In order to highlight the legacy of Black women in theater, Tony-nominated actor Danielle Brooks, award-winning artists Amber Iman, and Jocelyn Bioh founded the Instagram account "Black Women on Broadway" in June 2020.
The three women had been working together since 2019 to establish a network of Black women in business, and when the pandemic started, the only way to communicate was virtually.
With their first Black Women on Broadway awards event, held on June 6 at the rooftop lounge of the Empire Hotel in New York City with awardees Lynn Nottage, Qween Jean, and Kara Young, Brooks, Iman, and Bioh are finally putting their concept into action after two years.
Over supper at a Harlem BBQ establishment in 2015, Iman and Brooks got to know one another. Iman recalls, "Danielle didn't want anything from me, and I didn't want anything from her. All we wanted was to get to know one another. She intentionally created room for us to just get to know one another, and it moved me so much.”
Iman has also received unwavering support from Bioh, who has put her in her shows and watched out for her. As a result, when Iman made the decision to formally start a project, she turned to Brooks and Bioh for assistance in laying the groundwork for Black Women on Broadway.
The group first gained attention on social media with the Black Women on Broadway account, where they shared historical images, films, and facts about Black women who paved the way in the industry. Then, on June 29, 2020, they held Theater Appreciation Day, which included workshops on writing and the art of self-taping, as well as self-care activities like yoga and a keynote discussion with theater icons Audra McDonald and Lillias White. The virtual event offered a chance to provide Black women with the tools they need to succeed as well as a crucial link to their physical event.
Iman claims that the awards ceremony's main goal is to intentionally foster a chance for fellowship in addition to honoring theater talent, much like Brooks did when she invited Iman to dinner.
“We only run into each other at callbacks, auditions, and while we're rushing down 8th Avenue to the train,” she says. "We seldom take the time to just celebrate our successes, our relationships with one another, or the fact that we made it through and are still alive. We can all come together at this awards ceremony and say, ‘I see you, sis.’ Let's just give each other a little extra love.”
The trio, according to Brooks, took inspiration from yearly occasions like Alfre Woodard's Sistahs Soiree and Essence's “Black Women in Hollywood” celebration. However, since both of those events were held in Los Angeles, Black women in New York City did not have the same chance to socialize, and there was no event that catered especially to the Broadway community.
“I don't know how or why we even accomplished it this way,” Bioh admits as she continues to consider how much effort and time it has taken to organize this event. “However, we are fully aware that sometimes it takes doing things correctly on your own, so for our first event, we wanted to set the bar for what it might be.”
Final sponsors included Morgan Stanley, Mark Gordon Pictures, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, Adrienne Warren, Door 24, Creative Partners Productions, Fourth Wall Theatrical, and PGIM, among others.
Iman originally wanted a 200-person ceremony with ice sculptures, but the modest in-person gathering had 75 to 100 Black women, split 50/50 between actors and below-the-line artists. In this manner, Iman explains, "we had a really strong picture of what Broadway actually is."
Three awards that are all named for groundbreaking Black women who have changed Broadway history were given out during the ceremony. The Audra McDonald Legacy Award went to playwright Lynn Nottage, and the Florence Mills Rising Star Award was given to performer Kara Young. The Kathy A. Perkins Behind the Curtain award was bestowed upon the costume designer Qween Jean.
When discussing the legacy award, Brooks highlights McDonald's "unique" talent, saying that she "lowkey is the Cicely Tyson of the theater. No one can touch her. She is the person with the most Tony Awards ever. And it's fantastic that she is Black! She gives us confidence that we can prevail.”
Brooks is not surprised that McDonald has supported Black Women on Broadway from the beginning since that is who she has consistently shown herself to be.
It was crucial that less well-known trailblazers receive recognition, just as they wanted to name the award after such a legendary figure. “It's possible that we won't ever have awards named for women who broke new ground in theater, particularly on Broadway,” says Bioh. "We want to make sure that we're saying their names and acknowledging that they're never going to be forgotten."
"Naming something after Kathy A. Perkins, who is still lighting shows on Broadway and nominated again for Trouble in Mind, or other individuals, is important.”
Each honoree was selected with equal care. As a result of being chosen, Nottage has basically taken on the role of "the one who has been holding up the lights" in the business this year. When they searched for someone who has been "hard-working, grinding in the mud, but is finally beginning to blossom," Young was the first to spring to mind.
"She is a light; she is a spitfire; she is talented beyond. We couldn't conceive of someone more deserving of this honor,” Iman continues. And Qween Jean, who is "a force," receives the award for being behind the scenes.
From this point forward, the Black Women on Broadway organization intends to start a mentorship program and a forthcoming web series of video essays devoted to narrating the experiences of industry trailblazers. The intention behind their continued growth is to pass on their knowledge to the subsequent generation of young Black women artists seeking to leave their mark on the Great White Way.
The second part of Black Women on Broadway's goal is mentoring, and this idea doesn't always entail finding a young person to guide. When times are particularly difficult, it may be able to provide people with a comfortable place to land while they grow, learn, process, and deal.
“In some manner, shape, or form, that's what we've been for each other,” says Bioh, gesturing to her co-founders.
Follow the Black Women on Broadway on social media for more details.