LaChanze on expanding diversity behind Broadway's curtains

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LaChanze Sapp-Gooding, better known as LaChanze, has spent most of her life on stage. Her first Broadway show as a lead actress was “Once on This Island,” in 1990. Then came starring roles in “Company,” “Ragtime,” and “The Color Purple.” That one, in which she originated the role of Celie, landed her a Tony Award.

But behind the scenes, she’s faced some tougher times. In 2001, when she was pregnant with her second daughter, she got word of the 9/11 attacks. Her husband, Calvin Gooding, was a securities trader in the World Trade Center.

She performed at the opening of the 9/11 Museum in 2014, but did not return to the World Trade Center site again until this past October, when she gave a one-night solo concert. “I want to claim this space as a place where I can be, and not have the fear or the anxiety of stepping on someone’s ashes,” she said.

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LaChanze performs her solo concert show. 

CBS News


But along her 40-year Broadway journey, LaChanze had noticed something many of her shows had in common: a certain lack of diversity: “People say, ‘What do you mean, Broadway isn’t diverse? I’ve seen shows my whole my whole life with Black talent on stage.’ And I say, ‘Exactly. You see Black talent on stage, but you’ve not seen Black talent behind the scenes. You’ve not seen Black directors, you’ve not seen Black choreographers.’

“In my entire career, the first time that I had a Black director was 2021, in ‘Trouble in Mind.’ I’ve never had a Black director prior to that as a lead actress,” she said.

It was the case with “Once on This Island” and “Color Purple” and “Ragtime” – Black cast, white writers. “It happens because there are not enough people, Black people or people of color, at the decision-making table,” she said.

And so, after 40 years as a performer, LaChanze stepped off the Broadway stage to become a Broadway producer. “It’s important for people like myself who have the access, who have the exposure, who have the relationships, to get in a position for young Black people that want to come into my business. Some people will say, ‘Well, I don’t know any Black female lighting designers.’ As a Black producer, I can say, ‘Let me show you where they are.'”

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LaChanze has won Tony Awards for her work on stage and behind the scenes. 

CBS News


Her producing career is only two years old, but she seems to have the magic touch. “Topdog/Underdog” won a Tony for best revival of a play. The musical “Kimberly Akimbo” won five Tonys.

And the limited engagement of the play she produced last fall, “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” had to be extended, twice. “I grew up in braiding salons; I raised my daughters in braiding salons,” she said. “So, it’s lovely to be able to see a part of my childhood in my culture that we’re now bringing to Broadway audiences – and audiences that have never even considered going into a hair salon.”

And producing isn’t the end of her efforts to make Broadway more inclusive. She’s also president of the advocacy organization Black Theater United. “Our mission is to protect Black talent, Black bodies and Black lives on Broadway and across America,” she said.

Thanks to the efforts of Black Theater United, three theaters on the Great White Way are now named after Black theater artists, up from just one. And every major Broadway theater owner has agreed to a set of diversity principles, including a commitment to no longer have all-white creative teams.

It all seems to be working. Last year, 29% of Broadway audiences were people of color, the greatest number ever recorded.

“If we don’t start diversifying the stories that we bring to Broadway, we’re not going to have any audience,” LaChanze said.

She’s producing another musical this spring, “The Outsiders,” based on the S.E. Hinton novel; and she’ll make her directing debut this year, too, with “Wine in the Wilderness.”

She said, “One of the missions that I have is to tell stories that are human, not based in the fact that I am a Black woman, that I have survived 9/11, ‘Oh, poor LaChanze!” No! I need you to say, ‘Go, LaChanze! You did that. You are thriving. You are helping to make room for so many others, despite all of that!'”

     
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Story produced by Wonbo Woo. Editor: Steven Tyler.

     
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