Black Actors Made Tony Awards History Last Night - But What Does This Mean for the Long Term?
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Black Actors Made Tony Awards History Last Night - But What Does This Mean for the Long Term?

Tony 2016 Winners Daveed Diggs, Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Renee Elise Goldsberry. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Tony 2016 Winners Daveed Diggs, Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Not to be a killjoy the morning after…

Yes, Tony Awards history was made last night, as all four of its musical acting honors went to black actors: Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs and Cynthia Erivo. Think of it this way in film language – even though movie musicals don’t have their own category at the Oscars – it’s almost like if all 4 Academy Award acting categories (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress) went to black actors. That would indeed be history-making, most certainly.

As this is primarily a film blog, I’d say the closest we got to that kind of achievement was when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won top honors in the acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress) in 2002, for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball.”

I remember Halle Berry’s acceptance speech that year (she was the first, and still the only black actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress in the award’s 88-year history, which is rather sad; so it most certainly was a landmark, historic moment); in her speech, after she thanked all of those who came before her (Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, et all), she exalted: “The door has finally been opened” for other black actresses to walk through!

And what’s happened since then? Not a damn thing! Fourteen long years later, there still hasn’t been another black actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress. She’s still the only black actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress since the the institution began almost a century ago. And since Halle’s win, there have been just 3 other black actress nominees in the Best Actress category: Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), Viola Davis (“The Help”), and Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”).

Not that black actors have fared much better, but there’ve been 4 times more wins for black actors in the Best Actor category than in the Best Actress category, and certainly more nominees. Still sad all-around however.

But my point here is to say that last night’s historic wins for black actors at the Tonys is certainly something to celebrate; but, as was the case with the historic wins on Oscar night in 2002, let’s not get carried away as some not-so-surprisingly have, calling this some kind of indication of any real change in terms of the availability of work for black actors and actresses in theatre. There already have been, and will likely continue to be articles written this week about this co-called defining moment for Broadway, and what it means for actors of color going forward, etc.

I recall the words of Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” (published on this blog just about 2 weeks ago, prior to his Tony Awards win last night), in which he succinctly broke down a dilemma that many actors of color have faced over the years and continue to struggle with, not only in theater, but also in film and TV, as he put the state of the business into proper perspective. Essentially, while Broadway is seemingly having a “diversity moment” (given the success that a few high profile shows created by and starring actors of African descent have had, and continue to enjoy – “The Color Purple,” “Eclipsed,” “Hamilton” and “Shuffle Along” notably, and last night’s historic wins), it is just that… a moment; and it might be too soon to make any celebratory claims about doors being suddenly opened, or ceilings being smashed in terms of the availability and complexity of roles for actors of color (in this case, actors of African descent).

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To use film language again, what did winning the Oscar 14 years ago, in a historic moment, do for Halle Berry’s career? The same can be said for several other black Oscar winners – Jamie Foxx, Gabourey Sidibe, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Mo’Nique, Lupita Nyong’o and other more recent winners. Not that they all aren’t working; they most certainly are. But what’s the quality and the frequency of the work been like for these actors? In some cases, they’ve had to produce their own work and finance projects independently, because they aren’t been considered for much in terms of studio gigs – especially when it comes to lead roles. Just a month ago, Lupita penned an open letter in which she expressed some frustration over the demands others have made of her and her career; Since winning an Oscar for her performance in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” 2 years ago, Nyong’o has been a focus of countless so-called *think* pieces, all chastising Hollywood for seemingly failing to recognize her talent by not casting her in plump roles in high profile studio projects – not-so unlike some of her white contemporaries who’ve experienced similar career boosts after early roles that helped gain them the *right* kind of attention – Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie, Alicia Vikander, to name a few.

In her open letter, Nyong’o did share that she turned down several on-screen roles to pursue the lead in “Eclipsed,” stating, and I think also suggesting what kinds of roles she’s been offered by Hollywood studios since her Oscar win: “So often women of color are relegated to playing simple tropes: the sidekick, the best friend, the noble savage, or the clown. We are confined to being a simple and symbolic peripheral character — one who doesn’t have her own journey or emotional landscape.”

She went on to praise the careers of actresses she admires, and maybe seeks to emulate in terms of career trajectory – Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and Viola Davis specifically – who she acknowledged for the strength and variety of their choices, defying what the industry expects from them: “What I am learning is that the most important questions you can ask yourself are ‘What do I want?’ and ‘Who do I want to become?’” Nyong’o wrote. “Partly because of the conversation the industry has been having about women and racial and cultural representation, I have recently decided to participate more fully in the development of roles I choose in the future… at the moment I am onstage, night after night, with four incredible actresses, telling a powerful story about women who are rarely given a complex rendering. I look at this play — it’s the first play on Broadway to feature an all-woman cast, playwright, and director, and the fact that we are all women of African descent makes it even more incredible — and I feel profound gratitude to be a part of it. I am proud of my decision to take the time to sit with myself and not get caught up in what others want for me.”

Indeed. Although to re-emphasize, we can infer from all she said, that, in short, yes, she’s been offered film and maybe even TV work, but the roles have mostly been, as she stated, “simple tropes… the sidekick, the best friend, the noble savage… the peripheral character.” And thus, it was time she “decided to participate more fully in the development of roles” she chooses from here-on.

Essentially, “I’m not getting the kind of work I want from a dominant studio system [despite her Oscar win, crossover appeal, international reach, etc] and so I’m going to create work for myself.”

It’s a very familiar tale – one that actors who came before her eventually also realized. She mentions Viola Davis as one of her idols. Davis said very similar things a couple of years ago when she formed JuVee Productions with her husband, Julius Tennon, in order to create and produce work for herself, instead of waiting for Hollywood to offer her roles. And she has done just that for the most part. Except for the upcoming “Suicide Squad,” the most recent feature films she’s appeared in (“Lila & Eve” and “Custody” which opens later this year) have come out of JuVee Productions. And she continues in that vein, with a Harriet Tubman film in development, which she’s going to star in (it’s set up at HBO), and there’s more.

But to bring this all back around to my key point, and wrap this up, as Odom Jr. says in the video below (which I shared on this blog 2 weeks ago), “not-so fast…” with all the chatter about this “rare Broadway moment” being of any definite significance in terms of the long-term prospects of the 4 black actors who picked up Tony Awards last night. There’s still much work to be done. Let’s see Broadway put together successive years of even broader diversity (both on the stage, and backstage) before they pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

The conversation begins with the suggestion that Hollywood might have something to learn from Broadway in terms of diversity.  Here’s the key part of his contribution to the roundtable discussion: “I think what we’re having is a rare moment,” said the “Hamilton” star who won the Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award. “What we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons. I imagine if a white actor were having a similar situation to what I’m having, with the kind of success of the show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.”

No roles. No shows for me to do. No offers coming in as they would for my white actor contemporaries.

And as I’ve been trying to make connections to, within this post, it’s similar to conversations we’ve had about black film or TV actors who have that “rare moment” Odom speaks of, only to find themselves without much to follow up with (offers for further interesting work) that would lead to even more “rare moments,” so much that, eventually, they aren’t so “rare” anymore.

But maybe Broadway does have a little bit of a leg up on Hollywood; historically, there have been far more winners of Tony Awards of African descent (actors, directors, plays, musicals) than Academy Awards. And the Tonys can claim Audra McDonald and her historic 6 Tony wins – more than any other actor; she’s also the only actress to win all four acting categories (Best Actress in a Play, Best Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Play, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical). She has no equivalent when it comes to film and TV in terms of industry recognition.

Also, in terms of theatre directing, George C. Wolfe has 2 Best Director wins. Again, absolutely no equivalent in terms of black feature film directors. In fact, the Best Director Oscar has never been won by a black filmmaker. Never. In the entire 88-year history of the Academy Awards, black directors have been nominated just 3 times. Three! That’s it: John Singleton for “Boyz n the Hood,” Lee Daniels for “Precious,” and Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave.”

But the Tonys can claim a number of Best Director nominees and wins. In addition to Wolfe’s 2 wins, Kenny Leon won for “A Raisin in the Sun” and the late Lloyd Richards won for “Fences” in 1987. And before them, Geoffrey Holder won in 1975 for “The Wiz” (He passed away in 2014).

In the roundtable video below, Odom is joined by Reed Birney (‘The Humans’), Alex Brightman (‘School of Rock’), Danny Burstein (‘Fiddler on the Roof’), Gabriel Byrne (‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’), Jeff Daniels (‘Blackbird’), and Zachary Levi (‘She Loves Me’).

It’s good stuff to watch and listen to. I appreciate that they also discussed the lack of diversity in the theater audience (Broadway specifically), putting some of the blame on how expensive a night at the theater can be, with tickets often over $100 each, and some prime shows (and seating) as much as 3 to 4 times that number.

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