Diversity. It’s a conversation being had in all aspects of our culture. Turn on the news, open up Facebook, or look at the signs in public spaces and you’ll find the poignant truth of our society today – that “post-racial America” is a myth and while progress has undoubtedly been made since Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, equality is still a far cry from reality.
One of the criticisms Broadway has endured is that the majority of casting has catered to Caucasian performers. While shows about and featuring minorities speckle the history of the art form, non-white actors have traditionally found it difficult to find roles, and when the roles do exist, they are in such a limited quantity, capable performers are left without.
But something is happening right now: a moment of unprecedented diversity on the Great White Way. In the past year, Keke Palmer became the first African-American Cinderella while Norm Lewis became the first African-American to don the iconic mask in Phantom of the Opera. But the larger shift can be seen this fall, when On Your Feet, Allegiance, and The Color Purple will open, The Wiz is airing on NBC before its Broadway bow next season and the spring will bring Shuffle Along. Add these shows to the already running Aladdin, The Lion King, The King and I, and Hamilton, and there will be — more so than ever — a diverse array of performers taking the stages.
Over the course of two weeks, I caught up with a dozen of those performers representing six Broadway shows that celebrate the diversity of American culture. Some have performed on the Tony Awards. Some are leads in shows while others are members of the ensemble. One is in one of TV’s hottest shows as well as the current Tony-winning musical revival. Three just made their Broadway debuts. Each is resplendent in their love of what they do and the opportunity to celebrate who they are.
“I see it as three steps of a journey,” explained Luis Salgado (On Your Feet). “I remember being in Puerto Rico in my living room and “Al Rojo Vivo” came on. Anita Rosario was there, Marc Anthony was there and it was the first time that I gasped at Broadway. It immediately did that for me. I had no idea what it was but it was exciting. When I came to New York, I saw the show Swing and in it were Carlos Sierra-Lopez and Maria Torres. I thought, they are like me. I know Carlos, I worked with him. I can do this. After I moved to New York, In The Heights happened. Every time we had youths come to see In The Heights, they would say, ‘You guys are like us.’ So taking the stage was the second step in the journey and the third is then being that inspiration for these kids who told us they want to be there one day. Hopefully, 10 years from now, you’ll be interviewing them.”
The Lion King cast member Kimberly Marable echoed Salgado’s sentiment.
“I think back to when I wanted to be an actress as a kid,” Marable said. “I think what inspired me most was seeing people who looked like me, doing what I wanted to do. I could see the goal ahead. Now it’s nice to be that person for someone else. To be their goal.”
Marable’s castmate in The Lion King, Derrick Davis, grew up where he said young men are guided to get into a trade, be a farmer or go into the military.
“Coming from the area I came from, which wasn’t an affluent area by any stretch of the imagination, there weren’t high aspirations. So to have made it to this point, I am acutely aware that people are looking at me and saying, ‘Well, he looks like me and I can be where he stands.’ It takes me back home and to other areas like where I grew up, to encourage them and say, ‘Yes, you can get out of here and do more than what people tell you can be.’ I feel like onstage I say that and offstage I say that.”
The sense of responsibility to inspire people, especially young people, is overwhelmingly strong among the actors, each of whom has been touched by it in a different way.
“By virtue of doing what you do as a professional and looking the way you look, you are representing people who are underrepresented,” said Conrad Ricamora, who is currently starring in both The King and I on Broadway and the prime time hit “How To Get Away With Murder” on ABC. “I feel a responsibility as an actor to do my job the best that I possibly can and in doing that, I’m then approached by people who are gay, who are Asian, who are mixed race, that say, ‘Thank you for representing our community.’ It always takes me by surprise because I think I’m just doing my job, but wow, you’re welcome. I’m always really pleasantly surprised by that.”
Aladdin star Adam Jacobs, who has played a diverse set of roles from Simba in The Lion King, Marius in Les Miserables and now Aladdin, said it’s a responsibility that he didn’t seek out when he got into the business but that it adds a positive energy to the experience.
“Playing an iconic role like Aladdin for example, there are certain expectations and you don’t even think about that,” Jacobs said. “You just go out there and tell the story. No matter what the story is, as long as you tell it well, people of all races and creeds will be drawn in and will feel included.”
For Something Rotten’s Marisha Wallace, that sense of responsibility has always been present and is one of the driving factors behind her pursuing her goals.
“I didn’t grow up with a Broadway background,” she explained. “I’m from the South. Most people haven’t even seen a Broadway show. Most are just trying to get out of their small town and I’m the one that got out. I always feel a sense of responsibility because I am a representative of someone who can get out, and who can make it. These kids who are from where I’m from, some of them have nothing. They have big dreams and are sitting in their rooms singing to themselves, but don’t know it actually could become something. I have young nieces and nephews who watch me and now know they can do it. They don’t have to be what everything thinks they have to be. They know they can be greater.”
The King and I actress Kristen Faith Oei said she grew up unaware of the responsibility of being a role model for other Asian-Americans who are aspiring actors. It wasn’t until recently that a colleague changed her perspective on it.
“I had a friend, who is also an associate, tell me she had seen me understudy Amneris in Aida over 10 years ago,” Oei remembers. “She said when she saw that, it’s what inspired her to know she could do it. Knowing that impact, it’s a good reminder because it’s easy to forget. We’re doing what we do, like Conrad and Adam said, because we love it. In our show, The King and I, there are so many Asian kids that come to the show and when I watch them watch them, I bet they’re just wishing they could be up there.”
Having been on both the creative side and the performer side in the audition room, Something Rotten’s Michael James Scott echoes the importance of instilling possibility into young people.
“Watching when someone of color comes in the audition room and seeing the fire in their eyes, knowing that there’s maybe only a certain amount of slots that are available for that show, it has been alarming for me but also really beautiful that people are still doing it and are still passionate about it,” he said.
“I’ve kinda joked about making my career off of being the token black man in Broadway shows and it’s interesting that the first Broadway show I saw, there was one black man in the show. I remember saying, I can do that. Just like what Luis was saying about sitting in your living room and seeing it on TV. What was amazing has been that people of all diverse backgrounds can come to a show and see an entire cast full of color on stage. That has changed the game. For a young person to come to Broadway and see a stage full of color is changing the game.”
On Your Feet actress Genny Lis Padilla believes the diversity, not just on Broadway, but in art in general, is a direct reflection on the conversation being had.
“People are saying they want to see more diversity in art, whether that’s gender diversity, sexual diversity, or whatever it may be, it’s happening across the spectrum,” she said. “I would say with the boom of social media and the information you can have within seconds, producers, writers and creative can get the message so much more quickly. When they get that message of people hungry for more diversity, it’s no wonder why now it’s starting to happen. They’re getting the message. It’s important to keep having the conversation.”
That conversation has been a long time coming, but there’s a visible shift taking place in the industry.
“I feel like it’s starting to do what I would love to see,” Davis said. “Roles are being non-traditionally cast. All of the different minorities aren’t being pigeon-holed into one type of stereotypical character and are being given the breadth to be a range of characters, regardless of the color of their skin.”
Ricamora agrees and has experienced that shift both on stage and on screen.
“I feel like casting regardless of color, or on purpose to mix it up, is great,” he said. “I feel so lucky to be on a Shonda Rhimes TV show where there’s just so much diversity happening. It’s not about a black female lawyer. It’s about an amazing strong lawyer, regardless of the fact that she’s female or she’s black.”
The diversity that’s being experienced even extends beyond skin color.
“I feel like with my career, my goal is to break down all barriers of race and gender,” Wallace said. “I’ve understudied a man and went on stage playing a white male’s character in Aladdin. In Something Rotten, I understudy a white female who is not my type at all. In all of those things I’m doing, I’m trying to break down that barrier. It doesn’t have to be the status quo. I love Casey Nicholaw (Director of Aladdin) because he’s all about it. Like Adam said, if you tell the story, it doesn’t matter what you look like.”
“I do like the fact that those labels are starting to not matter as much,” Jacobs added. “It’s happening. The story is becoming the forefront and like Marisha said, it doesn’t matter what you look like. I think as we continue to forge pathways and pioneer and explore, it’s going to continue to become more diverse.”
The summer’s biggest theatrical blockbuster has proven to be more than a solid musical. Hamilton is proving that a cast of an American musical can not only reflect the American public but can revolutionize the industry at the same time.
“Obviously Hamilton is the perfect example of every type of casting for roles that were all white,” Oei said. “In The King and I, it’s authentic and all Asian, but I love that Hamilton is such an obvious part of history and they can tell it so honestly and have such diversity.”
The instant-hit musical by Lin Manuel Miranda has made headlines for telling the historical story of America’s founding fathers but rather than casting a group of white men, the cast features actors of every race and cultural background. The result is a story of American history told by a cast that reflects what America looks like today.
“It’s a testament of telling the story,” Wallace says of the success of the show.
“And there’s a type of healing that happens in the audience that I wasn’t even aware of,” Ricamora added.
The effect the diversification on stage is having on the Latino community is something On Your Feet’s Carlos E. Gonzalez knows firsthand. While he is making his Broadway debut in the show, the story goes far deeper than the emotions of his first Broadway bow.
“For me this year, I feel like the universe has aligned in a crazy way. I’m doing a Cuban show and in it, Emilio leaves Cuba at age 11, exactly like when I left Cuba at age 11. In Cuba, there are so many artists who are closed off from this artistic world they don’t even know exists. I’ve been blessed to go back to Cuba many times and I was just there when the flag was raised. Things are happening for a reason. We put up Rent, which was the first musical to happen in Cuba in 50 years. That was huge. They have amazing dancers and actors and singers, but they don’t know what this type of performing is. When I go, I go with flash drives full of Tony Awards performance videos because people there don’t know what any of that looks like. The artists are so hungry for it.”
“And not only from the performing artist perspective,” Salgado added. “Lin Manuel is back writing a show, and not just that, but breaking ground with Hamilton. There is a movement of writers and producers and directors who are getting opportunities to create new theatre. Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet) had four shows that he choreographed running at the same time. Regardless of the fact that he’s Latino, he’s a choreographer that had four shows running at the same time. That’s incredible and inspiring.”
Padilla, Salgado and Gonzalez are currently working with Trujillo as they take the stage in On Your Feet this fall. Each spoke of how Trujillo’s inspiration inspired them in telling the story, but for Gonzalez, inspiration was sitting right next to him.
“My first show was In The Heights and I saw it with Luis in it,” Gonzalez said. “Now, we’re in this show together. I was born in Cuba and in Cuba, there’s no musical theatre. There was no performing arts at my high school. Now, going back to that school, those kids are seeing me in a Broadway show and not only that, but a show that’s telling our story.”
The consensus among these artists is that this story is one that needs to be continually told and extends beyond aspiring performers, but to everyone.
“It goes along with that sense of healing that needs to happen in America right now,” Ricamora says. “Growing up, I always felt like an other. I don’t want to have anyone else who looks like me feel that way. In order for that to happen, there has to be inclusion in shows like Hamilton, where yes, these are characters who were white, but we are going to tell the story and include what America looks like right now. Because of that, there isn’t a sense of ‘that’s not my history,’ because it’s all of our history. We are all Americans.”