Broadway Actors and Artists of Color Inspire Conversation at Columbia Around Race and Social Change

Audra McDonald, Cynthia Erivo, Billy Porter, India.Arie, Ledisi, and Dozens of Stars Participate in Event Produced by the Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective and Co-Sponsored by Columbia Law School
New York, August 3, 2016—Daniel J. Watts, an acclaimed actor in the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton,” walked onto the stage of Columbia University’s Lerner Hall to thunderous applause Monday evening, and asked the audience, “How’s everyone feeling tonight?”
“Blessed!” one woman yelled back. Watts then asked the hundreds of people in attendance at the Aug. 1 “Broadway for Black Lives Matter” special event for a “no music” beat, and the entire audience clapped in sync as he performed a spoken-word poem.
The two-hour event, co-sponsored by Columbia Law School, was a creative collaboration of Broadway performers, artists, educators, student organizations, public officials, religious leaders, activists, police officers, and community members, who all came together as one to spark dialogue—and collective action—around social and racial justice.

Rousing performances and inspiring remarks from (left to right) Joshua Henry, Ledisi, Cynthia Erivo, and Billy Porter.  

The stars—including Audra McDonald, Cynthia Erivo, Billy Porter, India.Arie, Joshua Henry, and Ledisi—kept the crowd engrossed, and dancing and clapping, from before the show started all the way to the rousing final performance by non-profit choir Broadway Inspirational Voices. 
Audra McDonald (left) and Brian Stokes Mitchell (right) discuss the importance of keeping the momentum going. 
“This evening is a beginning; a celebration,” said Tony, Grammy, and Emmy award-winning actress Audra McDonald, who, along with Tony award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, introduced a performance by New York City Center’s cast of “The Runaways.” “We’re here to help the movement move,” said McDonald, which became a theme woven throughout the night’s performances and remarks. 
The event was organized by the Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective to inspire influential Broadway artists to use their voices in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and to unite diverse communities in a common purpose: more constructive discussion, education, and action. 
Through powerful and poignant poetry, song, dance, and spoken word, the Broadway stars demanded change. More than 800 people attended the free event, which was met with a long line that snaked along Broadway and around the corner. Several thousand more watched the show online. 
 Professor Kimberle Crenshaw is in the house!
The idea for the event was first brought to the Law School just two weeks prior, as faculty and students brainstormed ways to continue dialogue following last month’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
“Columbia Law School is uniquely positioned as an institution of higher education with some of the nation’s most brilliant minds discussing these issues, but we want to make sure we stay connected to the community,” said Yadira Ramos-Herbert, interim dean of Student Services and director of Academic Counseling and Student Outreach, who helped create opportunities for students to become involved in Monday’s event. 
The collaboration around the show offered timely opportunities for students and administrators to talk about race, and continue conversations about how the Law School can best address issues of social justice, in collaboration with artists and policy makers. And, Ramos-Herbert noted, the event created urgency and a call to action, to ensure that proposed projects come to fruition.
“Everything aligned in a really perfect way,” she said.
There was a strong sense that the show itself was a community performance—a conversation among all who were in the auditorium or watching from home. The audience sang along with Grammy-award winner India.Arie, and echoed lines in a poem read by Daniel Beaty called “Future Ancestors.” Other performers and speakers included Jeanine Tesori; NYU Professor Frank Roberts, who teaches the first Black Lives Matter course in the country; Camille A. Brown; and more. 
India.Arie leads the audience in singing "Breathe" at Monday evening's event held in Columbia's Learner Hall.
Towards the end of the affair, Columbia Law School Professor Kendall Thomas—an accomplished scholar and singer—took to the stage. “This evening has offered us all an opportunity to find and sing our change song as part of the larger change song that is the Black Lives Matter movement.” He noted the “enduring connection” between art and social change, and explained that Black Lives Matter is for not only black lives, but also for women’s lives, queer lives, transgender lives, and immigrant lives.
“We must make our change song heard, and the only way that will happen is if we do it together,” he continued, leading the audience into song. 
Professor Kendall Thomas (front) and Jeanine Tesori (back) address the crowd about the importance of events like Broadway for Black Lives Matter.
Tesori approached Columbia Law School Professor Susan Sturm with the opportunity for Columbia to co-sponsor and host the event after a Facebook message posted on July 7 by Shuffle Along actress Amber Iman calling for action gained tremendous attention. Iman teamed up with fellow Broadway actor Britton Smith and the pair went to work, galvanizing support from dozens of individuals, and from the nonprofits Broadway Black and The Oneness Project.  Columbia also jumped on board.
Amber Iman (left) came up with the idea for Broadway stars to come together in support of Black Lives Matter, while Britton Smith (right) teamed up with her on organizing the event.
“The Law School’s participation in this was remarkable,” said Sturm, the George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and founding director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change. “Universities and law schools have so much to bring to this public debate, and that’s only going to happen if we can build these kinds of mutual collaborations where there’s genuine leadership from the community.”
Professor Susan Sturm (left) and Daniel Beaty (right) cheer on Monday evening's performances.
Sturm, Ramos-Herbert, Thomas, and others in the Columbia Law School community hosted a lunch meeting the day before the gathering to help foster connections and dialogue between student leaders (such as the president and vice president of the Black Law Students Association), faculty, community members, artists, and alumni on how to create a sustained collaboration among the higher education, artistic, and the public policy and advocacy communities aimed at shifting the public narrative and public policy. 
Proposals to continue this momentum at Columbia Law School include: connecting event attendees and other community members with organizations to volunteer and get involved in the cause; holding future events with the law school, artistic, and activist communities; pairing Law School students with middle and high school students in the neighborhood and organizing a “know your rights” campaign; working with youth to use art to think about their futures; using the partnership between the law school and the arts community to create spaces for dialogue among law enforcement, lawyers, youth, and community members. As well, the Law School in September will launch  an ongoing speaker series currently titled “Lawyers, Community, and Impact” that will address issues such as policing and gun violence, access to justice, and the 2016 election. 
 A young girl dances in the aisle as Broadway Inspirational Voices gives the final performance of the night. 

“I think that there are an unusual number in the Law School faculty and administration who are working at the intersection of research and teaching and community activism, and really trying to understand how we can use all of our resources and privileges to advance that agenda,” Sturm said. “And [we have] the good fortune of having a dean who was willing to jump in and support this remarkable event on very short notice and say the Law School has a place in advancing social justice. That’s a courageous and important step for us.”


Photos by Bruce Gilbert.

View more images on the Center for Institutional and Social Change's website.