Sunday night was the Tony Awards and like any dutiful former high school theater kid, I tucked in for a night of Broadway production numbers, random movie stars who have taken to the stage, and too many white men winning in every category. And with shows like Mean Girls and Spongebob Squarepants among the most nominated, I didn’t think this year would be any different.
So, color me surprised when The Band’s Visit, a musical about Egyptian musicians who end up lost in the Israeli desert, was the clear winner of the night with 10 awards including best new musical. Once on This Island, a Caribbean musical based on a Rosa Guy novel, also took home a Tony for for best musical revival beating out traditional favorites My Fair Lady and Carousel. And a female-directed revival of Angels in America took home best revival of a play and two acting awards.
The acceptance speeches didn’t disappoint either: Lindsay Mendez spoke about being told to change her last name to Matthews because there was no way she would get work with a Mexican last name. Ari’el Stachel revealed he used to avoid events with his parents because he didn’t want to show his Middle Eastern roots. Tony Shalhoub thanked his Lebanese parents who immigrated through Ellis Island just miles from the Tonys stage.
These were the successes and stories that needed to be lifted up that night. I love Mean Girls and Tina Fey as much as the next suburban white girl from Illinois and I don’t doubt the quality of the production, but it isn’t relevant in the way these other stories are. Spongebob Squarepants will still rake in the dough (even though it looks awful) without a Tony award to it’s name because it’s already famous and accessible.
But The Band’s Visit could have easily been overlooked. Performers like Mendez and Stachel could have lost out like so many incredibly talented actors of color before them. So, I was glad to see the Tonys stepping up and shining a light on diversity in ways that other awards shows haven’t over the years.
Could they have done even better? For sure. The cast of Once on this Island and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical certainly could have been shown more love. In fact, Summer wasn’t even nominated for best musical at all. A lot of white, British people took home awards for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which was a bummer. Not to mention the production teams of most of the shows were predominately white across the board.
Of course there is always room for more diversity and theater is notorious for excluding people of color, but, to me, it’s progress to see shows like Mean Girls and My Fair Lady stay on the sidelines. I never would have thought to see The Band’s Visit before the Tonys, but now I’m googling when it’s coming to Chicago (no plans yet). Like it or not, there’s power behind awards like the Tonys and I’m glad to see it being used for good.
So, in the spirit of the Tonys I’ve rounded up some shows here in Chicago that look excellent and feature diverse stories and casts…
With an incredible cast of black actors, a New York director, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (who I love) this looks like an amazing piece. It closes at the end of the month, so get tickets while you still can.
The Tony-winning classic comes to Chicago at one of my favorite theaters in the city. I’ve actually never seen The Color Purple and tickets are super reasonably priced, so this one’s on my list!
An adaptation of the classic Miss Julie, this version takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa and deals with questions of race, ancestry, and power. Tickets are pricey on this one, but it sounds incredible.
Starring a diverse cast of Chicago regulars, Lookingglass reimagines the literary classic. I’ve seen several shows here over the years and am always amazed at how they completely transform popular stories. I’m getting tickets to this pronto.
This intimate show about two imperial guards at India’s Taj Mahal is getting great reviews. Steppenwolf really excels at bringing diverse stories to the stage so I have no doubt this is well done.
Are you seeing anything soon that you’re excited about? I’d love to add to this list. I haven’t really done theater since college, but watching the Tonys always gets me excited to see some amazing theater. Happy Thursday, friends!