Tony Nominee Jeremy O. Harris on Redirecting Awards Campaign Budgets to ‘People Who Needed Them Most’

Michael Appler
·3 min read

Broadway, still shuttered, finds itself at the crossroads of several economic and political crises. Just this month, an exposé on Scott Rudin re-illuminated the industry’s long codependent relationship with the volatile producer, prompting Tony nominee Karen Olivo to step down from her leading role in “Moulin Rouge.” And this week, spurred by a growing frustration with industry unions, a “March on Broadway” is planned by several Black advocacy groups to protest the use of union dues.

“I do theater because theater is the first political form,” said Jeremy O. Harris on Wednesday evening. “In the commodification of the industry, we’ve forgotten that. In the ‘Wicked’ and ‘Rent’ of it all, we forgot that theater is supposed to affect the catharsis to make people do something differently in their lived lives and real communities.”

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The Tony-nominated playwright earned a record-breaking 12 Tony nominations for his 2019 exhumation of sexual trauma in Black American life in “Slave Play.” He joined Tony-nominated cast members Chalia La Tour and Ato Blankson-Wood in a talk hosted by the Human Rights Campaign for a celebration of “Slave Play” and a conversation centered on race and sexuality in the American theater. Playwright C.A. Johnson also joined the conversation, which was moderated by HRC chairwoman Jodie Patterson and hosted by HRC president Alphonso David.

Broadway’s turmoil backdropped the conversation, no less than the country’s continued reckoning with police violence against communities of color. Broadway, said Harris, is far from fulfilling its responsibility to use theater to understand systemic oppression and trauma.

“There are so many collective nightmares that we as Black people, we as queer people, women in the room, have had to deal with, and only five of us have told the story,” said Harris. “Literally, there are only two other Black men who are alive right now who have written plays that have gone to Broadway in the last 40 years: Tarell McCraney, and George C. Wolfe.”

That concern — that good and necessary Black plays go unnoticed and unproduced — drove Harris, the producers of “Slave Play” and the Human Rights Campaign to launch the Golden Collection, an archive of 15 essential Black plays to be donated to public libraries and community centers in all 50 states and territories.

“I started having conversations about what to do with this chunk of money that people usually stow away for awards campaigns, and it started to feel really icky that I had resources from a play about systematic racism that weren’t going anywhere near the people who needed them most,” explained Harris.

To communities around the country, access to Black plays are essential, he summarized. “I wonder what will happen if we get into a culture that starts to not run away from the fact of our history?”

Johnson, whose 2020 off-Broadway play “All the Natalie Portmans” earned critical acclaim, provided a playwright’s answer: “When you put those things on stage, things that are generational, that are societal, that are traumas that become circles, that become loops that get passed down — they’re America. And I’m not in it to make a fake America.”

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