The breeze blowing off of New York’s Hudson River made for expediency, as pedestrians bundled in their winter’s warmest traveled to and from their destinations. The gunmetal January sky often teased rainshower, adding another unwanted weather condition. Stinging cold with freezing rain is prime for miserable attitudes. But inside Milk Studios, warmth and jubilance bounced.
The African-American cast members of Disney’s Frozen, Aladdin and Lion King were dressed in all black as photographer Darnell Bennett snapped candids and portraits. The purpose of the photoshoot? Simple: celebrating blackness on Broadway.
It’s no surprise many of the actors—both members of the ensemble and understudies—would’ve had to enter the theater via a backdoor a few decades ago. The history of segregation runs deep within the theater community, so it’s not lost on the actors that being center stage wasn’t a luxury often afforded to their theatrical foremothers and fathers.
But with time hopefully comes change.
In 2013, Frozen hit theaters, and even if you tried you couldn’t escape the standout ballad, “Let It Go.” Five years later, the movie found its Broadway home at the St. James Theater, where audiences can see Aisha Jackson, a black girl from Atlanta, Georgia, act as a standby as Elsa’s kid sister, Anna. (The role of Elsa is portrayed by Patti Murin) Taking over the role as Kristoff is Noah J. Ricketts, another actor of color and a large triumph in the fight for equality, representation, and normality.
Ricketts and Jackson sat with VIBE and several other outlets to discuss their road to Broadway and why musicals aren’t just for kids.
VIBE: What is like to be black on Broadway?
Aisha Jackson: It’s beautiful. I’m always honored and glad to be able to represent us on stage. The best moments are when someone comes up to me and says, “This little girl was sitting next to her mom and she said ‘mommy she looks like me!’” That to me is why I’m doing this; just to inspire other little chocolate drops so they know they can do it, too.
You really stepped up. Tell us the story behind it.
It was the day before the first understudy rehearsal. They usually rehearse the people who are on stage all the time first, and then they get to us and say this is what we’re doing. So I sit and I’m watching and I’m writing everything down, but I hadn’t had rehearsal since we did it in Denver which was three, four months prior. The day before, Ms.Patti Murin (who plays Anna) had bronchitis and she did the matinee and everyone was freaking out. I was like I’m not going to freak out until they tell me. But I was like ‘Okay God, I really don’t want to do this show tonight.’
So I warmed up in between shows, it was a two-show day, and my stage director came to me and said, ‘she’s going to pull through.’ I was on stage with my dance captain and they were like ‘Just run through it for rehearsal tomorrow.’ Ten minutes later, my stage director came back and said ‘so you’re on tonight’ and I was like, Oh…Okay.
But I prepared. Something I like to say is, ‘stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’ and so I prepared and was ready.
How important is it for you to be on Broadway during Black History Month?
Noah J. Ricketts: It’s very important. I would say in the last five years Broadway has changed so much in terms of representation. I know when I was growing up and coming to see shows in New York, I saw black people on stage but only telling black stories. So to see people globally accepting these stories and to see them in a new way and being a part of that change for a younger generation is incredible.
When did being a Broadway actor become real for both of you?
NR: We made our Broadway debut in the same show.
AJ: Oh really? Which one?
NR: Beautiful, The Carol King Musical. I think that was the moment, at least for me, that I had my first Broadway bow. I was swung into the show four days early, so I had to really rush to learn the show. It was kind of one of those ‘stay ready so you don’t have to get ready’ moments and it’s amazing to be here now.
To be on Broadway is incredible. There’s so much training involved. You work your whole life to get to a certain point and one day you wake up and its here. We try and soak it in as much as we can every day and every time we bow we really try and take in the audience’s applause because we don’t take it for granted at all.
AJ: I think the Broadway bug bit me when I did a production of Aida in high school. I was on stage as the understudy and they let us do one show. I went out there and I did it and I felt so at home and at peace on stage. I was like ‘Okay, I think I can do this. This is what I want to do with my life.’ I feel like we’ve all been given gifts to inspire others and my prayers are to minister and inspire others.
How would you explain the importance of going to see a play on Broadway?
NR: I would say its important for children and adults because Broadway shows and Broadway plays are your life reflected. There’s something to gain each time you see a show or a musical. It could be as simple as Frozen the musical. So many people think it’s just for kids, but the stories behind that really resonate with adults and families specifically. I would say give it a shot. Take that money that you may spend on a basketball game or a Christmas present and spend it at the theater because you never know what your kids can take from it and what you’ll take from it.
How do you feel like you’re giving back?
AJ: Well representation matters—I say that a lot. Growing up, my mother always made sure I saw people of color excelling and so I think for us, that’s a way for us to give back to make sure that these little kids see themselves on stage in stories about them, in stories they can relate to, just see themselves doing well. I feel like in news and politics we focus on ‘this is bad,’ ‘this is poor,’ ‘this isn’t working.’ I think for us, it’s our responsibility to show them you can do this to succeed. The sky is the limit. Just keep reaching.