Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) creatives are finding new stage opportunities in this woke era, especially in spaces where diversity, equity, inclusion pledges become practice.
Witness Broadway in New York, where scores of Black shows have opened since last fall. Many of their creators and stars were honored at the Tonys. The question is whether this is the new normal or a blip.
Last spring’s Great Plains Theatre Commons (GPTC) New Play Conference in Omaha continued a trend as nearly half of its featured guests were BIPOC artists. Staged readings of works by and about African Americans and Korean Americans featured ethnically appropriate casts, meaning opportunities for dozens of actors of color.
Omaha natives Q. Smith, Kevyn Morrow and Merle Dandridge are veteran Broadway actors still doing their thing. Regional theater vet John Beasley expects to make his Broadway debut in the musical adaptation of “The Notebook,” which just ended a world-premiere preview run at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Andre McGraw and Kelcey Watson, who got their starts at the John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, are following his footsteps as regional theater performers.
A new Omaha cohort is breaking big. Roni Shelley Perez appeared in off-Broadway’s first all-Asian cast show. Yolonda Ross hopes her work in a New York reading of an all-female version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” is her entree to Broadway.
Wai Yim and Don Nguyen are forging directing-playwriting careers in Chicago and New York, respectively. Playwright Noah Diaz’s “You Will Get Sick” is at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. His “The Guadalupes” got a GPTC reading last spring. Gospel playwright Llana Smith is produced regionally.
Since the Denver world premiere of her “In the Upper Room,” playwright Beaufield Berry has netted a commission to write the book of a Broadway musical biopic of Josephine Baker. Her “Buffalo Women” got a staged reading in Des Moines and is slated for Omaha and Kansas City productions. “Upper Room” will have a full Omaha production as well.
In 2021 The Broadway League hired Gennean Scott as its first director of equity, diversity and inclusion. Nik Whitcomb became program director of the Black Theatre Coalition in New York.
“We’re showing out right now,” actress-director TammyRa’ said of Omaha BIPOC talents, including her daughter Nadia Ra’Shaun Williams, who’s earned parts in two consecutive national Broadway touring companies. It may not be long before TammyRa’ joins her in New York. “Andre (McGraw) and John (Beasley) call me and be like, ‘Why are you still in Omaha? What are you waiting for? It’s time to go.’”
Actress-director Kathy Tyree said this synergy of trending stage and screen (Gabriele Union, Amber Ruffin) talent inspires. “Those artists have been committed and dedicated to their craft. It’s good for up-and-coming artists to look at them and realize that can be me, too, if I put in the work and stay dedicated.”
The talent’s always been here, TammyRa’ said, “but more folks are just moving forward in following their dreams.” She appreciates having Smith and Scott as surrogate aunt and mother, respectively, “looking after my baby in New York. That’s the kind of community we have. We family like that.”
Locally, historic representation is evident at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP), for which Tyree became its first Black manager in 2021 as director of inclusion and community engagement. Tyree’s also helmed “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “The Color Purple” and “Respect” there. She’s directing OCP’s upcoming production of “Dreamgirls.”
She’s since been joined by two more Black managers, marketing director Dara Hogan and associate artistic director Brady Patsy, who’s directing August Wilson’s “Fences” early next year.
Nebraska Shakespeare disrupted its much-maligned homogeny by hiring Tyrone Beasley as artistic director with a mandate to diversify cast-crew-staff ranks. His hip-hop “Romeo and Juliet” and diverse casting of “The Tempest” and “Othello” signaled change.
Opera Omaha, which hosts the Amplifying the Black Experience series, is a producing partner of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” which it staged at the Orpheum Theater Nov. 4 and 6.
Omaha Performing Arts is a DEI leader with its Voices Amplified series, whose 2021-2022 June finale, “Omaha’s Forgotten Century,” enlisted Tyree, playwright Peggy Jones, muralist Hugo Zamorano and Omaha native and New York based-choreographer Ray Mercer for a North Omaha-South Omaha history revue. The 2022-23 series celebrates Latino culture.
“More and more opportunities are opening up for Black and brown artists,” Tyree said. “It’s beautiful.”
“I don’t know they’ve had the opportunity to be able to shine (until now),” said playwright-director Denise Chapman, producing artistic director for theater at The Union for Contemporary Art. “The talent’s always been here. It’s just that people weren’t paying attention.” The Union is building a larger, black-box space, the Shirley Tyree Theater, to open fall 2023. “It’s important to the theater landscape for the work to be a healthy representation of the community. It’s about us doing the work and making sure other folks have the opportunity to also do the work.”
Omaha playwrights-composers Justin Payne and Eric Lawson are developing stage works at the Union under Chapman’s guidance. Payne and Dani Cleveland’s “Heaven Come Home” was read at UNO.
The Union and GPTC are catalysts for artists to broaden their work. Tyree credits each with “supporting me early on in my directing career,” adding, “They said, ‘C’mon, we’ve got you, you can do this.’” TammyRa’s following a similar path. She’s directing “Goose” on Nov. 18-20 at Yates Illuminates and is assistant director for “Fences” at OCP.
“I’ve been doing this 40-plus years,” Tyree said, “and these opportunities are new and fresh in our community.”
“It’s expanding,” TammyRa’ said.
Talent is emerging. “Over 50 people auditioned for ‘Dreamgirls’ and more than half I had never met before,” said Tyree. “Not only was there a good showing, these people were sincerely talented and gifted. Some amazing talent is hitting these stages.”
GPTC’s annual spring conference convenes artists to develop plays and center conversations on pressing issues. Its year-round programs offer safe spaces for diverse artists to discuss and nurture craft. Playwright Kim Louise, whose “Moneychangers” recently got a reading, was a fellow in its two-year Commoners residency. Said Louise, “It has enriched my writing life. The networking is amazing. I’ve made connections with people I would never, ever have met otherwise. I’ve discovered this whole cadre of people I knew nothing about and now they’re busy, getting work, being paid as they’re becoming more visible.”
Louise goes back to GPTC’s 2006 start. From then till now, she said, “It resonates with more cultural diversity and is more representative of the people actually writing plays.” The result, she said, is “theater that more authentically mirrors the nation and represents America in all of its flavors, colors in a way that I think is meaningful.”
GPTC leans into TammyRa’ as a Community Connector. “They ask me what can we do differently or better. It’s a wonderful feeling to be included and to be asked questions. They’re very open to suggestions and ideas. I love that.”
While artists are sure of the diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) commitment of Great Plains, the Playhouse, Omaha Performing Arts and The Union take a wait-and-see attitude about Broadway. Omaha’s own Gennean Scott is tasked with holding producers accountable.
Despite gains, Tyree and Co. said efforts to make theater more equitable involve heavy lifting and nuance in the face of continued pushback or inertia.
“What puzzles me is the consistent opposition to it that surfaces,” Tyree said. “It’s just a reminder that, yeah, we are no way close to there yet. We’ve made some wonderful strides. A lot of good work has been done. A lot of good intention. We need more work to measure up to that intention. I keep reminding myself institutional racism and racist practices have been in place for hundreds of years. It’s not going to change overnight. It’s up to those of us that have taken up the charge to continue doing this work and having these uncomfortable conversations, unapologetically. It’s by no means fun work, but it is very meaningful and necessary work.”
She sees enough progress to be guardedly hopeful. “I can attest to the fruits of that labor I’ve seen the past year with more and more BIPOC artists getting opportunities,” she said. “Not just on the stage but off-stage.”
As doors open for established artists like herself, Tyree feels called to advocate. “One of the keys to all of this is to uplift and pour into each other,” she said. “With every opportunity gifted to me, I have a responsibility to gift others. That’s how we continue to develop and grow fresh, new talent.”
“We have built this community now where the support system is strong among actors, writers, directors,” said TammyRa’.
Strength in numbers can open doors.
“Just the connections alone you make are a huge gift. You get connected to artists from other parts of the country. It’s a pathway into the theater world,” said Tyree, who parlayed those relationships into an audition with a regional theater company that resulted in her earning her first regional theater role.
Besides getting your name and voice known in theater circles, networking provides a community of like-minded artists and potential collaborators.
“We look out for each other,” TammyRa’ said. “We welcome new people in. We don’t want to hold anybody back. We reach out, work together, share ideas. It’s like, Hey, I’ve got a play, I need a director and some actors. If nobody wants to give us work we’re going to create our own. We won’t be limited.”
She and Tyree have their own production companies.