Most nine year-olds don’t get the chance to meet celebrities, nonetheless perform with them. Then again, Jenny Mollet isn’t like most children. Six years older and wiser, the 15 year-old thespian looks back on her Broadway debut, when she sung side-by-side with Fantasia Barrino and LaChanze in The Color Purple musical.
“Now that I’m older, I definitely understand the story better and the true meaning,” said Mollet.
From 2007 to 2008, she played the role of young Celie during the final year of the show. At a very young age, she has had an opportunity that many of her Black adult peers have likely yet to experience by working with an all Black star-studded Broadway cast.
Although she insists that The Color Purple cast was “just like any other regular cast,” Mollet admits that there was an “African American atmosphere.”
Shows featuring all Black casts and leads certainly stand out when stacked up against a majority of the shows on Broadway—if only for the clear disparity in numbers of Black actors and actresses on the stage. Yet, when grouped together, the number of shows with predominantly Black cast and leads seems to have exploded over the past two years.
From revolutionary African icons like Fela! to re-interpreted classics like A Streetcar Named Desire, Broadway has recently experienced a multitudinous influx of shows centered on the Black experience. All Black casts have been leading the pack, in terms of this year’s must see plays and musicals, including Memphis, Stick Fly, .
Both silver screen celebrities and seasoned thespians have taken to the stage in droves, attracting a revived Black audience to the theater. In addition to big names, like Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, and Denzel Washington, shows have turned to an “aggressive” diversity strategy for marketing to African-American consumers, reports The New York Times.
Not only do these shows draw in interest from viewers, but they also shine a beacon of light for burgeoning thespians like Mollet. Break-out star and newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays Oda Mae in this season’s Ghost the Musical. A performance by an all Black classical vocal group left an unforgettable impression on Randolph as a high school student. “It blew my mind,” Randolph said in an interview.
Five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, who is currently headlining Broadway’s Porgy and Bess and also one of Mollet’s idols (“her voice, oh my God!”,) recalled having stumbled upon her calling as a young Black girl. “I was a little a girl with a potbelly and afro puffs, hyperactive and over-dramatic. And I found the theater and I found my home,” McDonald said during her 2012 Tony acceptance speech. “To think that the theater would be so good to me is mind-blowing.”
However, the recent resurgence in predominantly Black shows might not necessarily make for more accessible roles for actors and actress of color throughout the industry. As adults, those Black actors who can successfully say they have made it, like Memphis star and Drama Desk Award winner actress Montego Glover, understand the importance of remaining steadfast when faced with rejection.
“I've had so many young African-Americans write me or tell me at the stage door how much they enjoyed, appreciated, were moved by my work, and how much they desire to do the work I'm doing right now,” said Glover in an interview. “I always say to them, if you love acting, the theatre, then follow it as far as it will take you. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't want this too.”
Mollet recently starred in a two-week, off-Broadway production of Vote this past July, in which she played Nikki Murphy, an “underdog” with good intentions running for class President. Throughout her campaign, Murphy’s classmate urge her to change up her look, to become more “street” to appeal to a wider audience. Mollet, who says she connects with Nikki, also wants to be noticed for her actions, and not because of her image.
“Being fifteen in the musical theater business and being African American, there’s not a whole lot of stuff out there,” she said. “They always want a specific look.”
A look that is apparently very ambiguous when it comes to Mollet. While she has auditioned for several shows that do want a Black actress, the young actress says that her mature voice makes it difficult to go out for younger roles, like in The Lion King.
“I’m sort of in that in-between stage,” she said. Nonetheless, Mollet is thankful for this lull in her career, which she considers “prime time for training.”
Despite difficulties that may arise when searching for a Broadway role, McDonald insists that there is still a vital place for Black talent on the stage, as well as behind-the-scenes.
“As African-Americans, we can bring something to it that is our own experience, which is a truer experience just by the fact that it can't possibly be anything but a truer experience because we actually are African-American,” she said in a recent interview with NPR.
With overwhelming tenacity, endless faith, and often times, a bit of sheer luck, both fledgling and seasoned Black thespians remain loyal to their crafts in spite of the resistances they are sure to face.
“I would love to be on Broadway again,” said Mollet. “But my time will come again.”
Patrice Peck explores the complex intersection of culture, entertainment, race and gender as a multimedia journalist. Follow her latest work on Twitter @SpeakPatrice and visit her website for more writing and video.