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Disney's Broadway productions are putting its black characters front and center

In "Frozen the Musical," Noah Ricketts and Aisha Jackson are taking the lead in several February performances.
Noah Ricketts, Aisha Jackson and Donald Jones Jr.
Noah Ricketts, Aisha Jackson and Donald Jones Jr.Darnell Bennett / Disney

“Frozen the Broadway Musical” is making sure its black performers get their time in the spotlight.

Noah Ricketts, who is black, takes the stage in New York City as Kristoff for the first time this week, replacing another black man, Jelani Alladin, in the principal role. Aisha Jackson, who is also black, is performing as Princess Anna.

“We just knew we wanted a very diverse company for the first production and will continue that with all subsequent productions,” Michael Grandage, the musical's director, said. “The only thing that is set is we know that we want the companies of Frozen to always be diverse and represent the world we live in.”

Yes, in the 2013 Oscar-winning animated film “Frozen,” all of the lead characters are white. In the show’s debut, Patti Murin, who is white, was cast to play Anna on stage. Just weeks after the Broadway debut of “Frozen,” Jackson stepped in to the lead role for a few shows in late March 2018 and has performed several times since then.

But Jackson tells NBCBLK that not everyone was excited to see a black woman play Princess Anna.

“We got some celebratory messages,” Jackson, who is Murin's understudy in the role of Anna, said in an interview. “But we also got some looks, and people would say ‘they are going to be confused when a black Anna comes out on stage.’”

Jackson tried her best to stay focused, but said she could feel the glares. However, Ricketts sings her praises.

“Aisha is an incredible actress, and she takes you on a journey that makes it so believable and so real that you can’t help but be changed by the end,” he said in an interview. “At the end of the show, it’s either your choice to change or not.”

Musicals such as “The Lion King,” “Hamilton,” “On Your Feet!” and “The Color Purple” have provided opportunities for African-American performers on Broadway.

In recent years, several Broadway productions have cast black actors in traditionally white roles. In 2018, “King Kong” cast Christiani Pitts, the first woman of color to portray Ann Darrow, a role that historically was portrayed by a white woman.

Diversity has increased in recent years on Broadway — often called the Great White Way — The New York Times reported in 2018. A study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found “the 2015-16 season to be the most diverse the group has reviewed so far, with 35 percent of all roles going to minority actors.”

Many performers and producers are hoping to expand the opportunities for black people on Broadway.

Stephen Byrd says he and his partner, Alia Jones-Harvey, are two of the few black producers on Broadway. The duo, who worked on “American Son” starring Kerry Washington, hopes to diversify the industry with their organization, Front Row Productions. Now, their company is working on “Ain’t Too Proud,” a musical about Motown Records group The Temptations and its journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

For several years, “The Lion King” has given black performers an opportunity to shine on Broadway.

“‘The Lion King’ is one of the first major musicals to really bring in so many people of color in this capacity,” Syndee Winters, who plays Nala in N.Y.C., said.

“It’s a gift that keeps on giving,” she added.

Bradley Gibson, who plays Simba, remembers sitting in the audience when he was a young kid and being impressed that there were so many people who looked like him on stage.

“The Lion King was the first show I saw where I saw a full stage of people who look like me telling a story that I am familiar with,” he said.

Lindiwe Dlamini joined the original cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway in 1997 and has performed with the vocal ensemble ever since. She has more than 21 years of experience on Broadway, but she hardly ever auditions for other roles because she doesn’t “see any other show right now” that she could fit in.

As a Broadway veteran, she wants to see more people of color create new productions on Broadway. Dlamini said Disney’s “Black Panther” would do well on stage.

“It would give more young kids roles they can relate to on Broadway, and the ability to perform for people who look like them,” she said.

But it’s not just important to have more diversity on stage — there need to be more people of color behind the scenes too, according to Jacquelyn Bell, a commercial theater producer and manager. Bell worked with Broadway performers, policymakers and public officials to produce “Broadway for Black Lives Matter" in 2016. The event, sponsored by the Columbia Law School, allowed for colleagues on Broadway to talk about social and racial justice issues.

“Casting people of color is no longer enough,” Bell said. ”There are so many more black and brown bodies on stage, but if you are going behind the stage and off stage — that’s when you see there are still major barriers.”

In a study published in 2017, Actors Equity, a labor union representing more than 51,000 actors and stage managers nationwide, found that “77 percent of stage manager contracts on Broadway and production tours went to Caucasians; over three years there were only six contracts given to African-American members.”

"This study came about because our council made diversity and inclusion a priority and our staff spent months working on the data," Mary McColl, Actors' Equity’s executive director, said. "With this study, we can take an empirical look at hiring biases in our industry. Women and members of color have fewer work opportunities, and when they do get hired, they often are hired on lower-paying contracts."

"Equity has fought for diversity and inclusion at the bargaining table for years. What we learned with this study is that we won't negotiate our way out of this problem. We need an industrywide conversation about how we can change the stage."

Jesse North contributed to this report.

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