Actors from Hamilton and The Color Purple helped make Tony Awards history Sunday night by sweeping the musical acting awards. Actors of color took home the trophies in all four musical acting categories, a feat never accomplished in 70 years of the Tony Awards.
Hamilton, which took home 11 awards in total, dominated the acting categories, winning three out of the four Tonys. Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom Jr. received the awards for Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical, Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical and Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, respectively. The only acting category that didn’t go to a Hamilton performer was Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, which went to The Color Purple’s Cynthia Erivo. Though the four actors were recognized for their talent, not their ethnicity, the historic Tony moment is important. So important, in fact, that the official Tony Awards Twitter account issued a tweet about the feat, writing, “For the first time in #TonyAwards history, all four musical acting awards have gone to people of color.”
Both Hamilton and The Color Purple, along with the Tony-nominated play Eclipsed, were responsible for a great portion of the diversity of this year’s Tony Award nominees. And the vast array of human experiences found at the 2016 Tony Awards certainly is impressive. Not only did the awards show recognize shows featuring many different ethnicities, they also recognized the revival of Spring Awakening, which was re-interpreted with American Sign Language, making it a rare, self-proclaimed “deaf musical.” When the Tony nominations were announced, many applauded the diversity of the nominees and drew a direct comparison to the Academy Awards, which many criticized for having all-white acting nominees despite the success of films starring people of color. Fans on Twitter used the hashtag #TonysSoDiverse to commend the awards show, and Broadway, for being so inclusive, and many are again using Twitter to celebrate the historic celebration of diversity on stage.
The musical acting wins, while historic, are a bit bitter-sweet. In contrast to the musical categories, the play acting categories were filled with predominantly Caucasian nominees, and all four winners were white. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that a majority of the non-white acting nominees (for both plays and musicals) were from just three shows — Hamilton, The Color Purple and Eclipsed. Two of those shows, Hamilton and Eclipsed, debuted on Broadway this year, and were purposefully diverse shows. Hamilton made a conscious effort to recruit a diverse, non-white cast, as evidenced by the recent Hamilton casting-call controversy, and Eclipsed made similar efforts to create a play about black women (the show is about women living through the end of the Liberian Civil War in 2003). Similarly, The Color Purple is a show about the African-American experience. Should these shows be taken off Broadway tomorrow, it’s unclear what efforts other productions would make to ensure diversity on stage, if any.
2016 may be the first year that all four musical performance Tonys were given to actors of color, but 2016 is also another year without a female writer taking home the award for Best Play. Efforts to make Broadway a more inclusive, diverse place need to be sustained, and while this year’s Tony Awards show that we are going in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.
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