Broadway star Audra McDonald has been in theater since she was a 9-year-old girl. Through the years, her resume and accolades grew to include six Tony Awards, Grammy awards and an Emmy, but the path to getting to where she is wasn’t easy.
She vividly remembers how systemic racism in the industry plagued her nearly every step of the way.
“Going into auditions for things and being asked ‘can you make that sound a little more street’ or ‘well you’re black, so let’s hear you belt, let’s hear your gospel,’” McDonald said.
Race was never been an easy or popular conversation in theater. The May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, however, forced nearly every industry to face the issues over racial inequities head on.
McDonald and other powerful Black actors, including Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, created Black United Theater with many others in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement.
“We just had a deep conversation and we were like ‘how can we be a part of the solution? What can we do to amplify the issues here and do something to effect change both within our own community and in the country at large,’” said McDonald.
Their goals span a wide range: from forcing civic engagement within Black and Brown communities and encouraging census counting to breaking barriers through mentorship within the arts for young Black artists. They also would like to eventually work toward collectively pushing to encourage diversity in all levels of the arts, and beyond just the stage.
McDonald is a mother to a toddler and three teenage step children, so she is busy but she continues to push, even at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has devastated her industry and the careers of most of her friends.
“To know this is not some short term thing is very hard on the psyche,” she said. “When we do return, what is it going to look like?”
The uncertainly is why she and so many other artists are looking for ways to keep giving back to their community suffering deeply with Broadway remaining dark through the pandemic.
On Thursday, McDonald and NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sheeilyn Ifill will speak at Black United Theater’s inaugural event “Activating Black Artists and Allies for Racial Justice.”
On Sunday at 8 p.m., McDonald will join Seth Rudetsky for a livestream concert series to help raise funds for those impacted.