wants to make sure the untold stories of people of color are represented on the stage. In her awards acceptance speech, Morisseau explained that she was moved to write about Detroit, as part of a three-play cycle, after hearing of classmates who referred to it as "degenerate."
She later explained that her play is much more than a love letter to the city, but that "Detroit is kind of a microcosm for America right now. Everybody's looking at Detroit, and 1967 was a defining year for that city history. So if you look at '67 Detroit you're kind of looking at America and how we became this irreversibly divided city and what needs to happen and what places need to be healed socially and systemically to turn our country around."
And of the play's cultural impact and contribution, Ted Kennedy Jr.—son of the late U.S. senator after whom Morisseau's award is named—said, "My father believed we all need to be more aware of the historical experience. I believe a lot of Americans have no idea what happened in Detroit in 1967."
This, of course, reinforces the importance of having diverse voices writing stories for the theater. And while Morisseau is encouraged by the success of so many emerging playwrights of color—expressing measured optimism that "the tide is turning"—she also made sure to add that, "it is our job to not get complacent and to insure the tide turns even more."
(Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.)