Adding Color To 'The Great White Way' : Code Switch NPR's Michel Martin asks a panel of award-winning playwrights how diverse artists are challenging Broadway's landscape, and whether it matters.

Adding Color To 'The Great White Way'

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Broadway has long been synonymous with the best of American theater. But is what's playing on Broadway telling the story of what America looks and sounds like today? This past Friday, NPR's Michel Martin gathered four critically acclaimed playwrights at The Green Space - a performance venue at New York Public Radio's headquarters. She has this look at the sound and sensibility of today's Broadway.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: One thing is clear - on today's Broadway, revivals are king. Take this year's revival of "A Raisin In The Sun." Fifty five years after Lorraine Hansberry's play first ran on Broadway, it won three Tony awards and became one of the season's must-have tickets.

But a new play based on songs written by the late rapper Tupac Shakur lasted only a few weeks, leading some to wonder whether Broadway is more interested in works by dead black playwrights than living ones of color.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Broadway tends to be more interested in dead playwrights in general.

MARTIN: That's David Henry Hwang. He's the author of more than 50 plays, musicals and scripts for screen adaptations. He's probably best known for the Tony award-winning "M. Butterfly" that ran for two years on Broadway.

Hwang also won notoriety back in 1990 when his complaint that a white actor was cast in a pivotal role as a Eurasian man in "Miss Saigon" set off a bitter debate about so-called race-faced casting. Since then, Hwang says things have changed for both playwrights and performers. Recent Broadway seasons have featured three new plays by African-American women, for example.

But opportunities for many others are still few and far between. Hwang cited numbers from a study of five years' worth of major shows conducted by the Asian-American performers acting coalition.

HWANG: Roughly 80 percent of the roles on Broadway and in these major New York theaters were cast with white actors. And so I think in any industry that would be considered a pretty lousy diversity figure. So therefore we run the risk of theater becoming just - drawing from a talent pool and an audience that's becoming an increasingly smaller percentage of the population.

MARTIN: That desire to create stories and characters that more closely resemble their own lives and the lives of people they know is precisely what made the panelists start writing plays to begin with.

Kristoffer Diaz has had his work featured off-Broadway. In 2011 he won the Obie Award for Best New American Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 for his play "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity."

KRISTOFFER DIAZ: The world that I know is very, very, very mixed. My wife is Philipina, my son is a Philorican, like Bruno Mars.


DIAZ: You know, one of my best friends who comes over to our house for Thanksgiving every year is Israeli. And he comes in the middle of this Puerto Rican Thanksgiving that we have every year. And those are the stories that I know how to tell. And that's the story that I think is a little bit unique.

MARTIN: Lydia Diamond agreed. She's won many awards for her play "Stick Fly," a drama about an upper-middle-class African American family that raises interesting questions about class as well as race. Diamond said the playwrights with diverse backgrounds don't just create roles and opportunities for performers of color, they also attract more diverse audiences.

LYDIA DIAMOND: If I'm going to a play, I want to see myself on the stage. And it's not rocket science that the more you put people who look like other people on stage, the more they will come to the theater.

BRUCE NORRIS: I wish there was vastly more diversity on Broadway, but I don't think there is until it becomes a lot cheaper.

MARTIN: That's playwright Bruce Norris. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony and the Olivier Award for "Clybourne Park," an edgy drama that could be described as a prequel and sequel to "A Raisin In The Sun."

He said that as a straight, white, middle-class man writing plays about people like himself, his desire for more diversity came out of his artistic ambitions, not economic ones. But he said the economic pressures of Broadway cannot be overlooked - that ticket prices have skyrocketed, even as the salaries for actors and writers have stagnated. And that affects everything about the Broadway experience. That was a subject that came up over and over again, especially with budding playwrights who participated via our live Twitter chat around the #nprbroadway.

EMILY CRAYTON: She is studying to become a playwright.

DIAMOND: Oh, be a playwright, be a playwright. I feel like - I'm afraid that we made it sound like...

MARTIN: After the event, Emily Crayton, a student playwright from Harlem, and, like Lydia Diamond, an African-American woman, made a point of stopping Diamond. Crayton said that despite all the frustrations, Crayton and her group of theater-loving friends planned to keep at it.

CRAYTON: Theater is not dead. It's so vital. The conversation - the human conversation is just so necessary. Like, your story is represented. I think it's possible that theater can become more diverse.

MARTIN: Playwright David Henry Hwang also ended the playwright's conversation on an optimistic note saying that diverse audiences will show up wherever they feel welcomed. Afro-Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca reinforced the point when he took the stage to perform his composition "A Las Millas."


MARTIN: The audience - both those in the room and those following via live stream were mesmerized. As one tweet suggested, art is the only language that transcends separateness. Michel Martin, NPR News, New York.

GOODWYN: To take part in the social media conversation on diversity and theater use the hashtag #nprbroadway on Facebook or Twitter. And you can follow Michel on Twitter. She's @nprmichel spelled M-I-C-H-E-L.


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