In June 2020, Tony-nominated actor Danielle Brooks and her fellow award-winning artists Amber Iman and Jocelyn Bioh launched the Instagram account “Black Women on Broadway,” a platform to celebrate the history of Black women in theater. The trio of women had been working since 2019 to create a community to support Black women in the business, and amid the onset of the pandemic, the virtual route was the only method of connection.
Now, two years later, Brooks, Iman and Bioh are bringing their vision into the real world with their inaugural Black Women on Broadway awards ceremony, hosted on June 6 at the rooftop lounge of the Empire Hotel in New York City, with honorees Lynn Nottage, Qween Jean and Kara Young.
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The trio were in the final stages of planning the event when they assembled over Zoom in late May to recount how they’ve worked to honor the Black women of the Broadway community with the intimate celebration.
“We do need spaces like this. There are so many women that feel a disconnect within this community,” Brooks tells Variety, when asked what they’ve learned while building the organization over the last two years.
“The thing that separates us from other organizations is we’re really tapping into the spaces that get ignored — the lighting departments, sound departments, the understudies, the writers, the producers, the people that are not always in the front of the stage, that aren’t the actors. We’re bringing space for them to be in the room,” she explains. “That’s really great for networking, but also for reminding this industry we are out here. Reminding younger girls that look up to us that there are different positions in this industry that you can aspire to that aren’t just being an actress. To expand our sphere and say, ‘Black women can take on all of it.’”
Iman, who describes herself as “the dreamer” of the group, was the one who had the idea to form a community for Black women in the theater biz.
“I have always just dreamed of creating spaces for Black women to thrive,” Iman recalls. “I’ve been really blessed in my life to work with, commune with, network with some of the most brilliant Black women in the world — two of them being on this call. And these two women, they have always made space for me.”
Iman and Brooks first connected in 2015, over dinner at a Harlem BBQ joint. “Danielle didn’t want anything from me, I didn’t want anything for her,” Iman remembers. “We just wanted to get to know each other. That moved me so much, that she was intentional about making space for us to just get to know each other.” Bioh has also been a constant support system, looking out for Iman and putting her in her shows. So, when Iman decided to formally launch an initiative, she turned to Brooks and Bioh for help building the foundation of what would become Black Women on Broadway.
“It was like magic, the way we came together, the way we feed off each other, the mutual love and respect we all have for each other, the ideas that bounce off of each other,” she says, looking back on their dream of a collaboration.
The trio first made their mark on social media with the Black Women on Broadway account, posting archival photos, videos and information about Black women who blazed a trail into the business. They then hosted Theater Appreciation Day, on June 29, 2020, which featured a keynote conversation between legends Audra McDonald and Lillias White, among other workshops on writing and the art of self-taping, as well as self-care activities like yoga. The virtual event was an opportunity to give Black women the resources they need to thrive and an important bridge to their in-person event.
Beyond celebrating excellence in theater, Iman says, the purpose of the awards ceremony is to create an intentional opportunity for fellowship, much like Brooks did when she invited Iman to dinner. “We only see each other at the audition, at the call back, when we’re running down 8th Avenue trying to get to the train,” she shares. “We never have time to just celebrate ourselves, celebrate each other, our wins, the fact that we survived and we’re still here. This awards ceremony is another way for us all to be in the same room and say, ‘I see you sis, and let’s just love on each other a little bit.’”
According to Brooks, the trio was inspired by annual events like Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood celebration and Alfre Woodard’s Sistahs Soiree. But, with both of those gatherings based in Los Angeles, there wasn’t a similar opportunity for Black women to fellowship in New York City — and there certainly wasn’t an event catered specifically to the Broadway community.
“The thing that excites me about this too, is often when it comes to [these type of events] the Broadway girls don’t get no love,” Brooks explains. “We be coming out the gate, eight shows a week, having babies and being wives, and doing all the things, without the same check or recognition. So, it’s also to remind people that we’re here, and the work that we do should be valued and held space for.”
Brooks is currently in Atlanta filming “The Color Purple”; Iman is in rehearsals for two shows, “Lempicka” at the La Jolla Playhouse and “Goddess,” which is written by Bioh and will make its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre; and Bioh is finishing up a writers room for a brand new show called “Tiny Beautiful Things,” based on the book of the same title. In between jobs, the trio have planned the inaugural event all by themselves.
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” Bioh says of the endeavor. “We were the ones going out raising money for this event. We are in constant communication with the different vendors and picking the place, like the whole thing. When those invitations went out, they were sent out by us.”
As Bioh continues to process the sheer amount of time and dedication it’s taken to pull this event together, she admits, “I don’t know how or why we even did it this way. But we really understand that if you want to do something right, sometimes you do it yourself, and for our first one out of the gate, we wanted to set the precedent for what an event like this could be.”
Ultimately, the trio have wrangled a lineup of sponsors including Morgan Stanley, Mark Gordon Pictures, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, Adrienne Warren, Door 24, Creative Partners Productions, Fourth Wall Theatrical and PGIM.
It’s been a hectic run, but one full of laughter. “My favorite moments are when we’re having Zoom meetings and Danielle is in her trailer in full Sofia [makeup and wardrobe]. I’m in rehearsal. Jocelyn will be in a writers room,” Iman says.
She agrees that the personal touch has been imperative. “Nobody knows Broadway better than us,” Iman observes. “We didn’t want those people who are the foundation of Broadway to be excluded. It’s something really special to say the inaugural one was really from our hands, and our hearts, and our minds.”
Despite Iman’s initial desire for a 200-person ceremony with ice sculptures, the intimate in-person event will feature approximately 75-100 Black women with a 50-50 split between actors and below the line artists. “That way we have a real strong representation of what Broadway actually is,” Iman says.
During the ceremony, three honors will be awarded, all named for pioneering Black women who’ve made Broadway history. Playwright Lynn Nottage will receive the Audra McDonald Legacy Award, while actor Kara Young will be awarded the Florence Mills Rising Star prize. Costume designer Qween Jean will be presented with the Kathy A. Perkins Behind the Curtain award. The effort to put a name to things speaks to one of the pillars of the organization — education.
“I couldn’t name a Black lighting designer before we started this organization. There were so many women who I didn’t know existed in this space,” Iman says. “Kathy Perkins was the first, and one of the few Black women, to design lights on Broadway. I don’t believe you can know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you came from.”
Of naming their legacy prize for McDonald, Brooks calls out the theater legend as a “one-of-a-kind” talent: “She lowkey is the Cicely Tyson of the theater. Can’t nobody touch her. She’s won more Tony’s than anybody ever. And she’s Black and it’s awesome! Because of her, we know we can win.”
And McDonald showing her support for the Black Women on Broadway organization so early on comes as no surprise to Brooks, because that’s who she’s always proven to be.
“She’s so inviting. She’s so willing to lend a hand and show you the way and be there,” Brooks says, sharing a story about McDonald giving advice to to her friend, Tony-nominee Joaquina Kalukango, when she was pregnant during their run of “The Color Purple” on Broadway. “I hit Mrs. Audra up — and I didn’t know her that well — but I said, ’Look, my sister’s bout to have a baby. She’s nervous, she don’t know what to do. Can you just talk to her?’ She let us in her dressing room, talked to us and guided Joaquina through the process.”
“To commune with someone like herself, and to share space with her, it’s an honor. I’m just grateful that she’s down to be a part of this. And it only makes sense that we would name an award after her,” Brooks concludes.
Just as they wanted to name the award for such an icon, it was also important that lesser known trailblazers get their due. “We may not ever see a time where we actually have awards named after the women who trailblazed in theater like this, especially on Broadway,” Bioh notes. “Naming something after Kathy A. Perkins — who’s still lighting shows on Broadway and nominated again for ‘Trouble in Mind’ — or people like Florence Mills, who came onto the scene, and whose life was sadly cut short — we want to make sure that we’re saying their names and acknowledging that they’re never going to be forgotten.”
Each honoree was chosen just as thoughtfully. Nottage was selected for her wide array of work, effectively becoming “the one who has been holding up the lights” in the industry this year. Young was first to come to mind when they looked for someone who has been “hard-working, grinding in the mud, but is finally coming to blossom”: “She is a light; she is a spitfire; she is talented beyond. We couldn’t think of anyone who deserved this award more,” Iman adds. And the behind the curtain award goes to Qween Jean, who is “a force.”
“I don’t know if a lot of people know how amazing Qween Jean is, but they’re about to know,” Iman explains. “Not only is she a fierce costume designer, but an activist. I can’t tell you anything that I went to over the past two years — a march, a rally… Qween Jean is in the front. Sis is in a gown, has a megaphone in her hand and a fan in the other hand, and she is letting people know what to do, where to go and how to be. She represents everything that a Black woman on Broadway should be.”
Bioh chimes in: “And doing that with love too. The most loving person.”
From here, the Black Women on Broadway plan to launch a mentorship program and an upcoming web series of video essays focused on telling the stories of industry trailblazers. The goal is to keep expanding, with all their work aimed at paying it forward to the next generation of young Black women artists aiming to make their mark on the Great White Way.
“We want to continue to keep the engagement flowing but also be able to educate people, to learn and be reinvigorated about this business that they’ve decided to do,” Bioh says.
Mentorship is the other half of the Black Women on Broadway mission, and that concept doesn’t always mean finding a youngster to council. “It can be helping people grow, learn, process and deal, and have a soft space to land when things are really tough. That’s what we’ve been for each other in some way, shape or form” Bioh notes, pointing to her co-founders.
“We know how difficult the struggle has been for each of us, and maybe people only remember whatever our successes are,” she continues. “Very few people ever know the story of how anybody got there. That is the real purpose of mentorship; it’s guiding you through the muck and the mud. We’re really excited to be able to do that.”
For more information on the Black Women on Broadway, follow along on social media.
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