Playwrights Who Paved the Way

Poster from original production of West Side Story. New York: Artcraft, 1958. Artcraft Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division

Poster from original production of West Side Story. New York: Artcraft, 1958. Artcraft Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division

With award season well on its way (the Golden Globes aired January 7th and the Tony's will finish up on June 10th, 2018), we remember that the arts are not as inclusive as we'd like to believe. Broadway is typically more intentional about representation than Hollywood, and yet last year's Tony Awards were given almost entirely to white artists, a large step back from the previous year with 11 Tony's just to the cast of Hamilton. While we're still waiting to hear the nominations for 2018, lets take a look at the playwrights who paved the way*.

  • The first Native American play on Broadway was Green Grow the Lilacs in 1931 written by Lynn Riggs. While it only stayed open for three months, it became the basis for a popular musical in 1943, known as Oklahoma!. 
  • The first African-American play to debut on Broadway, Louis Peterson's 1953 play Take a Giant Step, was one of only two dramas written by and about African Americans to appear on Broadway in the 1950s. 
  • In 1957, West Side Story was the first show in Broadway history to reflect the Latino community. 
  • A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959, became the first play written by a black woman to ever be produced on Broadway. 
  • The most commercially successful Asian-American play was David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, which became the first Asian-American play to be produced on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988. 

These were groundbreaking ventures and changed the face of Broadway forever. Since Peterson first debuted Take a Giant Step, black artists have permeated a community from which they were previously excluded. Latino musicals have been given new life, thanks to Puerto-Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda's hits, In The Heights and Hamilton, which is especially encouraging considering the first production of Evita in 1979 was notoriously lacking representation in the cast, and while there is a larger representation of Asian Americans on Broadway, "larger" only means in comparison to shows earlier than the 2000s. The King and I, Miss Saigon, and South Pacific frequently cast white actors in the role of Asian characters. Hero (2011) and Allegiance (2015) are the only musicals in recent years to even have writers of Asian descent. At the bottom of the diversity list, Aladdin, a recent Disney musical, features no actors of Middle Eastern descent. Disney has been applauded for casting The Lion King with African immigrants, so its surprising to see the lack of effort in with Aladdin. Finally, Distant Thunder, a musical by Blackfeet Nation citizen Shaun Taylor-Corbett, premiered in Greenwich Village and is looking to be the first show by and for Indigenous people in many, many years. 

This list is equal parts encouraging and discouraging. Though it is by no means exhaustive and pertains to Broadway exclusively, we've seen growth for some PoC, and the fading of others. It is on us, those of us who currently have a voice, to step back and allow others to speak. 


*While there are certainly artists of color making history and changing the narrative around the country, their work tends to not receive national attention outside of Broadway.