*In the fourth and final part series with Broadway veteran Chapman Roberts, composer, producer and the co-creator of “Black Stars of the Great White Way,” Roberts continues his discussion on race, politics and the New York City musician’s union (Local 802).
Inside Broadway: What are you most optimistic about for today’s performing artists of color on Broadway?
Chapman Roberts: I am not optimistic about it and I’m going to tell you why. You have a Hispanic man playing a man of African heritage, Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was not Hispanic, his mother was a black woman from the Island of Nevis in the Caribbean, and in the show, they said she was a whore. And no one is saying a word about it. It’s the biggest hit on Broadway, and I am not in the least bit optimistic about it. I am not optimistic because when a black show is produced, it is produced by white people to cater to their audiences. And the black people who have the money, have not done one thing to put that money into black communities to help reinstitute our musical heritage. They haven’t done one thing. The only people that reached out were Beyoncé and Jay-Z, when they joined with Will [Smith] and Jada [Pinkett Smith] to put money into Fela! And Alicia Keys put money into Stick Fly. I invested money in all those Broadway shows. I invested in Mountain Top with Angela Bassett and Samuel Jackson. I invested in The Trip to Bountiful with Cicely Tyson. I invested in Stick Fly. I created Five Guys Named Moe, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Eubie, Daddy Goodness, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, Blues in the Night, Smokey Joe’s Café. And you are only the fourth black journalist I’ve ever talked to in my life.
There’s a black woman [Thelma Pollard] who has been the head of makeup for The Phantom of the Opera for 26 years. She also did the makeup for Dreamgirls and Cats—she invented it. For 26 years she’s been traveling all over the world with The Phantom of the Opera, doing all of their make-up. She’s from Barbados, and ain’t nobody said nothing to her.
IB: What advice would you give young African American performing artists interested in a career on Broadway?
CR: I would tell them to study their craft. I have a problem with them too. Everyone sends their kids to me. And I say to them, “Where are you studying dance?” And they say, “Oh, I dance,” and I say, “I didn’t ask you what you do, I asked where do you study dance?” I say to them, “You go to Alvin Ailey and you study.” Then I say, “Who is your voice teacher?” And they say, “I can sing.” I say, “Perhaps you would like to sing better. Where are you studying?” They must study their craft and educate themselves because anytime you speak to a young African American person and they say, “Yo, you know what I’m saying,” I say “Well, I don’t know what role you’re going to audition for because they want a monologue.” Their response to me is “What is a monologue?” I say, “Do you know what stage right, stage left, upstage, or downstage are?” And they say, “No.” Well, they need to know. We have been taught by this hip-hop industry that it’s luck and that’s also about your gentiles. We have denigrated ourselves to the point where these so-called men are walking around wiggling their asses in people’s faces. We have a problem because that’s what they think entertainment is.
In the audition notices, do you know what these white people have done? In the audition notices, they put “no stylized singing.” They mean don’t come in here yodeling. Sing the song. Sing! Don’t come in here telling me how good you are going to do me in bed, they are not interested in that. That’s why they don’t have a future on Broadway. They can’t sing, they can’t dance, and they can’t act. They think because they can shake their behinds that’s going to make them a star. That’s why they are not going to get anywhere.
IB: What advice do you have for young musicians interested in pursuing a career on Broadway and in musical theatre? How would you tell them to prepare?
CR: They must study. Now, this is extremely difficult because the musician’s union is a gang industry. There’s an organization called the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; and the Mellon Foundation recently gave them $400,000 to research and find qualified African American musicians who play classical music. With the last infusion of money from Norm Lewis, on Sunday, June 22nd
 at 10:00 in the morning, we put our contractor on the phone and we assembled a 65-piece all African American male symphony orchestra on twenty-four hours’ notice on that [Carnegie Hall] stage with two and half hours of rehearsal. And twenty minutes after the rehearsal started, an official from Carnegie Hall walked onto the stage in the middle of my rehearsal and said, “Local 802 [New York City’s musicians’ union] is downstairs and they want to talk with you.” And I said “I’m in the middle of a rehearsal. I’m not a member of Local 802.” She said that they wanted to talk with me. I said, “Well, excused me, you’re cutting into my time that I’m paying for. They can wait at the door. I rented this hall, and it’s mine.” The next thing I knew, [a representative from Local 802] was on the stage; they had let him in. And he stood there on the stage and said to me, “We are shutting this down.” And I said, “You are shutting what down? This is not a union house. In fact, when I signed my contract, I made sure they told me that.” He said, “No it’s not a union house, but these are union musicians.” I turned to the orchestra and said, “Anybody here who is a member of Local 802 who wants to leave, you are welcome to leave right now.” The Local 802 representative said, “I am going to fix you. The stage hand union is going to picket you.” I said, “Good, I can use the publicity.” One musician left, the rest of the musicians sat there and said the union hasn’t given them a job in years.
They [Local 802] pretend there are no jobs and they can’t find quality [African American musicians]. That’s a lie, there are plenty of them. The most famous and the best harpist in the world is a black woman name Ann Hobson. She is in her 70s and she plays with the Boston Symphony. I’m doing a concert [the Classical Pops Festival] with her, Earth, Wind & Fire, Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in Barbados on December 10th, 11th and 12th. I’m doing another concert [The Color of Music Festival] in Charleston, South Carolina at a Symphony Hall, right across the street from the mass shooting that happened at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. I will be performing with 4,000 classical musicians from all over the world. They [Local 802] pretend they can’t find them. I had fathers and sons in that symphony orchestra. I had fathers sitting next to their sons playing violins [at Carnegie Hall]. I had a father and son in Winston-Salem—the father was a trumpet player and the son was a drummer. [The musician’s union] blocked them out, and even the black musicians spread the word and say that you can’t find any classical musicians—and that’s a lie.
I was in the musician’s union and I have had more hit Broadway shows than any black musician alive on the planet. When I retired, I went to the musician’s union regarding my pension. And they said to me, “What pension? Mr. Roberts your last show closed over five years ago.” I said, “So what?” They said, “You haven’t done a show on Broadway in the last five years. If you haven’t done a show within five years, then you lose your pension benefits.” I said, “When did that happen?” They responded, “We notified everybody.” I said, “No you didn’t. You didn’t notify me.” They said, “Well, we told everybody and you don’t have a pension.” That’s another challenge and there’s more to this story.
To read part one of A Conversation with Broadway Veteran Chapman Roberts, please read, http://wp.me/p33GTY-2ex1.
To read part two of A Conversation with Broadway Veteran Chapman Roberts, please read, http://wp.me/p33GTY-2eW2
To read part three of A Conversation with Broadway Veteran Chapman Roberts, please read, http://wp.me/p33GTY-2fC
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 20 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of the AAPRC’s e-publication, Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and the forthcoming column, “My Person of the Week” is published on EURweb.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected]