By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Broadway producer Brian Moreland firmly believes that Black people saved Broadway. He explains that back in the twenties and thirties, “Off Broadway was where every Black performer was pushed, or forced off to. That’s where Black people were performing primarily.” As the economy tends to do, it had a big impact on changing social dynamics, which included the opportunities of Black performers. Moreland explains, “The stock market took a big dive and White people weren’t going to the theater and shows weren’t doing well and White producers went on downtown and they got all those Black people and they brought them uptown.”
Currently Moreland is gearing up to get the Taye Diggs (All American, Private Practice) directed Thoughts of A Colored Man on Broadway. Still in the development and funding stages, it is a play about Black men pushing the boundaries of racial and cultural identity. Moreland’s The Lifespan of a Fact is on Broadway right now. Described by the Southern California born and raised producer as, “A comedy about how far one can stretch the truth before it is no longer a fact,” it is directed by Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Fences, The Wiz Live), and stars Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, Tony Winner Cherry Jones (The Handmaid’s Tale, American Crime), and Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Boardwalk Empire).
One of only five Black producers on Broadway at the moment, Moreland attributes the small number to a few possibilities. From a logistical standpoint he says that just the scarcity of venues limits opportunities. “There are only forty-one theaters on Broadway, so there’s a real estate issue and you have long running shows like Phantom of the Opera. It’s been there for 30 years.” There are issues more under the control of the theater-going public and aspiring investors of all races where if tackled, can make a difference. For one thing, Moreland thinks people could start being more comfortable seeing theater as viable investment opportunities. “People invest in cars, they invest in property, they invest in works of art, but they can also invest in Broadway. Just like you invest in a film, you can invest in Broadway.” Of course, this includes theater being made by people of color.
He further believes that a strategic level of collaboration between those under-represented in theater would also be helpful. He says,“You start to target hopefully, and invite other African- American people, other Indian people, other Muslim people into the fold and say, ‘This is an investing opportunity. You can help change this narrative. We just have to fund it.”
Audiences too, can do their part by making a conscious commitment to going to the theater regularly each year. Though it might seem like an expensive proposition, Moreland believes just one or two trips to the theater by each Black family per year would be sufficient to persuade the powers-that-be to put on more diverse shows on Broadway. In addition he goes on, “Yes, buy a ticket to see shows with people of color in them but I would also encourage people to just buy a ticket to theater in general. We have to attend other shows in order to effect change. We can’t only attend shows that have Denzel Washington in them.”
Moreland, whose first job was at Disneyland, fell in love with theater as a child. Originally an actor, he came to producing partly for philosophical reasons. “I come from a performing background. It was once said to me that every actor should be a director, every dancer a choreographer, every director a producer. The learning never stops. For me, producing is an opportunity to open the door for new narratives and perspectives. And I like being able to support the creation of something from nothing!”
Moreland’s love of theater and admiration for theater performers is palpable. He discusses people like Audra McDonald, Diahann Carroll, Debbie Allen, Vivian Reed and Phylicia Rashad, all of whom he considers icons who have never fully gotten their due. Of Allen and Rashad, his voice betrays his dismay at how little attention relative to their talent and accomplishments they have received. “People don’t realize about Debbie. She started as a chorus girl. She went from the chorus to a singer, to an actress, to the choreographer, to a director. She’s the only one that has done that! Phylicia Rashad is another director people should be watching. She’s not directing on Broadway yet and that’s a shame.”