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The Time has Come to Diversify Broadway's Diversity
By Elyse Sommer
Broadway has reopened its doors again. The all-out media campaign to promote the reopened houses has helped to get people to fill the seats, even though they must remain masked.
Unsurprisingly, most of the promotional video clips have been for glitzy musicals with large casts. It's the glamour and glitz, the stage alive with brightly costumed performers that's always been what going to a Broadway show meant, not just to tourists but the many city dwellers and suburbanites who go to just a few shows each season.
Given that a lot of that media attention has been showered on Tina— The Tina Turner Musical, it's fair to applaud producers for buying into the need for a more diverse Broadway. After all, the Tina musical biography is about a Black woman and is scripted by a Black playwright.
When it comes to plays, here too, the reopening of To Kill a Mockingbird, which already became a major hit for its fresh look at the racism in Harper Lee's world has gotten lots of media coverage for being more relevant than ever in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Granted many of the children and grandchildren of people like the African Americans. in that blatantly racist courtroom have been able to go to college and distinguish themselves in many walks of life — including writing for and performing on Broadway. However, while the Floyd protests did ratchet up acknowledgment of systemic racism, there's also been an uptick in violent racist acts.
The Broadway community deserves a big hand for acknowedging its failure to provide more opportunities for playwrights, directors, and designers regardless of skin color or sex — and backing its commitment to increased diversity by including a handful of plays by Black writers that previously would have been limited to Off-Broadway houses and eventually some regional theaters.
But playwrights as well as producers must keep pushing the diversity envelope by including less issue-oriented plays by and bout Blacks with characters and situations to which the old normal's predominntly white audience can relate. That brings me to Chicken and Biscuits, one of the most unlikely Black-authored play to transfer from off to on Broadway. It's by an unknown playwright and with a previous run at the Queens Theater, a venue without a history of sending shows uptown, as is the case for this comeback saso's other plays by Black writers.
It turns out that despite its decidedly negative reception by critics, Chicken and Biscuit' s playwright Douglas Lyons has managed to bring another kind of diversity to the newly diverse Broadway season. Unlike other transfers like Pass Over that dramatize serious fault lines in our society, Chicken and Biscuits is a family comedy, shades of the Neil Simon plays that used to dominate every Broadway season. The big difference here is that Lyons' family isn't Jewish-American but African-American though the critics all agreed that Lyons is no Neil Simon. He's apparently added nothing really newer and wittier to a familiar plot device — a funeral that prompts a family gathering. The clan in Lyons' play has come to honor their just deceased patriarch whose favorite meal was, you guessed it, chicken and biscuits.
Though hardly good news for the playwright and his company, the pans do put an end to concerns about critics being overly kind to plays by Black writers in order to support Broadway's recovery from enormous financial losses. Being too easy on flawed plays would make people mistrust the validity of deserved raves for Lackawanna Blues.
And so, thank you Mr. Lyons for paving the way for an ever more diverse Broadway.
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