Rebecca Naomi Jones Talks Hosting Playbill’s “Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration”

Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, Playbill is presenting “Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration.” Hosted by Drama Desk-nominee Rebecca Naomi Jones and Tony-nominee and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Heidi Schreck, the special will stream live in honor of Women’s Equality Day. Directed by Melissa Crespo, this production will celebrate women, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming artists and their milestone contributions to the theater over the past 100 years — as well as Broadway-bound musicals from new voices.

The concert will feature performances by Sara Bareilles, Daphne-Rubin Vega, Jessie Mueller, Nikki M. James as well as appearances by Pulitzer-winners Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lynn Nottage, and Paula Vogel, among others.

Also, the concert will honor the Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s new Artivism Fellowship. The program provides financial support, mentorship, networking opportunities, and educational workshops to Black women artist-activists who are focused on issues related to systemic racism and criminal justice reform.

We talked to Jones, who recently appeared in “Oklahoma!” on Broadway, about hosting the concert and why she finds “Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration” to be especially significant at this moment in time.

Tune in here at 8 p.m. ET to watch the special.

W&H: The New York Times recently reported on the diversity issue on Broadway. Do you think we may see significant changes post-pandemic?

RNJ: I do think we will see significant changes. Even before the pandemic, over the last few years, there’s been a palpable shift in New York theater towards actively making room for new plays and musicals written by and about black and brown people and narratives which depart from the typical cis-gender focus. This shift has primarily taken place Off-Broadway, less so uptown, but it’s clear that Broadway producers are feeling the pressure to challenge its status quo now more than ever. I think it would/will be inspiring to see representations of lives of color on Broadway in ways that go beyond the jukebox musical or the occasional celebrity-driven play revival. I understand that Broadway is a machine that needs commercial/financial success to survive. However, I’m still hoping that what we will see post-pandemic is more of a willingness to risk in terms of form and subject matter and amplify a broader range of BIPOC voices.

W&H: What experiences of your own led you to want to get involved with “Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration”?

RNJ: I’m a woman who makes her living doing theater, and I’m happy to be a part of highlighting those who’ve come before me. I was asked to be a part of this event by Rachel Sussman, a producer I’ve respected for years, and delighted to get the chance to work with director Melissa Crespo. And what a gift it is to co-host with Heidi Schreck!

W&H: This event is in honor of Women’s Equality Day. The event is paying homage to history makers and the intersectional future we want for women in theater. The timing feels significant. What is it about this moment that makes this event seem so necessary and vital?

RNJ: It feels as though a fire has been lit under our collective ass. The whole world is experiencing something together, which has offered us an opportunity to stop and assess and reset. Much of that work has been uncomfortable and, at times, deeply painful, but it’s entirely necessary — and I hope it will continue after the pandemic subsides, and we all go back to a version of “normal.” In terms of this event: what is necessary and vital is bringing that work we’re doing in the world at large into our artistic world — showing up for and supporting activism within the arts, which is precisely what Broadway Advocacy Coalition is doing.

W&H: Who are some of the women, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming artists of the past 100 years that have inspired you throughout your career?

RNJ: Joni Mitchell, [photographer and Jones’ mother] Susan Rosenberg Jones, Frida Kahlo, and [artist] Mickalene Thomas.

W&H: What historically female Broadway roles do you think of as examples of characters that changed the game?

RNJ: Alison in “Fun Home”; Caroline in “Caroline, or Change”; Effie in “Dreamgirls”; Diana in “Next to Normal”; Nora in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” These are just a handful of many.

W&H: The production team behind the event is all female. Have you ever worked on another project with an all-women or mostly-women team? How do you think that affected your experience — or how do you imagine it would be different?

RNJ: I worked on a musical called “Murder Ballad,” in which both our book writer Julia Jordan and composer Juliana Nash were women. I’d never experienced that before, and I felt a massive difference in terms of how organic it felt to find the voice, spoken and sung, of my character. This was especially true of the sung bits — singing music written by a woman, intended from the start to be sung in a woman’s range, made for a much freer, more natural process.

More recently, I got to work on a beautiful adaptation of “As You Like It” for Public Works steered by Laurie Woolery and Shaina Taub, choreography by Sonia Tayeh, and a rehearsal room stacked with incredible creative women. I felt comfortable in my skin and at ease, and that my role in the process was of value, which is not always the case.

W&H: What stands out to you as a milestone moment for women, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming artists in theater, and why? 

RNJ: I’m gonna shout out “Fun Home” again. Also, Heidi’s brilliant play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

W&H: What do you hope is the reaction/takeaway from those who tune into the concert?

RNJ: I hope people feel inspired and fired up.

August 28, 2020
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