When the list of this year’s Tony Award nominees was announced last month, it sounded like the complete opposite of the Oscars. Many of the actors up for awards were people of color. Cast members from The Color Purple, Eclipsed, and Shuffle Along scored multiple nominations, along with the history-making musical Hamilton. Some of the plays are new, while others like Shuffle Along and The Color Purple had broken racial barriers in the past.
But there is a long history that precedes a moment like this, one that often excluded people of color from prominent roles on stage and backstage. And many black actors are still struggling to get attention. That neglect prompted Andrew Shade to launch BroadwayBlack.com, an online community celebrating the work of black theater performers who have been an integral part of American theater going back to the days of vaudeville.
The genesis of the site in 2010 occurred not as an attempt to challenge Broadway, but simply as a side project for Slade, who was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, far from the bright lights of Broadway. "Broadway Black is really, in essence, it is myself," said Shade in a phone conversation. "It is what I think of myself. It is what I think the black performer should be in the theater world." Even if writing was not his initial calling, Shade realized that he had to be the one to set his plans in motion.
In 2013, Shade went to New York to pursue theater and tried to continue with the site, but ended up taking a hiatus a year later. During that break he was flooded with emails and people asking him what had happened, and he quickly learned that his audience was much bigger than he had estimated.
"When I met [the actress] Brandy on the street, I just talked to her and I said, ‘Hey, I run this site called Broadway Black,’ Shade said. "And she said, ‘Broadway Black? That’s the first website I went to when I was new to Broadway. We have to do something together.’"
Rebooting the site was something he could not undertake by himself, and two contributing writers, April Reign and Alicia Samuel, joined forces with him to build it into its current incarnation. The site was mostly promoted through word of mouth when Shade arrived in New York, and now many people in theater circles know Shade by face.
"People come to our site because they are interested in their favorite actor or actress, and they may not even be a theater buff," said managing editor Reign, who is also the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. "But they want to know about Brandy being in Chicago, or Denzel Washington directing Viola Davis. And then we have those people who are theater geeks and want to know all of the backstage information and see how Taye Diggs transformed to become Hedwig every night." The site hasn’t had much trouble finding its audience—last year alone, it doubled its social media followers almost effortlessly.
By its very nature, the site challenges the lack of inclusivity on Broadway and is not afraid to lend itself to this cause. When theater actor Kyle Jean-Baptiste, the youngest and only black person to ever star in Les Miserables, died, the site wanted to have the lights on Broadway dimmed with a Twitter hashtag: #dim4kyle. "We saw the outpouring after he died of hundreds and thousands of people all over the world," Reign said. "Some of whom had not even seen Les Miz, or seen him in Les Miz. But his story resonated so strongly with so many, and that’s why we thought that having all of the theater lights dimmed would be a good idea." This had never been done in the history of Broadway, and even though the effort wasn’t successful, they knew it was important to challenge the longstanding tradition.
Authenticity and not being afraid to use its bully pulpit is what makes the site resonate with its audience. "We have to be very aware of what’s happening in the world," said Shade. "Because we can’t be all happy-go-lucky about a revival of The Wiz when there’s another police brutality shooting. Or another unarmed black man shot down in the street. We have to be very aware of our audience." The willingness to do more than just cover the industry but also support its underrepresented audience makes it feel like more than just a brand.
When the Tony Awards take place on June 12, Shade and the Broadway Black team will be ready to document the historic moment. Many of the actors up for awards have been featured on the site, which told their stories when many other media outlets overlooked them.