Jelani Alladin wasn’t expecting much when he auditioned for Frozen. “I assumed the powers that be would cast it as they did the movie,” he says—that is, with all white actors. To his surprise, the African-American Alladin is now making his Broadway debut as the lovable Kristoff. “I don’t take it lightly and will never take it for granted,” he says.
So, is this story a one-off or a sign that the theater world really wants to be more diverse? By one standard—Tony nominations—this year looks better than last year. In 2017, only half of the eight acting categories included nominees of color (none of whom won), seemingly a step backward from 2016, when the cast of Hamilton all but swept the musical awards. This year, every one of those categories includes minority actors—one of whom, Children of a Lesser God’s Lauren Ridloff, is also deaf.
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Broadway producers created more opportunity for representation this season, too, by giving us Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the Middle East–set musical The Band’s Visit and a revival of the Caribbean-themed Once on This Island. Plays were less fruitful, though revivals of Angels in America, Lobby Hero and M. Butterfly provided a few choice roles for black and Asian actors. John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons provided a choice role for—who else?—John Leguizamo.
A number of actors of color also scored in roles that usually go to white actors. Some got there partly through star power, like Denzel Washington, a Tony winner for Fences in 2010 and now leading the cast of The Iceman Cometh. (He’s not the first black man to play Hickey on Broadway: That was James Earl Jones—also a Tony winner for Fences!—back in 1973.) Other performers broke through by being consistently excellent. Joshua Henry, of The Scottsboro Boys and Shuffle Along, achieved true leading-man status in this year’s Carousel, and Condola Rashad just earned her fourth Tony nom in six years for her performance in the title role of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Now that we’ve seen a black Hermione (Harry Potter’s Noma Dumezweni), a black Sandy Cheeks (SpongeBob SquarePants's Lilli Cooper) and an Asian-American Gretchen Wieners (Mean Girls’ Ashley Park), is diversity now a given on Broadway? And will plays like Cost of Living—which ran Off Broadway, featured disabled actors in leading roles and won the Pulitzer Prize—find their way to the Main Stem? Alladin thinks so: “We are at a pivotal moment of finally being seen, understood and accepted.”
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