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Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in American Musical Theatre


The theater is one of the most significant social factors contributing to shaping the modern era as well as the media. It is essential to note that cultural products relate directly to existing patterns and prejudices in society. For example, the advantage of white representatives on the stage serves as an indicator that can determine how usual stereotypes develop and become entrenched in community consciousness. Notably, racial factors have occupied a special place in the cultural world since the early days of American theater.

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Minority images were and still are linked to political, social, and economic factors. Audience expectations about a particular race, class, or ethnic community compel people of color to intentionally align their behavior. Thus, minorities are given roles imposed on them by prejudice or are not allowed to showcase their talents on stage. Blacks, Native Americans, and people of color are denied equal access to the creative industries because of stereotypes, unlike whites, whose representation rate is much higher.

The Origins of Theater Productions and Roles Stereotyping

Black stage traditions originated in the slave quarters of America and reflected their values. The first productions and performers were predominantly engaged in parodies of the wealthy white classes who exploited their labor. Improvisation was a characteristic element of the art, from the musical instruments used to the motifs of dramatic and comic subjects (Barrie 37). Despite the complex social tensions, the playing level was so accomplished that it quickly attracted attention and a wide audience, despite the borders. However, the situation changed dramatically, and the white population, unaware of the irony, usurped and copied elements of the work, passing it off as their own.

Black people were assigned other roles, relating them exclusively to negative characters in grotesques or objects of ridicule in comedies. The productions were true caricatures of minority life, which were the first reasons for perpetuating the prejudices that still exist today (Goodwater et al. 15). They created a tradition of associating black people with wide-smiling, dancing, singing, and awkwardly moving unresponsive characters. Yet despite this, the performance of such roles was the only opportunity for representatives of color to appear on the stage.

As a result of the social constructs and attitudes embedded in early social discourse, inhibitions and restrictions emerged that appeared in the way of black self-expression. The racism and cultural “fallout” that the features of early artistic productions left behind are still pervasive and determine when and in what manner representatives of color can appear on stage (Le’mil 202). It is also significant to note that the fact that white people, for the most part, adapt features of ancient black culture without indicating authorship goes unnoticed. At the same time, BIPOCs are forced to conform to stereotypical roles and societal expectations or not participate in the theater (Day 342). Even contemporary actors, who already have a wealth of stage experience and have earned many awards, continue to experience the same problems, among which flawed portrayals are the most prominent.

The prejudices imposed are a vivid expression of the desire to maintain the majority’s political, economic, and social control and to transpose false theories into a form of comic theater that demeans people of color (Snyder-Young and Flassen 46). Minority representation and the opportunity to participate in creative processes are factors in the quality of representation. However, an analysis of the experience of the theater industry indicates that BIPOCs have never had a strong voice; their roles are limited to a clear list, resulting in a significantly lower proportion of actors on stage than the white population.

Statistical Data of Inequality

A report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) states that white actors, writers, and producers are still the vast majority in New York City theater. The report’s authors argue that the findings indicate that there are still underlying roots of racism in the theater. Although, the report indicates that in the 2017-2018 season, about 80 percent of Broadway and off-Broadway productions were written by white playwrights (Evans). This is an upgrade from last year’s study, which found that nearly 87 percent of all shows were written by white authors.

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Whites on stage represented 61.5% of all positions in New York City. While majority group representation improved from the previous year, the proportion of racial minorities in roles declined from 7.3 percent in the 2016-2017 season to 6.9 percent in the 2018 report. This research gathers figures from 41 Broadway theaters and 18 of the largest non-profit firms in the city (Evans). In 2017, AAPAC found that in general, non-profit corporations reimburse white actors $1.70 for a single dollar spent on BIPOC actors. At the same time, a recent survey analyzing racial disparities in arts financing in New York City has been conducted. Accordingly, based on its results, it can be found that public and private contributions to the 18 largest white non-profit theater groups account for 92% of total funding. Thus, even the funding casts doubt on claims that theaters are struggling with racial discrimination. A study led by The Visibility Report describes racial disparities in the 2018-2019 theater season (Carter 102). This particular season is chosen because it is the last complete season to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It identifies that theater production companies in minority populations are ‘significantly underfunded’ versus major theater companies headed by whites. The examination found that primarily white facilities got about $150 million in total funding, while theaters of color received about $12.5 million (Patinka 165). In contrast, funding at the municipal stage was considered more equitable. However, it was found that private investors conducted the most inequitable finances for theaters. Thus, organizations of color only got $7.5 million in private funding, while the mostly white agencies obtained $132.7 million. (Hopkins 131). In turn, on Broadway, 93.6% of season producers and all managers were also white.

Significantly, Broadway changed its casting rules to raise the number of black actors from 12 percent to 28.4 percent of all roles. Although, despite this, white actors occupied 65.9%, or almost two-thirds of the proposed roles, in 2019 (Hoffman 98). One other reason for inequality in theater is that white actors are always found in the center of the stage, and audiences focus on them. The survey estimates that for every $1 spent by non-profits on white actors, only 0.71 cents was expended on BIPOC performers.


Thus, it is significant to mention that while white actors remained ‘prevalent,’ based on the population in the New York City urban space, BIPOC actor representation was up 6% in non-profit theaters and reached 54.5% of all roles, which is a record high. Significantly, black actors, according to the report, were the only group whose on-stage representation improved from 23.2% to 29% in the 2018-2019 season. Thus, while it is a positive sign that the industry is giving more attention to black representation in the last season than in previous years, it is also disturbing that all other BIPOC figures have dropped. Consequently, it still seems that the theater industry cannot hold more than one aspect of diversity at a time, especially if the inclusion of black actors and stage workers will diminish the role of white actors. Therefore, it should be mentioned that there is still discrimination to this day, but there are positive trends toward change.

Works Cited

Barrie, Eva. ‘Words have Weight (unless you’ve never had to carry that weight): The White Lens in Theatre.’ Canadian Theatre Review, no. 186, 2021, pp. 35-38.

Carter, Tim. Oklahoma!: The Making of An American Musical. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Day, Monique. ‘Colour-blind Casting in Twenty-First Century British Theatre: Colourism, Racism, and the Representation of Black People on Stage.’ Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 31, no. 3, 2021, pp.340-347.

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Evans, Greg. ‘New York Theater Remains Overwhelmingly White, Marginalized Communities ‘Vastly Underfunded’, Study Finds’. Deadline, Web.

Goodwater, Leanna, et al. ‘Drama Online Revisited.’ The Charleston Advisor, vol. 22, no. 4, 2021, pp. 12-17.

Hoffman, Warren. The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical. Rutgers University Press, 2020.

Hopkins, Kristin Bria. ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business: Abandoning Color-Blind Casting and Embracing Color-Conscious Casting in American Theatre.’ Harv. J. Sports & Ent, vol. 9, 2018, pp. 131.

Le’mil, L. ‘Sistuhs in the Struggle: An Oral History of the Black Arts Movement Theatre and Performance by La Donna L. Forsgren.’ Theatre Topics, vol.31, no. 2, 2021, pp. 202-203.

Patinka, Paul M. ‘Representations in Vocal Repertoire.’ Journal of Singing, vol. 78, no. 2, 2021, pp. 161-170.

Snyder-Young, Dani, and Maren Flassen. ‘Community-based Performances of Harmonious Diversity: Happy talk and utopian performativity in Playback Theatre.’ Applied Theatre Research, vol. 9, no.1, 2021, pp. 39-53.

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