Multiculturalism is something we have seen grace across heralded Broadway productions in recent years. It used to be that people of color would be considered to be an abbreviation to the distinguished theatrical world if they were fortunate enough to be part of a production. That’s not the case today. When you see Broadway shows now, you come away with a clear sense of inclusion.
Playing the lead as Ann Darrow in King Kong, Christiani Pitts, an African American woman, is a great example of the new norm in theatre. The hit Broadway musical Aladdin, which hits Orange County for three weeks (March 6 to March 23) at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, is part of that evolution. It starts at the top and trickles down. The lead actor (Major Attaway) in Aladdin is black. The guy next to him (Sultan) happens to be a thespian who is African American as well.
Jerald Vincent, who plays Sultan, the father of Princess Jasmine, said the makeup transformation of live theatre has changed greatly over the last two decades.
“It’s really fantastic at this time of my career to play the role of the Sultan because what I love about Disney is that they’re at the forefront of multicultural casting,” Vincent said. “When you get a chance to see the show, you will see a mosaic of every color in the rainbow as far as humanity goes. With this fictitious city of Agrabah, they could paint with any stroke they wanted to and they chose to paint boldly. The Genie is African American. The Sultan is African American, which is really forward-thinking as far as Disney goes. A person who is right for the part that is who they allowed to play the part.”
The expansion of minorities on the Broadway scene and in live theatre, in general, enhances the marketability of diversity around these productions, Vincent said.
“Normally, traditional theatre is 99 percent white and one percent other,” Vincent said. “In the last 20 years, things have really started to change a lot. I’ve been in the business for years. I’ve seen a huge change in how casting has happened. They’re much more open to actors that can actually play the role they’re considering-the mInority actors for the part that wouldn’t necessarily be. They’re opening it up to that type of casting of talent to be able to play the role.”
With the floodgates now being more opened wide to actors of color, Vincent, who starred in the top-rated Broadway musical Aida and got plenty of play in national tours such as Beauty and the Beast, The Producers, and Funny Girl, said there wasn’t one thing that happened to cause the paradigm shift in theatre.
“I think theatre completely changed with the Millennials, and GenX, and the Millennial generation,” said Vincent. “I think it began with Rent. Then I did the Broadway hit Aida, and it happened there where we won Tony Awards. Heather Headley won a Tony Award for best lead actress in Aida. A black actress there. It’s just been evolving. It’s been an evolvement of theatre.”
In getting the plum role of Sultan, Vincent said he had to be at his best. The biggest hurdle he had to overcome was simply outperforming others also auditioning for the coveted role, Vincent said.
“It’s the competition,” Vincent said. “We’re at the highest level of theatre. The Broadway and First National Tours are at the highest level, which means the level of competition is the most stark and you better have your A-game and come to play because this is the big leagues of theatre. There’s no first or second place in this game. I play to win. I don’t play to play. I went in giving it 100 percent to get the role.”
Once he found out he was the chosen one to play the role of Sultan, Vincent said it was just affirmation of being at the right place at the right time.
“It’s a payoff in many different ways. First of all, it’s just an assurance that you deserve to be doing theatre at the highest level,” Vincent said. “You are where you’re supposed to be.”
Vincent is where he is at because he has had to pay his dues as an actor, juggling both film and stage work. Among his big screen work, Vincent has appearances in Coming to America and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. It is his work on stage, however, that seems to make fit Vincent’s niche both as an actor and for someone who quietly goes about his business to be a change-maker.
That has spilled over into some of the roles he has taken on. Vincent is the first African American to play the character Beast of Beauty and the Beast. This is a fact not lost on him.
“The most important thing for me is one day I was coming out of the theatre and there was a mother and her daughter that had watched the show,” Vincent said. “The mother came up to me and said how special it was for her to see because my daughter said to me, ‘See mom, we can do that, too.’ I’m not a civil rights leader or anything like that but I try to be at the forefront in what I do in trying to go after those roles that are traditionally white but have the openness for the skilled actor to play the part. I’ve been lucky enough to be the guy who comes in and get those roles.”