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Broadway returns as theater rethinks on-stage representation

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, today, we want to talk about some changes you will see if you are lucky enough to get to Broadway this season. As you probably know, Broadway - really, all the performing arts - experienced something of an existential crisis after the COVID pandemic shut down in-person performances. Now as shows return, there's a cultural change as well arising from the demands for racial justice sparked by the killings of George Floyd and others last year.

This fall, several hit shows, including "The Book Of Mormon," are rewriting and restaging sections to reflect this change. And by the end of the season, at least nine plays by Black authors will have opened on Broadway. Jeff Lunden covers theater for us, so we asked him to talk about these new developments.

Jeff, thanks so much for joining us.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. Great to talk to you.

MARTIN: First, I want to ask you about these rewrites.

LUNDEN: Well, there are a variety of shows that have made everything from tiny tweaks to big changes. In the tiny tweak category, "To Kill A Mockingbird," they have added at the end of the show a view of the ghost of Tom Robinson, the Black man who was unjustly convicted of rape. In the show, he dies offstage. And in the old version, you didn't see him again. In "Hamilton," the nonspeaking character of Sally Hemings turns her back on Thomas Jefferson now.

But "The Book Of Mormon" is where the biggest changes have happened. Several Black cast members wrote to the producers in July of 2020 about moments in the show they felt were racist. So the company held a two-week workshop, where they went through the script line by line, and they changed things, like towards the end of the show, having a Ugandan woman scare off a warlord instead of the white missionary, and it gives her more agency.

The producers wouldn't let me speak with anyone involved with the show, but I did talk to Douglas Lyons. He wrote the new comedy "Chicken & Biscuits." And he made his debut - his Broadway debut as an actor in "The Book Of Mormon." Here's what he told me.

DOUGLAS LYONS: "Book Of Mormon" is now a decade old, and some jokes that we were making in 2011 are no longer acceptable. And that's OK. And I think them going away and trying to come up with this new version is remarkable, right? Like, let them change it. Let's be better.

MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit more about this, Jeff? I have to ask. Did nobody really notice before that the way the African characters were depicted was sexualized, infantilized? I mean, this isn't Porgy And Bess - you know? - which was written in the '30s. Did nobody notice before, or did nobody feel that they had the agency to speak up? 'Cause I have to tell you that, you know, when I saw it, I was really taken aback. And I'm not saying that every theater offering has to be to my liking. I'm just looking around this theater and wondering why nobody else is as uncomfortable as I am.

LUNDEN: I think that there were probably always people who were uncomfortable with it. I mean, the people who wrote the show are well-known for having created "South Park," which is the kind of comedy that really pushes everything to its limits. And from what I've read, they were more concerned, as they were creating this show, about the response to the Mormon characters in the show. But there have been people who've complained about it over the years. And I do recall reading a post on the internet from somebody who'd been in the show who complained that it was racist.

But clearly, what had happened in the summer of 2020 gave the actors who were in the show and some of the original actors a reason to write to the creators and producers. And I have to say, I haven't actually seen any of the changes. It started performances yesterday. And as I mentioned, the producers did not let me speak with any of the creative people or actors involved. So, you know, they just confirmed the information that had been published in previous interviews.

MARTIN: So I understand that there are other changes on Broadway, too. Maybe we'll call those structural changes. Do you want to tell us about those?

LUNDEN: Yeah, there have been some big industrywide initiatives. The Broadway League, which represents theater owners and producers and the actors union, co-signed a 17-page diversity pledge with a group of artists called Black Theatre United. They've agreed to set up trainings and mentorship programs, and they'll make sure that creative teams aren't all white. And that's something that the Dramatist Guild, which represents playwrights, composers and lyricists, have done as well. They've added an inclusion rider to their contracts.

And then there's an organization called the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. It just won a special Tony Award. It's working with some current Broadway shows - "The Lion King," "Company," "Tina." Zhailon Levingston is a member of the group, and he says he hopes the training sticks.

ZHAILON LEVINGSTON: So that when we leave, what we place in those companies is a new kind of culture as opposed to just policy change.

LUNDEN: And I need to add that Levingston, at 27, is the youngest African American director on Broadway. He directed "Chicken & Biscuits," one of the nine shows by Black writers this season.

MARTIN: It is noteworthy that, as you said, there are going to be nine plays on Broadway by Black playwrights this season. Are these new measures, you think, what enabled that, or are there other forces at work?

LUNDEN: Well, those measures that we talked about are still in progress. But in the meantime, a bunch of nonprofit theaters that have Broadway houses are reopening with plays by Black authors. And I think that's got to be, at least in part, a response to last year's protests. But in the commercial arena, producers are finding opportunities.

You know, some shows closed during the pandemic, leaving several Broadway theaters empty, and some producers took advantage of that. That's how the play "Pass Over" by Antoinette Nwandu played at the August Wilson Theatre, and that's how "Chicken & Biscuits," the comedy by Douglas Lyons, ended up in the Circle in the Square Theatre. He told me he was thrilled to be on Broadway, but there's more to it.

LYONS: I really think this could be a turning point in the American theater where we go - what kind of stories are we allowing to be seen? And I think "Chicken & Biscuits" specifically is breaking the mold of what style stories, what kind of laughter, what kind of comedy is typically in the space. And these characters are bringing representation. I've had little 16-year-old girls come up to me and go, I never thought I would see myself in a Broadway show. I loved that. That's powerful.

MARTIN: So - and how are audiences responding?

LUNDEN: Well, the night I went to see "Chicken & Biscuits," the crowd was double over in laughter, as was I. But, you know, all Broadway shows not named "Hamilton" are having a rough time bringing in crowds. The tourists haven't really returned. Group sales haven't really returned. And you can pretty much see any show on Broadway now at a discount.

MARTIN: That was reporter Jeff Lunden telling us about the changes he's seeing on Broadway as shows returned.

Jeff Lunden, thank you so much.

LUNDEN: Thanks, Michel. Great to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREAMBEATS BY HARRIS HELLER'S "WHITE LIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.