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Why Did It Take a Pandemic for Broadway to Pay Attention to Black Artists?

June 18, 2020 by Zhailon Levingston
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Zhailon Levingston

It took a pandemic for Broadway to care about Black lives, and even so the jury is out on whether or not they truly care yet or if they have nothing better to do than listen to us.

I remember when shows started to temporarily close in March. The assumption was that things would be back to normal in a month. As April quickly approached, it became very clear that Broadway would not be resurrecting with Jesus on Easter morning like projected. The idea of a new normal started to flood the mind, and I believe filled it with a kind of dread many of us couldn’t imagine just weeks before.

Part of the narrative of the new normal was that things were actually never going to be exactly like they were before. Theatre. This thing that once felt so huge in the mind was shrinking smaller and smaller under the new realities of self-isolation, stalled unemployment checks, and the ever-persistent pandemic of racism.

For the first time, there was time. We were no longer on the factory floor of artistic production with no time to check in with ourselves about how we felt and what we needed. We had actual time to sit and think and reflect and go stir crazy. We drank and cooked and worked out and binged every streaming show possible. All the while, an opening date for theatre became more and more elusive.

There was no going back to how things were — which meant possibly there could be no going back to treating our bodies like machines being programmed only for production. And if that is how every artist was treated before, Black artists had to be machines at an entirely different level of production. Working harder, faster, and cleverer than any of the other machines around.

Black theatre making machines must also never ever break down. In the isolation brought on by Covid-19, the machine in us took a back seat to the human in us, and with all the time we had, there was suddenly no time to put up with what we had before. We started to draw direct links between our devalued lives in the American theatre and the devalued lives of our Black brothers and sisters getting shot in the streets. There is no going back.

The names Amaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd fill the air as protests and righteous fires burn the streets to chants of “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” A moment of critical mass takes the country by storm in a ground swell of the truth: Black Lives Matter. There’s still a pandemic, but here we are in the streets demanding justice.

It becomes very clear that not only will there be no theaters opening without a Covid-19 protection plan, but there will also be no theaters opening without an anti-racist plan in place as well. There will be no theaters opening before, they too, as a deeply racist institution, hear the cries of Black people in the streets and on their stages. There will be no theaters opening with Black involvement until there’s a clear plan to value our humanity over our production.

We have begun to see that without any consistent way to make income in the theater at the moment, there are things more valuable than a check. We are the American theatre’s most valuable asset, and as we fight centuries-old pandemics like racism and new threats to our life like Covid-19, there will be no returning to the stage without our value being written into the policy and culture of every theatrical institution that asks for our talent. Does Broadway care about Black lives? They have no choice now.

Zhailon Levingston is a Louisiana-raised writer and director. Credits include: “Neptune” at Dixon Place and the Brooklyn Museum; “The Years That Went Wrong” at The Lark and MCC; “The Exonerated” at Columbia Law School; “Chariot part 2” at SoHo Rep for The Movement Theatre Company; and “Mother of Pearl” at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center. He is the associate director for “Primer for a Failed Super Power” with Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin and for “Runaways” at The Public with Sam Pinkleton. Most recently he directed “Chicken and Biscuits” at Queens Theatre. Zhailon is the resident director at “Tina the Tina Turner Musical” on Broadway. @zhailon