(Michael Schulman’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/26; Illustration by Nhung Lê.)
Audra McDonald came out of Juilliard in 1993, a twenty-two-year-old with a lyric soprano as pristine as sterling silver, and quickly forged one of the most celebrated careers in Broadway history. A year out of school, she was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in a Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel,” in what was hailed as a breakthrough in “color-blind casting,” and won her first Tony Award for the role. More Tonys followed, for “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” And then more, for “Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” in which she played a broken Billie Holiday. She remains the only performer ever to win six Tonys and the only one to win in all four available categories.
McDonald’s plan for this summer was to play Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but, like all live theatre, the production was derailed by the pandemic. Instead, she’s been quarantined at her home in Westchester, with her husband, Will Swenson (her co-star in a 2007 production of “110 in the Shade”), their four children (three from previous marriages and a toddler, Sally), plus their eleven-year-old dog and “about five hundred frogs on the outside,” McDonald said recently. Nevertheless, she has not been idle. In April, she appeared, along with Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski, in a memorable rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” as part of an online concert for Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday. This month, she performed a virtual concert from a space off her garage which she calls the “Chill Room.”
And then there’s the racial reckoning that has spilled over from the Black Lives Matter protests into the theatre world. In June, McDonald co-founded Black Theatre United, along with performers such as Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce, and Billy Porter. At its inaugural town hall, McDonald moderated a conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund. When I reached McDonald by Zoom, she was in her teen stepson’s bedroom; the “Chill Room” was undergoing an emergency chimney repair, and Sally could be heard singing in the hallway. “As much as we try to stay energetic for her, we just can’t replicate a three-year-old’s energy,” McDonald said. “Although we did just find some caterpillars in our garden, and we’re going to watch them turn into butterflies.” Our conversation—about her own metamorphoses, from a demoralized student at Juilliard, where she survived a suicide attempt, to a Broadway eminence to a community advocate—has been edited and condensed.
The theatre, like many industries, has been thrust into a big, belated moment of racial reckoning. As one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, Black theatre artists in America, how have you been thinking about what your role should be?
You need to do what you can to make more space. Every time that we are able to get into the room, I think it’s your job to create more space. I can’t tell you how many young African-American women, students or whatnot, come up to me and say, “I watched you as a kid, and I remember thinking, If she’s doing Broadway, then I can do it. And I can do it as a soprano. I don’t have to do it in the way that society would mainly see me—a sassy beltress.”
Did you have people like that growing up?
For me, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll, of course. Ella Fitzgerald. Obviously, she never did Broadway, but that was Ella’s voice. That was no one else’s voice except Ella’s. And, then, Lillias White I just adored. I had the album of “The Wiz,” which I listened to over and over again. I never thought that I would have the career that I ended up having, but I could at least be there. There was at least space to be taken up by Black women.
I’ve always used my voice to call attention to issues that I thought were important. I’ve been on the board of Covenant House for four or five years now, doing work with homeless youth, trying to give them shelter and education and food and dignity. With Black Theatre United, it’s about all of us saying, “We can’t sit on the sidelines. We can lament everything going on, but how can we as a group effect change in some grander way than just on our own?” As Sherrilyn Ifill said in that town hall, “Everybody has to use the tools in your hand.”