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Could ‘for colored girls’ and ‘1776’ mark a turning point for visibly pregnant actors on Broadway?

For as long as pregnant people have been able to work, they've confronted the tension around working while pregnant — especially on Broadway where appearance can actually factor into the job.

L-R: Kenita R. Miller in "for colored girls" on Broadway (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin) / Elizabeth A. Davis in "1776" on Broadway (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

For as long as pregnant people have been able to work, they’ve confronted the tension around working while pregnant — especially on Broadway where appearance can actually factor into the job.

Within six months of each other, two actors in separate Broadway productions began performances while visibly, obviously pregnant.

Kenita R. Miller played the Lady in Red in a revival of “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which began previews on April 1, 2022. On opening night, Miller was 34 weeks’ pregnant and left the production on May 22 — with a Tony nomination in hand — to give birth. On Sept. 16, a revival of “1776” started previews with Elizabeth A. Davis as Thomas Jefferson; on opening night, Davis was 26 weeks’ pregnant. She is due on Jan. 1, 2023, and plans to work all eight shows per week until she chooses to depart.

Thousands of theatergoers have watched these two actors perform with swollen bellies. And while a few have performed on the Main Stem during their early trimesters of pregnancy — such as Laura Benanti, Kara Lindsay and Audra McDonald — taking the Broadway stage in later months is rarer. Yet, “for colored girls” and “1776” have now proven that it’s not only possible to cast visibly pregnant actors; it can be additive.

Though it was not the original plan for the Lady in Red or Jefferson to appear pregnant, the image introduced deeper layers to their respective stories.

The conceit of the new “1776” revolves around a troupe of actors — all people who would not have been allowed in the room where white men brokered America’s sovereignty — telling the origin story of the Declaration of Independence. “We’re looking at actors, their representation across race, ethnicity, gender and, in this case, pregnancy and motherhood,” said co-director Diane Paulus. She considers Davis a representation of “another aspect of humans who would never have been allowed inside Independence Hall when that history took place.”

Davis originated Jefferson in the pre-Broadway staging at American Repertory Theater when she was pregnant but not showing. So when she shared her condition with Paulus in a private meeting (and having previously worked off-Broadway while noticeably pregnant, in “King Lear” at The Secret Theater, with her now-five-year-old son), Davis came equipped with dramaturgical backing about why it would work to keep her in the role on Broadway.

Jefferson births the Declaration as its writer, constantly refers to “family business” and is Congress’ most famous lover. “All those things fed into how we could embrace and expand our concept to include her pregnancy,” said Paulus.

The metaphor works so well, in fact, “people think — in the audience — that I’m not pregnant,” Davis said, though, of course, she is.

“It’s stunning to actually have Elizabeth carrying life inside her while she’s also speaking as a man whose wife died because of his sexual appetite,” said co-director Jeffrey L. Page, noting that the physical strain of so many pregnancies weakened Martha Jefferson, and she passed away, it is believed, from childbirth complications.

That dichotomy of loss and life also coalesced in Miller’s “for colored girls” performance. The Lady in Red’s monologue “Beau Willie Brown” tells the story of a woman who left an abusive partner, only to lose two of her children at his hands in a horrifying act of vengeance. After a workshop of the revival, director-choreographer Camille A. Brown knew she wanted Miller for the Broadway run. “Once I found out that she was pregnant, I felt like it elevated her story,” said Brown — a story of “having lost her two children and then seeing [Miller], in real time, prepared to give life.” If “for colored girls” offers the rainbow of Black womanhood — all bodies and shapes — pregnancy is part of that. Plus, the entire message of Brown’s production was “about being reborn.”

The active incorporation of these actors’ pregnancies into their characters not only enhances storytelling, it marks a sea change for Broadway.

Neither Davis nor Miller is the first actor to perform on Broadway while visibly and publicly pregnant, even in recent memory. Liz McCartney, now in the cast of “Funny Girl,” made headlines in 2003 when she starred as Big Sue, while pregnant, in the original Broadway company of the Boy George musical “Taboo.” But the reception of McCartney’s pregnancy and how it played into her role (or didn’t) was entirely different.

“The character’s name was Big Sue,” McCartney said. “It didn’t matter if I was pregnant or not. They just thought I was a big girl.”

McCartney’s agents addressed her pregnancy when the official offer came through. “Honestly, there was a day of radio silence until it got back to [lead producer] Rosie [O’Donnell],” McCartney remembered, “and she was like, ‘Well, she’s not gonna have the baby onstage, so we’ll just hire two amazing understudies and she can go have her baby and come back.’”

On opening night of “Taboo,” McCartney was 36 weeks’ pregnant. She had two covers in Dioni Michelle Collins and Brooke Elliott. McCartney planned to leave the production only when she had her baby, and return one week later. But doctors put her on bed rest two weeks after opening. Still, the contingency plan worked. Elliott went on for the entirety of McCartney’s leave; McCartney gave birth to her first child on Dec. 5, 2003, and returned on Jan. 9, 2004.

“They were prepared from day one. It was basically because of [Rosie],” McCartney said. “You expect all women producers or all women directors to be that accommodating and they’re all not.”

McCartney revealed that years later she lost a stage-acting job during her pregnancy with her second child due to her status. Certainly, those stories are not relegated to the past. But “for colored girls” and “1776” could prove an antidote to the prohibitive fears of theatermakers who may worry about the logistics of making this casting choice work.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Paulus. “It’s all possible. It’s methodical. It’s intentional. It’s a conversation with the artist.”

That’s how it began for Davis. “Diane is a mom to two daughters. I felt that I could trust her as, first of all, a woman who has walked through childbirth,” Davis said. “Diane created an environment where I knew I could talk to her about anything.”

Both directors unquestionably wanted Davis to continue with the show. As Page noted, “Elizabeth is such a dynamic and smart performer that I was like, ‘Oh my God. Does that mean that we’re going to have to find someone else? Is she going to stay with this show?’”

First, Davis got an official doctor’s note clearing her to work; then the directors took their cues from her and established open lines of communication between Davis and every department.

“Any performer navigating something, you accommodate,” Paulus said. “[But] it can’t just be the director excited or inspired to make it work. You’ve got to have your producer on board. You’ve got to have your company management there. You’ve got to have your stage management. The full team.” With “1776,” that full team climbed on board.

Paulus and Page simplified Davis’ track to move less furniture, and relocated her upstage for the opening number — which requires a bit more choreography. The team implemented changes from the get-go of the transfer instead of adjusting as the run progressed.

Scenic designer Scott Pask built extra support to help Davis climb atop a barrel that’s part of her blocking. She has additional supervision when Jefferson pops up over the onstage curtain, playing violin from a “window” above. Davis climbs a rolling staircase with three people — one to hold her violin, one to hold her bow, the other to follow from behind and hold her hips at the top for security — and relies on multiple people stabilizing the staircase on the ground. Davis emphasized, “Nothing feels hazardous.”

From a costuming standpoint, it could have been simple to hide Davis’ belly behind a ruffled shirt and the silhouette of an 18th-century waistcoat, but including her pregnancy in the story called for a different design. Page thought, “We’re going to find a shirt that will make [her] look wonderful and beautiful and powerful in every sense.” A fitted shirt that stretches to Davis’ size became the garb.

For those who remember Miller’s performance, they’ll recall her bare midriff. As Brown said, “In speaking with Sarafina Bush, the costume designer, we both agreed … [her pregnancy] was something we wanted to celebrate.” Brown allowed Miller’s state to permeate the full piece as she devised more nuanced movement for the entire company.

Different from Davis, Miller wanted to gyrate and sway and jump and stomp. “I didn’t have to change much because Kenita was down to do all of it,” said Brown. “Maybe there were two adjustments in the choreography that I made.”

No two pregnant actors require the same accommodations — just as no two actors in any condition.

“For me, at least, it started a conversation about women’s bodies and how we should have ownership over our bodies,” said casting director Erica Jensen of Calleri Jensen Davis, who cast this production of “for colored girls.” “We should be allowed to say when we can work and when we can’t. And it should not be dictated by someone’s idea of what pregnancy is or what it isn’t and what we are capable of doing.”

Still, when McCartney hears about Miller’s and Davis’ experiences, she doesn’t relate. “I was basically cut out of the opening number because they didn’t want me doing too much movement and I thought that was odd; meanwhile, I had to climb up and down these ladder steps every night,” McCartney said. “It was a different time. It was not like, ‘Oh, Liz, let me get you a chair. Oh, Liz, let me get you some water. Oh, Liz, do you need to sit down?’ It was, ‘Liz, get it together. Liz, you’re acting crazy.’”

Which is why the two latest examples are so heartening — not just from an artistic perspective, but a logistic one.

“The entire show really is a matrix of coverage,” Page said of “1776.” Davis, specifically, has one onstage cover (Nancy Anderson) and one offstage (Grace Stockdale) — neither of whom appear pregnant; Davis is in constant communication with them about Jefferson’s character and onstage choices. Miller, too, had one understudy (Alexis Sims, who covered a pair of additional roles) and one standby (Rachel Christopher). These covers were prepared to go on from day one — not only because of the unknown of pregnancy, but COVID-19.

“In this pandemic, coverage is something that is triple underscored,” Paulus said. “I’ve seen the industry change in a few years: We’re highlighting understudy coverage from the first day of rehearsal, whereas it used to be, ‘Here are your assignments; we’ll get to the understudies after we open the show.’ That doesn’t happen anymore because the reality is our understudies, swings, are going on in rehearsals. That muscle has been extended to making sure Elizabeth is well-covered.”

While hiring additional actors to cover pregnant cast members costs more money, producers have already started to face the new reality of the need for more coverage overall to keep shows open.

More coverage benefits everyone. (It’s one item that members of Actors’ Equity Association hope will result from current contract negotiations with The Broadway League.) It specifically opens up historically closed-off job opportunities for pregnant actors or those who may become pregnant.

From a casting perspective, Jensen said that having one understudy and one standby to cover a pregnant actor “is absolutely a recommendation I would make again.”

At “1776,” the full company is prepared for the moment when Davis needs to leave, whether on her due date or unexpectedly. (Cast member Shawna Hamic even has a speech planned in case Davis goes into labor mid-show.)

When Davis departs, she likely won’t return, as “1776” is scheduled to conclude its limited run on Jan. 9. Miller departed permanently because “for colored girls” announced a May 22 closing before the surprise extension to June 5. But if the shows remained open and these actors wanted to return, how would they?

Accommodations from a storytelling and management standpoint for postpartum actors are another frontier — though Broadway does have one example to reference. The Paulus-helmed “Jagged Little Pill” welcomed back two actors in the lead role of Mary Jane — Elizabeth Stanley, who originated the role pre-shutdown, and Heidi Blickenstaff — to accommodate Stanley’s new motherhood, having given birth four weeks prior to reopening. Still, there is even more to discuss about childcare.

Cumulatively, this begs the question: How can the industry make it more feasible for pregnant actors, those who might become pregnant, postpartum actors — even parents, overall — to work on Broadway?

“Rules have to change,” said Jensen. “Pregnant people have to feel safe to disclose information.

“Pregnant people have to feel like they will not be penalized or lose work. And this is not just in our industry.” (It’s worth noting that no one can ask an actor to disclose this information.)

“Supporting women who are pregnant currently in shows is a feedback loop to the industry, to the folks who are in power, to say this is possible,” Paulus said. “More importantly, actually, is for folks out there who are thinking about a career in the theater to say, ‘I can do this.’”

It sends a message to producers and the next generation that they don’t have to choose.

Miller’s and Davis’ experiences serve as a reference for what those rules with regard to pregnant performers can and need to be. Paulus, Page and Brown can offer their knowledge from these shows to other directors who might want to hire more inclusively but don’t know how. Jensen can offer her take from a casting perspective. “I hope people will ask [for advice],” Jensen said. “I do hope directors will ask and be supportive and see other ways to tell stories, playwrights as well, and see specifically how this can be a benefit.”

Though two examples do not a trend make, they do offer a template for future artists to create a deeper, nuanced and more conscientious Broadway.