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Happy Birthday Audra McDonald! Will Hollywood Finally Fully Embrace & Employ Her Talent?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
July 3, 2013 5:59 PM
19 Comments
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EDITOR'S NOTE: On her 43rd birthday, I thought I'd repost this piece I penned about a year ago (with updates to it added at the bottom), asking whether Hollywood would eventually recognize and exploit her talent (on the big and small screens), after her historic win at the Tony Awards last year.

And also since the site's readership has grown since then, I'm sure a lot of you haven't read it, so here it is again, with, as I noted, necessary updates to it at the end (since there've been some changes in her career, since I published it in 2012).

Happy 43rd birthday Audra McDonald! 

Congratulations are in order for Audra McDonald who made history during last night's Tony Awards celebration, becoming the first black woman to claim 5 Tony Award wins; last night's pickup for Best Leading Actress In A Musical (for Porgy & Bess), also tied the record held by Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris.

I should note that she's just 41 years old, soon to turn 42 (she's 43 today), and, according to IBDB.com (the Internet Broadway Database), she's appeared in just 10 Broadway shows, starting in 1991 through the present. Talk about talent and recognition; 10 Broadway shows, and she won Tony Awards for her performances in half of them. To help put this into some perspective, imagine a Hollywood actress making 10 movies over a 20 year period, and winning Academy Awards (whether supporting or lead) for her performances in 5 of them.

You'd think that maybe all that talent and success would be in demand, and transfer to TV and/or film, but it hasn't quite done so. Her last big screen role was a minor, thankless part in last year's Rampart. On TV, she was on the Shonda Rhimes-created ABC medical drama Private Practice from 2007 to 2011 (although from what I hear, she was under-utilized), before leaving to head back to Broadway to star in Porgy & Bess.

She also appeared in some TV movies - Wit in 2001, and A Raisin In The Sun in 2008; she received Emmy nominations for her performances in both TV movies - Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie; so almost everything she's touched, whether on screen or on stage, has been critically recognized, and you'd think that she'd be appearing in far more work than she is currently, especially in what we'd call leading lady roles, both on TV and in film. 

What's up Hollywood studio execs?

I think of Viola Davis being in a similar position: black woman actress, routinely critically lauded for her performances (stage, TV and film), and still relatively under-used - until very recently anyway (part of that being due to her own proactive efforts in forming a production company, and packaging projects for herself). 

But I suppose that's a song one could also sing for a few other lesser-known actresses.

However, with last night's historic win - a win that will hopefully help raise even further awareness of her and her abilities - I'd expect to see Audra get more looks for TV and film projects. Glancing over her IMDBPro page, she has absolutely nothing listed in the "Projects in development" category; however, I should note that the musical's run (Porgy & Bess last year), which was originally scheduled to end on July 8, was extended to September 30 - an almost 3-month extension, which suggests that it must be doing really well for them to have that much confidence that it'll continue through the fall.

So Audra will be tied up on Broadway for about 4 more months (last year), as it was confirmed that she would stay on with the show through the end of its extension! What comes after that for her is still a mystery; but I'd say that she deserves far much more than a bit part as one of Woody Harrelson's one-night-stands in Rampart.

I should also note that Aretha Franklin has set her sights on Audra to star in her biopic; although, Aretha has had her sites on a number of other actresses to play her in a film about her life. And would Audra even want to do it if offered?

One could argue that there just isn't as much of a mainstream awareness of her (despite how well-known she is on the theatre circuit), which might be a hindrance. But with what we could call the "broadening of Broadway" in recent years, as Broadway producers welcome Hollywood actors with open arms (reviving, adapting, or "blackening" familiar, existing shows), in order to reach beyond typical theatre audiences, and boost ticket sales, lauded stage actresses like Audra McDonald might be introduced to audiences who weren't already fully aware of her and her talents.

And that new awareness could translate into more, plumper offers in both TV and film - assuming of course that she wants those opportunities. And I'd argue that she probably does. She's an actress, after all, and I'm sure she'd like to work (on hopefully great projects), expressing her talent across as many areas as it would allow, and do so consistently. And let's face it, "black shows" on Broadway (or shows with roles for black actors - specifically leading roles) aren't exactly plentiful, despite the recent surge. So it's only logical that an actress of Audra's caliber would definitely keep all her options open. Plus she's done some TV and film anyway, suggesting that she most certainly is interested in working outside of the stage circuit.

I should also note that she routinely performs in concerts throughout the US primarily (she's also an opera/classical music singer, with two Grammy Awards and four albums), so earning an income likely isn't a problem for her. But... let's see what happens in the next few months with regards to her on-screen acting career.

Audra's win makes her only the 7th black woman to win a Tony Award in the category she won for last night - Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. [Immediately before her win] LaChanze won the award for her performance in The Color Purple, in 2006 (and this year - 2013 - Patina Miller won the award for her performance in Pippin, so we'll make that the 8th time a black woman has won the award).

UPDATE 7/3/2013 - So, since I wrote this just about a year ago, what's Audra been up to?

- Well, she landed a co-starring role on CBS' drama pilot The Ordained, earlier this year - a series which revolves around the son of a Kennedy-esque family who leaves the priesthood and becomes a lawyer to prevent his politician sister from being assassinated. Audra was to play a character named Anthea, described as a senior litigator at the law firm where the son works, as well as his mentor, boss and ally, who runs Iron Man races to unwind, and lives to win cases. Unfortunately CBS didn't pick up the series.

- She's guest-starred on at least one episode of CBS' The Good Wife, playing Alicia's (Julianna Margulies) "nemesis" from their days at Georgetown law school, with the two rivals going toe to toe in the courtroom. It was reported that there was the possibility that she might return for other episodes.

- Most recently, she hosted a season of Live From Lincoln Center - the ongoing PBS series of musical performances (concerts, ballets, operas, recitals) produced by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in conjunction with Thirteen/WNET in New York City.


- IMDB does list 1 project on her upcoming slate - a crime drama based on a novel, titled I Fought the Law, directed by Adam Davenport. Although it doesn't appear that she's one of the film's stars, with Melissa Leo, Malin Akerman, Michael C. Hall, Josh Lucas, Giovanni Ribisi and others listed ahead of her.

And that's it - that I'm aware of anyway.

I should note that, last year, with the help of a contact closer to them than I am, we reached out to Audra's agents, requesting an interview, but we were never able to get one! A year later, I hope we're in a better position to do so, because we'd LOVE to chat with Audra McDonald, if it's not already clear that we're obsessed fans! *Chuckles*

And let me just say in closing, that this isn't a knock against theater/the stage, where Audra has found much success, and continues to do so. As I've already stated, I recognize that she's a multi-talented artist, with entry into several *clubs* if you will. As noted, I'm sure she's very comfortable financially and isn't longing to be on the screen, big or small. Then again, I'm not in her head, so I have no idea what Audra McDonald wants, and what he approach to her career is. This is all speculation based on available info, and more of an inquiry into whether or not she's even being considered for on-screen work, especially in a leading lady capacity. Maybe I'm just selfish and would like to see her talent used much more than it has been in TV and film, especially since that's my wheelhouse. 

Regardless, happy 43rd birthday to Ms McDonald, and here's to another 43 years of prosperity, whether on or off the stage! 

Watch her emotional Porgy & Bess acceptance speech below. As she says in it, the theatre has been so good to her, throughout her career, so maybe that says it all, and everything I said above is moot!

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19 Comments

  • Kool | July 17, 2013 3:57 AMReply

    Maybe Audra is happy with her very successful career in the theatre. There have always been actors and actress (Julie Harris, Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Merman, Patti Lupone, etc.) who have dabbled in TV and movies from time to time, yet prefer working on Broadway. I do know from reading a few articles about her that she prefers living and working in New York. Maybe, just maybe, she is happy with her career, mainly doing theatre while doing TV or films here and there.

  • Amari | July 5, 2013 5:19 PMReply

    There could be a possibility that while she may flirt with other forms of entertainment, her heart is in the theater. Where else can she display all aspects of her talent? In TV there aren't any musical shows and outside of them redoing Porgy and Bess again, are there any big time black musicals to do? Well, outside The Color Purple musical?

    And excuse me if it seems like I'm pigeonholing her, but amongst the optimism we have for a talented individual like her, we have to also present the reality of the world. She is 43 years old, isn't a light skinned woman and is a broadway singer. Broadway talent, in general, have a hard time crossing over and putting down her race, age and complexion will make it so unless she does indie films and works her way up like she is a nobody, then there will probably be more false-starts than anything with traction.

  • CareyCarey | July 4, 2013 9:17 PMReply

    Okay, it's obvious none of us really knows what's in Audra's heart. I mean, it's a fact that she's an accomplished stage actor, but would she drop her stage career if the right opportunity came her way?

    Well, I am reminded of the 2013 Tony Awards Show. In particular, the skit with Neal and Friends comes to mind.

    Laura Benanti — who is coming off the back-to-back cancellations of The Playboy Club and Go On and Megan Hilty and Andrew Rannells, — whose respective small screen breaks, Smash and The New Normal, were axed by NBC — joined host Neil Patrick Harris on stage to literally sing the praises of TV. Andrew said, "there's a lot of great things about being on a TV show but I like the theater, it's my home". But on the same breath he abruptly started singing "I'd like to be on a TV show". The crowd burst into laughter.

    Meagan walked out singing "work you agents and politicians, don't think it won't get you far, but you gotta have a series if you wanna be a star. Land a Broadway show, sure, but if you want exposure a sitcom helps to further your name... you gotta have a series if you want a shot at fame"

    I thought the skit was very funny but seriously poignant. I believe it was speaking to the mindset of most entertainers/actors. Check it out--> youtube.com/watch?v=PWtXV7_fAsI

  • MiA | July 4, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    I similarly would love to see more of Audra, on stage or screen. I'm one of the apparent few who faithfully watched her show, Mister Sterling, with Josh Brolin. So yea, I would love to see her more on screen. As a fan, I want the tv/film industry to understand how unbelievably talented she is, just as Broadway understands. I want my non-theatre friends to understand my rants about her talent just as my theatre friends do. But I would also buy a ticket to see her act & sing the phone book.

    I do know that she's planning on returning to the stage in a straight play next year. She let that little tidbit out in a recent interview she did with Michael Kahn at Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. (Another tidbit: she mentioned that she initially did PP to help her get over her fear of the camera.) It was a good interview despite my quibbles with Kahn as an interviewer.

  • ALM | July 4, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    I would love to see Audra play a lead role in the Annie-like reboot that is being released next Christmas.

    In glancing over some of her resume above, I noticed that Ms. McDonald has achieved something that many actors of color have struggled with, becoming highly successful without having to play a stereotypical role. She has played a lot of professional roles, i.e. doctors and lawyers. We have discussions on this site daily as to why there aren't more positive roles out here.

    It would be great if Ms. McDonald's team could connect with some of these other actors in order to create a production house to create more quality roles.

  • A.J. | July 4, 2013 9:33 AMReply

    Tambay, I hope you don't reply sarcastically to my post, but if Viola Davis, Alfre Woodard, Gabrielle and others admitted to Oprah in the recent special on OWN about Black actresses that they have a hard enough time finding good material and they have been in the industry for over three decades (and if they want to do something outside the box they will have to WRITE IT THEMSELVES), realistically speaking how is Audra going to fare?

    In interviews when she was promoting Porgy & Bess, she said that she when she was doing Private Practice, she was bi-coastal and she prefers the east coast so that she can be close to her family. So that takes her out of the L.A. film/TV loop. And hopefully this will increase her odds of working on new theater projects or at least get booked on shows that film in New York City. Although the Ordained wasn't picked up, hopefully she'll do another pilot that is made in New York that does get an order.

    Also, Tambay look at what happened to Sarah Jones, who like Meryl Streep and Whoopi Goldberg exploded onto the NYC theater scene with their unique abilities to be a shape shifter with her prodigious talent for accents and playing men and women and people of different ethnicities. Sarah won a Tony for her performance in Bridge & Tunnel in 2006, which was originally coproduced Off-Broadway by Meryl Streep. Bridge & Tunnel was extended on Broadway. The producers of Bridge & Tunnel recouped their million dollar investment in weeks, and she was the talk of the town, but Hollyweird was unable to translate Sarah's success on stage to film/TV. Sarah has written a series of one woman shows since the late 90s', but why hasn't she been able to cross over into TV/film or at least as a writer? I remembered when people hoped she would get cast on SNL or a similar show. Didn't happen because you know what time it is on SNL. Sarah said she kept being offered stereotypical roles and Bravo produced a sketch comedy pilot for her which aired but didn't get picked up for a full order. It was the strange case of what so many Black actresses have complained about where Hollyweird says "you're so talented, but we don't know what to do with you."

    At least Whoopi had The Color Purple to catapult her into film. Even Whoopi herself admitted that she is not being offered anything substantial at this point her in career and as we all know she's in the elite EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner) circle. Where are these type of projects like The Color Purple in the 21st century for Black actresess?

    As Sleepwalker and others have said, theater is the medium where Audra has had the most success and is possibly more rewarding for her as an artist. Maybe Audra will want to start producing her own projects for film/TV and in the meantime her theater fans can't wait for her return to the stage to tackle her next role because we will be there.

  • julien | July 4, 2013 2:30 AMReply

    I wonder why she hasn't been offered a role in a movie musical.

  • Zaidi | July 4, 2013 12:33 AMReply

    What matters most to Hollywood is not offending white people's 'sensibilities'; and let's be honest with each other, black skin--my black skin--offends white people; and too much of it is a financial liability. Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

  • jamieknight | July 3, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    Audre McDonald has made it over and over again: THEATRE (not film) is her "home." This woman does not want to be a "movie star." Being a theatre ICON is more than enough.

  • Ashley | July 3, 2013 11:58 PM

    "This woman does not want to be a "movie star."" I don't know if that's necessarily true. I seriously doubt that she'd turn down starring roles in quality films. I'm sure she'd like to get her Streisand on. Hell she said she was open to starring in the Aretha Franklin biopic. I would love to see Audra conquer film likes she has done theater. I'm sure when given the opportunity she'd slay...as always.

  • starry118 | July 3, 2013 10:54 PMReply

    I love Audra! I've wondered the same b/c TV & film are more my wheelhouse as well. I saw her first on Private Practice (she was definitely underutilized) & came across some of her concerts online. I think she's a remarkable talent & is beautiful inside & out. I look forward to seeing her in "The Ordained" ... looks like a stellar cast.

  • starry118 | July 3, 2013 11:03 PM

    *mixed "I Fought the Law" with " The Ordained" ... the former looked like it had a stellar cast (wonder what happened there) & the latter should be stellar since she's in it.

  • Ashley | July 3, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    Audra has done more than that since her 2013 Tony win. She recorded and released an album 'Go Back Home', recorded a concert for Live From Lincoln Center, she has been touring the country, performing for benefits. She starred in the series finale of Private Practice, she was on Sesame Street, she has been honored by several prominent organizations including The Drama League, nominated for a Grammy via Porgy & Bess album, AND she got married. Audra stays busy.

    Hollywood has to raise the bar for someone like Audra. Like I've said before, she's Barbara Streisand and Meryl Streep combined. The BEST of the best.

  • Ashley | July 3, 2013 7:33 PM

    *since her 2012 Tony win.

  • Sleepwalker | July 3, 2013 7:11 PM

    Thank you Ashley & Factchecker. She works all the time...on projects that SHE chooses, and is in the rare & wonderful position to be selective with her roles. Audrey's doing just fine.

  • FactChecker | July 3, 2013 7:01 PM

    I agree with Ashley, and see this as a rather non-article, non-issue. Compared to most actresses -- black or white -- Audra WORKS!!! She's the rare actress who can be selective about the projects she takes and will be starring in a CBS drama, slated for mid-season titled "The Ordained." She's the rare actress who is able to be selective of the projects that she works on. She left "Private Practice," because she no longer wanted to split her time between Cali and NYC (her daughter, Zoe was living in NYC with her father). ...

    don't worry about Audra. She'll ALWAYS be OK.

  • Sleepwalker | July 3, 2013 6:40 PMReply

    Why does Hollywood need to embrace her??? She is the QUEEN of Broadway, doing better on Broadway than most actresses do in theater/film/& TV. Are you saying that theater is less than film/TV? Why do you assume that she's somehow unfulfilled or feeling jilted because she isn't doing a lot of film/TV. The roles she's played on stage are much better characters than any of the options available for black actress. All actors are not dying to do film/TV. It is an honor and privilege to be a master of the stage, a feet most film/TV actors don't have the capacity to do. I've seen most of her contemporaries on stage: (Kerry Washington, Julia Roberts, Terrance Howard, Katie Holmes, Vanessa Williams, Wood Harris...I could go on), and they should really stay away from theater, it's not their genre. I believe that her talent IS being fully embraced where it is. I'm sure she'll do more film/TV when she feels it time. In the meantime she's playing in her playground of master thespians. Try having a wider perspective Shadowandact. IJS

  • Nadia | July 3, 2013 6:50 PM

    Sleepwalker sounds like he or she knows Audra personally and what exactly Audra wants for her career, and has insight into her career choices. Maybe Sleepwalker is Audra's agent. Maybe Sleepwalker can hook you up with that interview Tambay.

  • Tambay | July 3, 2013 6:47 PM

    Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying - that theater is less than film/tv, and that she's unfulfilled and feeling jilted because she isn't doing a lot of film/TV. Woe is me and my narrow perspective on these matters. You absolutely nailed it. I'm now enlightened thanks to you.

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