‘Chicago’ star Angelica Ross’ history-making role kicks the door wide open for inclusion

In her final weeks on Broadway as headliner Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” Angelica Ross said she hopes audiences can see that trans identity goes beyond struggle and that there can be times of great light, too.

This fall, Ross made history as the first trans woman to ever play a leading role on Broadway.

“There are moments to be had of joy and affirmation and creativity,” the star said in a Zoom interview from the Hollywood Diner in Manhattan, after finishing a vocal lesson nearby. “Being trans is not all about suffering and challenge,” she said, adding, “There’s still a determination, and there’s a certain determination within me … to break through and have this moment.”

Ross’ groundbreaking run, which began on Sept. 12, comes as other diverse castings have made waves both on and off-Broadway. Productions like the Tony Award-winning musical “A Strange Loop,” about a Black queer man’s struggle with identity; the revival of “1776,” centered on the signing of the Declaration of Independence and led by an all-woman, trans and nonbinary ensemble; and the Public Theater’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” about the struggles of a Black family in south Chicago, are just a few examples. Theater expert Terrance Jackson, who serves as the director of outreach at Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, says Ross’ Broadway debut indicates an era of growing diversity and inclusion on Broadway stages and in theaters across the country.

“The audiences are evolving,” said Jackson, who also runs Barter’s Black in Appalachia Initiative, which highlights the stories of local Black communities through theater. “For Broadway to survive, for regional theaters to survive, we need to cultivate a new audience.” He added that audiences today “want to see their stories on stage and they want to see themselves on stage.”

Jason Pitsilis, a transgender man from Montreal, Canada, who attended a viewing of “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theater in New York City last month, said he was surprised that it’s taken this long to see an openly trans person in a lead role on Broadway. He added that Ross’ debut in the long-running American musical “opens the door to full acceptance” for the transgender community.

“It’s important for us as trans people to be represented, but above all else treated as normal or as anyone else,” Pitsilis, 25, told NBC News, adding that Ross’ role as Roxie highlights that trans acceptance should exist, “without frustration , without doubting and without skepticism.”

Racial reckoning

Ross’ role in “Chicago” comes as actors demand more diverse representation and inclusion of underrepresented groups in theater productions. The widespread calls to improve diversity in hiring practices follow the racial reckoning of 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd and racial justice protests nationwide, Jackson said.

“Black theater artists are asking for white American theater to see us and consider us in producing work,” Jackson said. “They’re demanding that we be represented on stages and not just onstage but also offstage.”

In 2020, theater advocacy groups Black Theater United and the Black Theater Coalition rallied support for Black talent in theater in the wake of the racial justice movement, bringing renewed attention to the disparities in the industry. The Black Theater Coalition said it aimed “to remove the ‘ILLUSION OF INCLUSION’ in the American Theatre,” by combating racism and providing more work opportunities for Black artists, according to the group’s mission statement.

A report published this year by the Actors’ Equity Association, an actor and stage manager union, found that the theater industry experienced “incremental progress” during 2020 when compared to previous years, but was still behind on fulfilling pledges. White talent secured 54% of contract salary distributions in 2020 compared to close to 12% that were Black. Meanwhile, Latinos made up 4% and Asians made up only 2%.

The report also stated that Broadway’s return in 2021 brought a “flourishing of plays with predominantly Black casts and creative teams,” and the association is optimistic this will be reflected in this year’s hiring data.

Black cast members also have become more recognized for their work during award show season. This year, “A Strange Loop” became the most nominated production of the season with 11 Tony nominations, including best musical, best original score and best book of a musical. “MJ The Musical” and “Paradise Square” followed closely behind with 10 nominations. When it came to wins, “A Strange Loop” took home two Tonys, while “MJ the Musical” took home four and “Paradise Square” snagged one, including best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical.

Francois Battiste, who plays Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” said it comes as no surprise that audiences are craving diverse voices because acting is a “mirror to society.”

“If there’s going to be any profession that should lead the way, why wouldn’t it be theater to diversify the workspace?” he said.

Jackson agreed, adding there should be more actors like Ross leading the way.

“I hope there’s an Angelica Ross backstage, whether that’s in stage management, whether that’s in front of the house,” he said.

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