There’s a new Black Renaissance happening on Broadway and it's giving Black playwrights, directors and talent their spotlight to shine. The 2023 Tony Awards, airing June 11 on CBS, will celebrate two Black writers nominated for Best Play: Jordan E. Cooper and James Ijames for Ain't No Mo’ and Fat Ham, respectively; four Black performers vying for Best Performance by An Actor in a Leading Role in a Play; and all five nominated musicals that feature Black leads.

"We're having a renaissance of the American Theatre and Broadway specifically as a result of trailblazers of color working for change," declares Brian Moreland, producer of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, which is nominated for Best Revival of a Play. "The American Theatre is now, as of this season, looking like America: a multicultural landscape filled with all of us. Black stories are centered in this narrative as a part of the fabric of America. Without playwrights like August Wilson, or our onstage talents of John David Washington and Samuel L. Jackson (who is nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play), the tapestry of America is not complete."

EBONY caught up with four actors in shows currently running on Broadway to learn more about the characters they play and why Broadway is heading in the right direction of being more inclusive of actors of color in Black-oriented roles and beyond.

Marchánt Davis in Good Night, Oscar


Marchánt Davis and Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar. Image: Joan Marcus.

EBONY: What is the show about and how do you play?

Marchánt Davis: Good Night, Oscar is about real-life pianist and comedian Oscar Levant. Oscar is given a day pass from a mental health facility to attend his daughter’s graduation but ends up on the Tonight Starring Jack Paar instead. Anything can happen on live television. And one night, it did. I play Alvin Finney, the medical orderly who thought he was escorting Oscar to the ceremonies. Once they’re on their way, Alvin quickly learns there is another plan in place.

How did you approach your character: as a caretaker, authoritarian or both?

There is a long line of caretakers in my family. My grandmother was a live-in nurse and I had the pleasure of meeting many of her patients. I drew on her experience to inform my work in this role.

Why is it so important for Black men to be seen on Broadway in stories with Black themes like Ain't No Mo’, which you starred in, and in roles not traditionally designed for Black men like this one?

These spaces may not have been built for us, designed for us or even owned by us, but we belong in them. The theater is the place we go to see stories, and all stories deserve to be told.

What's one tradition or ritual you have before you go on stage or once the show ends?

I believe what we do as actors is communal. After grabbing some hand sanitizer, I check in with my co-star Sean Hayes to see how he’s feeling. It’s important to remind myself it’s not a solo affair.

Alex Joseph Grayson in Parade

From left: Paul Alexander Nolan and Alex Joseph Grayson in Parade. Image: Joan Marcus.

EBONY: What is the musical about and who do you play?

Alex Joseph Grayson: Parade is about Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was accused of killing a young white girl in Georgia in 1913. I play Jim Conley, who was the janitor at the National Pencil company where Leo Frank was a superintendent. He was the key witness in the Leo Frank trial and was coerced into giving a testimony that was carefully rehearsed and fabricated. Jim has already been placed at the scene of the crime, so incriminating Leo Frank is now a must, which is expressed in “That's What He Said." In that moment, it’s all about being 100 percent calm and confident in the testimony I’m giving and making sure that I have enough air to sing that long note at the end of the song.

How does this true-life tragic tale explore the experience of Black Americans in Georgia in the early 1900s?

The Black actors on stage don’t sing in the musical’s first few songs. Michael Arden, our director, wanted to create a sense of real segregation for the audience at the top of the show. The Black American experience of the Jim Crow South is alluded to on two occasions in the musical. One of those is at the top of Act 2 in a  song "Rumblin' and Rollin’." The Black characters are not centered in the narrative but manage to be crucial in the telling of the story.

Why is it so important to have Black men portrayed on the Broadway stage, especially ones that deal with racism of all types?

I think this story is particularly important because this real-life case led to the formation of the Anti-defamation League.  It was a spark plug in the ongoing fight for civil rights, and for better or for worse, Black people were at the center.  I think Jim is a complicated character. Functionally he is the rockstar of this musical. He lives in a morally grey area but manages to find empowerment within the play.

What's one tradition or ritual you have before you go on stage or once the show ends?

I drink a full bottle of water upon arrival at the theater, then continue drinking water on every offstage break. Our lovely theater [Bernard B. Jacobs theatre] is a beautiful historical monument, and also very dry. Hydration is crucial to having a successful show. At the end of the show, I like to brush my teeth to kind of wash off the character.

Calvin Leon Smith in Fat Ham

From left: Marcel Spears and Calvin Leon Smith in Fat Ham. Image: Joan Marcus.

EBONY: What is the show about and who do you play?

Calvin Leon Smith: Fat Ham is about a young man named Juicy who is wrestling with his identity in his relationship with his family and friends. On top of that, he’s being asked by his father’s ghost to avenge his death. He’s got a lot going on! I play Larry, a young Marine vet who is visiting his childhood friend Juicy and his family. If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet he’s kind of a version of Laertes. 

Where did you train for theater and prepare to do a new version of Shakespeare?

I trained at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, The Juilliard School and the British American Drama Academy. Preparing for his very loose adaptation of Hamlet was like preparing for any other contemporary play. It begins with research to fill in the gaps of what I don’t know. I watched a lot of Youtube videos on Marine Bootcamp just to get an idea of the type of training these young folks go through and to see their change from when they first arrive to when they complete it. Then of course there is everything that goes into approaching any play: to identify what I want in every scene, what’s my secret and how do I get what I want. My character and I have very similar lived experiences outside of the military as we’re both, Black queer men from the South raised in religious families. The preparation on that end has more to do with dropping into my past experiences growing up. 

Why is it so important for Black men to be seen in stories with Black themes and in roles not traditionally designed for Black men?

The institution of Broadway was not created with Black people in mind, on stage or in the audience. It’s important that white folks have the same exposure to Black stories as Black folks have been exposed to white ones. Stories change minds and expand people’s capacity to empathize. We are still having to prove our humanity in 2023. What has always been true and will continue to be true is that Black men experience the full range of emotions and experiences that everyone else does. We just have to get more Black writers to write stories that are Black-centric. Our stories hold up on their own and I believe that when people who don’t look like us can see our stories on stage, pure and unadulterated by the construct of whiteness, they’ll be able to identify with our characters because they aren’t being othered. That’s what’s so great about Fat Ham. It uses Shakespearean archetypes to tell a Black, queer, southern story. The use of the archetypes prevents people from saying they can’t identify with these characters because they know the Hamlet equivalents. I also believe the more we see Black stories being told on stage, along with better marketing and producing, we will start to see a shift from an overwhelmingly white, wealthy audience to one that reflects what’s being seen on stage. It’s a bit of a buzzphrase, but we all know that representation matters. It allows you to know what is possible!

What's one tradition or ritual you have before you go on stage or once the show ends?

Besides my typical warm-up and preparation, I make sure I pop an Altoid in my mouth before making my way to the stage. Not trying to offend any of my cast mates with some funky breath!

Michael James Scott in Aladdin 

Michael James Scott and Disney Aladdin cast. Image: Matthew Murphy.

EBONY: Who do you play and when did you first learn of the story?

Michael James Scott: I play the genie in Disney Aladdin on Broadway. I saw the 1992 legendary animated movie and became obsessed with Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle’s rendition of Aladdin’s theme, “A Whole New World.” I couldn't stop singing it.

You originated the role of the Genie in Australia. What was that experience like?

It was life-changing. Australia is a country that has been dealing with diversity and representation, which was lacking, and there I was, my face on buses and billboards and all kinds of things. And the unbelievable outpour of support from people, I was in awe over what was happening. They really embraced me and that, to me, is a big change.

Why is it important to have Black men and other BIPOC actors represented on Broadway?

It’s incredible to be playing the genie backed by one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. To be able to be seen on a grand level, with who I am and how I grew up, not seeing the representation I hungered for, is beyond important. And I think, at this moment, necessary. We are unapologetically Black and unapologetically fabulous. For young artists to look up and see themselves, that’s where it's important that I'm playing this role.

What's your favorite moment on stage?

"Arabian Nights" is the only time in the show where we are all onstage at the same time, every principal and the ensemble, doing the choreography, if only for a moment. We introduce all of the characters you're about to go on this journey with. We're welcoming audiences into this world. And that, for me, is such a beautiful thing to do.