Helping Youth Impact Broadway

There are two theatrical productions coming to Broadway in 2019 that showcase the global impact of African-American artists and their contributions to America’s cultural heritage. Previews begin on February 28, 2019, for “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations.” And “Tina—The Tina Turner Musical” is scheduled to open in the fall. If we are truly committed to fostering the next generation of multicultural artists whose contributions will positively influence the lives of millions, it’s essential that we begin now making all aspects of the performing arts experience accessible to all youth.

Thinking about these productions reminded me of Impact Broadway, a program I envisioned and co-managed with Cherine Anderson 10 years ago to expose and empower a multicultural group of high school- and college-aged youth to aspire to become active participants in the performing arts community. We didn’t just take them to Broadway, Off-Broadway or dance performances. The participants spent time meeting and dialoguing with the decision-makers, artists and production people who are the backbone of the performing arts world. We also believed it was important for them to understand the extensive history of contributions African-American and Latinx people have made to theater in general, as well as to Broadway. In addition, the program demonstrated to the leaders of the theater community that there was widespread interest amongst African-American and Latinx youth in learning more about and seeking opportunities in this industry.

Supported by funding from the Theater Subdistrict Council, we were able to stretch our two-year grant allocation in to four years of programming. At the outset, we established theater clubs at 10 participating high schools and colleges, covering all five boroughs of New York City. Over the course of the four years, there were a total of 20 schools participating in the program and more than 1,000 youth participants. We created a calendar of Broadway outings, which included post-performance discussions and dining. The Broadway performances they attended included Memphis, Fela!, In the Heights, A Free Man of Color, West Side Story and The Lion King.

We formed a stellar group of industry professionals who served as advisors and interacted with the students. That group included actors, business leaders, costume designers, playwrights, talent agents, directors, producers, singers, choreographers and dancers, such as LaChanze, Colman Domingo, Zakiya Young, Isisara Bey, Paul Tazewell, Will Power, Shirley Faison, Judine Somerville, Ken Roberson and Willette Klausner.

Impact Broadway also built bridges to community arts programs by having the youth participate in Arts in My Backyard. This component encouraged them to explore borough-based arts programs. This facet of the program included workshops, special events, school visits and talkbacks that exposed them to the behind-the-scenes needs for creating theater making and performance at a local level, and the value that it creates. The community-based, cultural partners included Teatro Pregones in the Bronx; Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts; Harlem Stage in Manhattan; Queens Theater in the Park, and Susan Wagner High School on Staten Island.

We began each year with an event called “The Gathering” at a Broadway theater—a space that was generously donated. All of the student participants attended; they heard presentations and saw mini-performances. For many of the participants, it was not only their first time on Broadway, but also their first time travelling from their respective boroughs to Manhattan. Can you imagine what a profound impact that must have had on their lives? Impact Broadway helped these African-American and Latinx youth see themselves as meaningful participants, as well as potential leaders, in the theater and entertainment industries.

To help them see the impact of the arts on the financial viability of the broader community, the students were encouraged to support local businesses. They each were given an Impact Broadway discount card, which could be used to receive a discount at subdistrict restaurants and attractions.

The participants shared their experiences and developed critique and reporting skills by contributing to the Impact Broadway quarterly newsletter. In addition to information about their activities and the performances they saw, the newsletter highlighted a participant’s major accomplishments at his/her school. Of course, this program would not have been possible without the commitment and engagement of the teachers, who volunteered their time to support the theater clubs, newsletter and outings.

I am most proud that Impact Broadway made it possible for 100 students and teachers to attend the Tony Awards’ dress rehearsals at Radio City Music Hall. And our 2012 Spring fundraiser—a Tony-viewing party in Harlem for 300 students and their chaperones that was sponsored by Black2Broadway—was featured in a report on the website Dressing up, watching the Tony Awards, eating and networking with Broadway professionals was a great experience that the youth talked about as the highlight of that year.

I enjoyed every second working with the students and witnessing their awakening to possibilities they could not have imagined. At least 10 percent of our participants went on to pursue careers in the performing arts—theater, music, dance and film. I believe Impact Broadway played a small but important role in expanding diversity, equity and inclusion in front of, as well as behind, the curtain.

The program ended because we ran out of funding. However, the spate of youth-oriented productions—from Spring Awakening to Hamilton—is a reminder that not only future audiences but future directors, producers, costume designers, playwrights and actors are hungry for theater that touches their lives and they open to learning now. I’m determined to resurrect this initiative and if you’re interested in supporting this endeavor, contact me! It is my hope that the arts will forever remain a wonderful invitation and bridge for youth to expand their vistas and empower them to forge the future of their dreams.