Only three months ago, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition published a report showing the stunning paucity of casting diversity in New York City theater. Looking at Broadway and 16 Off-Broadway productions, AAPAC found that Caucasian actors filled almost 80 percent of roles for the 2011–2012 season. In the midst of these facts, however, there was a bright spot for African-American performers.
“In the 2006–2007 season, African-Americans filled only 8 percent of roles. In 2012, it was 16 percent of all roles. That is just an indication that in a very short amount of time African-American casting has come leaps and bounds,” said Pun Bandhu, an actor and a member of AAPAC’s steering committee. “African-Americans are much more [culturally] prevalent, and you see [their representation] in the music industry, television, and film.”
A number of recent productions with a focus on African-American characters, such as “Dreamgirls” and “Memphis,” have made the leap from the Great White Way to traveling across the country. “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s opera about the love triangle of Porgy, Bess, and Crown amid the close-knit community on Catfish Row, will be added to this cadre of national tours in the fall.
Director Diane Paulus’ version of “Porgy and Bess” enjoyed a 321–performance run on Broadway last year. The original 1935 production, a four-hour opera, was exclusively cast with African-American singers. Paulus shortened the piece to a two-and-a-half-hour musical that hoped to be more accessible to modern audiences. While the show was met with mixed critical acclaim, it garnered Tony Awards for best revival of a musical and best performance by an actress for Audra McDonald’s portrayal of Bess.
The national tour has retained Phillip Boykin, who played Crown on Broadway and in the original regional run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. In addition, Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran will take on Porgy and Bess. The tour is expected to launch in the fall and has lined up stops in Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Detroit, West Palm Beach, and Des Moines, among others.
As “Porgy and Bess” works its way around the country, it will introduce a variety of audiences to its tale of life for 1930s black Americans. Bandhu pointed out that many productions prominently featuring African-American storylines and actors, such as “Motown,” are offering crossover appeal to a diverse crowd.
“The challenge for us as theater makers is to try and find ways to make our stories universal,” said Bandhu about the representation of diversity in the theater world. “I think what is beginning to happen is, as our society becomes increasingly more diverse, the younger generation has grown up being used to diversity and seeing diversity.”
Bandhu, however, cautioned that while African-American roles have increased, other minorities still fill relatively few roles in the entertainment industry. He added, “I think it is fantastic that there are so many African-American stories, but we should remember that six years ago it was a very different story. This is a recent phenomena, and it hasn’t happened for all minorities.”