By Clarence Haynes
The latest installment of the Tony Awards illustrated the diversity of shows currently making a home on Broadway, with the crop of new theatrical pieces and revivals encompassing an array of forms and themes, some traditional, some new. The big musical winner of the evening was Memphis, which garnered four trophies, including Best Musical. The story of a relationship between a black female singer and a white DJ during the 1950s potentially exemplifies the stylistic fusions that may await theater.
It’s been a season that has featured several shows that speak to the experiences found within the African Diaspora, including Fela!, Ragtime, Race, Superior Donuts and August Wilson’s Fences, which received multiple awards as well. Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, the play features a sanitation worker played by Denzel Washington who grapples with the ghost of his thwarted major league baseball dreams. Washington won his first Tony award for the production, and Viola Davis won her second Tony for leading actress in a play.
A deeply moved, radiant Davis attributed her success to the Divine. And when Fences won for Best Revival of a Play, producer and accepter of the award Carol Shorenstein Hays appeared so overwhelmed and speechless that music came on to keep the show moving.
Fela!, about Afro-beat creator and Nigerian political activist Fela Kuti (and which got big name big-ups from Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who came on as producers), received an award for choreography by legendary Bill T. Jones, who is also the production’s director. “May Broadway continue to be strong…. Everybody say ‘Yeah, Yeah,'” Jones proclaimed at the end of his acceptance speech, recounting one of Fela!‘s call-and-response slogans.
Indeed, may Broadway continue to get the message that diversifying its production roster is essential to it remaining strong and relevant. Still, the telecast had as much to say about sexuality as it did about race. Sean Hayes, an affable and humorous host, made out with Kristen Chenoweth onstage as a dig on the controversy generated by a columnist on him playing a straight character in Promises, Promises. Mark Sanchez, a football player from the Jets, introduced one of the show’s performances, admitting that he’s come to enjoy Broadway shows despite being heckled by his teammates.
And then there was the La Cage aux Folles revival from London’s Chocolate City facility. Douglas Hodge in drag performed and entered the audience in drag, flirting with Matthew Morrison and Will Smith, and then won later on for lead actor in a musical. La Cage also took home the prize for best musical revival.
Broadway has long been a haven for projects that honor same sex love and more transgressive ideas around gender, and seems to be on the road to embracing projects that have a punk rock/alt feel. Rent is the grand forerunner of the trend, with more recent entries stirring the pot like Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, American Idiot and even Fela! for that matter, which is as much of a traditional show as it is an on-stage Afro-Beat sonic kaleidoscope meant to make us sway.
Green Day’s Bille Joe Armstrong (who was also part of a rocking opener that electrified) openly mocked the pomp and circumstance speech he was given to introduce his own musical, and it seems like this approach might feel more true to a wave of viewers who understand that all isn’t as it often seems under the big smiles and open arms of old school Broadway.