History was made during the 70th annual Tony Awards which aired Sunday night and much of it was thanks to a popular musical about America’s history.
For the first time ever, four musical acting awards were won by black actors.
Hamilton — the rap-infused story of the scrappy founding father who shaped our views of the American economy — had already earned a historic 16 nominations.
On Sunday, the musical won 11 awards, three of which went to black actors — Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr).
Add Cynthia Erivo, lead actress for The Color Purple, to the mix for a total of four musical acting awards claimed by people of color.
It was a stark contrast to the Oscars which had been criticized for its lack of recognition of black actors. In the last nine years, only three black actors have won Oscars from the Academy Awards.
“Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity,” said host James Corden in his opening monologue.
It was a big moment which members of the Broadway community hope will prove more than just a moment.
“As part of the Broadway community, I feel excited about the diversity, not just cultural and racial, but diversity in approach to the subject matter and the different types of stories being told,” said Kenny Leon, founder of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company.
Leon, who is currently working on bringing the musical Hairspray to television for NBC, noted that about a half-dozen black actors currently performing in Broadway shows cut their theater teeth right here in Atlanta.
“Hopefully, we can build on this moment and have it be a reality every day and every year,” he said.
Diversity should be present in regional theater as well, he said, to make sure there is a pipeline for directors and actors of color to make it to Broadway. It is also important that people of color with means see Broadway productions as a winning investment, said Leon.
Others in the local theater community agree that while celebrating the Tony’s is great, there is still work to be done.
“There is work to do, but there is progress and it is top of mind for a lot of leaders here,” said Freddie Ashley, artistic director of Actor’s Express in West Midtown.
“If you ask some people, the progress has been too slow in coming and I would sense they are right, so we have to see it moving forward to insure issues of equity, diversity and inclusion are front-runner priorities for all theater companies,” Ashley said.
But of course, the sweep of black actors and Hamilton at the Tony’s helps bolster that conversation.
Broadway (and Hollywood) rely on commercial success. So to keep the momentum going, it is important to talk about these issues during the high times, said Leon.
“We can’t talk about those things when there isn’t diversity, we have to talk about it when there is,” he said. “I keep speaking out as loudly as I can with others to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this next year. What shows do we have coming in next year?’ This is a good representation this year of what it could be.”