After fifteen years on Broadway, “Wicked” has set out to make a change. Britney Johnson (Glinda Understudy) was recently cast as the first black Glinda in a Broadway production of “Wicked,” making history for the world-famous musical. Despite the fact that the musical has had many people of color playing principal roles like Elphaba, Madame Morrible, Fiyero and Nessarose, the role of the Good Witch of the North has traditionally been held by a white actress. The beloved story took on an entirely different meaning with Johnson as the sparkly, ditzy and “popular” character, allowing the audience to see new rays of light in the story that previously went unnoticed.
With Glinda as a person of color, there is a level of empathy between green girl Elphaba and the good witch that creates a greater semblance of similarity between the characters’ journeys. The musical follows themes of love, connection and kindness, preaching the message that strong female friendships are able to withstand divisions, animosity and feelings of otherness. Additionally, the span of Glinda’s character arc is greatly widened when we see her through this new lens, allowing her growth as a character to resonate more soundly with the audience. The audience certainly resonated with the newfound complexity of the character, with videos circulating on the internet showing audience members roaring with applause during Johnson’s first scene on stage where Glinda utters the perfectly fitting opening line: “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” This reaction was born of excitement because Johnson made history as she floated down from the blue skies of Oz in her glittery bubble, but from something deeper as well. The seeds for change and for a more diverse Broadway were planted on that celebrated Gershwin stage this past weekend. Now those seeds must be nurtured by audiences, privileged actors, minority actors and creators alike to help them to grow.
While musicals like “Hamilton” and “On Your Feet” created many roles for Latinx, Black and minority actors, it is still very rare to see minorities cast in traditionally white held roles on Broadway. Musical theatre seems to be on the trajectory towards a more inclusive reality and progress is being made on major stages, but it is by no means equal in any sense of the word. According to an Asian American Performers Action Coalition Ethnic Representation in New York Stages Report, in the 2015-2016 season 23 percent of Broadway roles were held by Black actors, 7 percent by Latinx actors, 4 percent by Asian American actors and all other minorities held 2 percent of roles. These statistics prove that while progress has been made in terms of more representation on the Broadway stage, there is still much to be done. The same report states 15.4 percent of all available roles were non-traditionally cast, a spike up from previous years but still a low figure. Every day, when minorities are cast into traditional, previously white cast roles, we take one step closer to finding a semblance of equality. But in order to continue this progress, all theatres, casting directors and producers need to be cognizant of the changes that are required to bring momentous stories like Johnson’s further away from anomaly and closer to the norm.
Many recent Broadway shows are working tirelessly on improving representation, which was seen in 2016 through the casting of African actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in the stage adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Upon the casting announcement, many longtime Harry Potter fans expressed their disapproval of the decision. However, J. K. Rowling (author of the novel and play) made a statement on Twitter almost immediately, saying she never specified skin tone in her writing and “loves black Hermione.” Changing Hermione’s face for the stage adaptation provided a much-needed layer of diversity to the whitewashed world presented in the “Harry Potter” films and adds a fascinating perspective that was previously not present in the story.
Storytelling on the Broadway stage is evolving. However, we cannot simply call it quits and feel satisfied with the work put in to increase representation when we make marginal improvements. There is still work to be done. There are still widespread discrepancies in opportunities. When one Black Glinda breaks through the formerly padlocked door, we must honor her commitment, talent and perseverance. We must help hold the door open so that more minority actors can have the opportunity to hold non-traditional roles on commercial stages. We must help hold the door open so that the statistics can be raised to a more equal standard.
Changing the narrative and the perspective of commonly known, traditional stories by way of increasing theatrical representation provides musicals and plays with the ability to transform beautifully without altering the script or scenario at all. Not only should we be casting minorities in non-traditional roles to increase representation, we should be giving minorities these opportunities because it makes the stories more beautiful, intricate and colorful. Providing depth to these roles and color to these characters transforms stories into a wider, more complete and more inclusive dimension. These actors are the beginning of a new Broadway: one where color is celebrated, triumphed and most of all, the standard.