"Of course, when I step on that stage I'm portraying Roger Sherman, but also because of the direction and the freedom that our incredible directors have given us, I'm also one hundred percent standing there as Brooke Simpson as well. I'm portraying this founding father, but I'm also representing myself and a history of people that already had a nation here before we ever needed to create one."
Brooke Simpson is speaking of the current Broadway revival of 1776, the Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards musical about the founding fathers on the brink of signing the Declaration of Independence, which opened October 6 at the American Airlines Theatre. The Roundabout Theatre Company and American Repertory Theater co-production is co-directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus and features a cast composed entirely of female, transgender, and non-binary performers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The production's framing sees each of these actors take the stage in the show's opening dressed in black pants and modern shoes—some with jewelry and tops that give a subtle nod to their own personal identities—before they each don the 18th century overcoats and shoes that transform them into the Continental Congress.
In these opening moments, special care is taken to recognize and honor the Indigenous People of these lands. First, with the opening voiceover theatre announcements that normally tell audiences to turn off their phones, Simpson's recorded voice acknowledges the land on which the theatre stands—the isle of Manahatta belonging to the Lenape tribe. Following the opening monologue from John Adams (played by Crystal Lucas-Perry), the curtain opens revealing the company and Simpson, who is a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, steps forward. The Courier, played by Salome B. Smith, gives Simpson her Indigenous medallions to wear. Simpson places them around her neck, shakes hands with John Adams, and the show begins.
"It serves as a reminder, because we know the history in this country," says Simpson. "We know how individuals were put aside and how in a lot of ways, they've been forgotten. It's kind of an empowering moment where we're saying 'We're still here.' And also the camaraderie between the history of Black folks and Indigenous folks...having Salome hand that to me signifies that."
Simpson is from Hollister, North Carolina, home to the small tribe of Haliwa-Saponi people, and though she now lives in Los Angeles (where she appeared on the 13th season of The Voice), her entire family is still in the small town where she grew up in a tight-knit community rich with tribal culture. "Our culture is filled with creativity. If you were to visit one of our annual pow-wows, and were to step into the arena and see the dances...see the drum groups...hear the beat in your heart...how hard they're beating the drums...see the vibrant colors of the dancers...the fringe, the bells, everything that they have taken so much meticulous time to hand bead...It's such a creative culture from the dancing to the music to the singing. All of that plays a role into the creativity that I bring on stage now."
Simpson credits directors Page and Paulus with always including the cast in conversations around staging and costuming that spoke to their heritage. "They wanted to make sure that we're handled with the most care and love and the sacredness that it requires." Simpson's opening moments were made even more personally special for her because the medallion she wears is not just a costume piece. "It's been in my family bloodline for over 30 years," she says. "My cousin made that for my dad when he had just started dancing as a young man. And now for me to be wearing it on a Broadway stage just feels so enriching and full circle in a beautiful way for me to stand there and put a light on my tribe and my people."
With all the care and attention taken to honor the company's backgrounds and identities, it wasn't always easy dealing with the complicated narrative of the founding of the United States.
"It was something to kind of wrestle with thinking about my ancestors and what they had gone through, and then stepping into these shoes. But regardless of how sticky or uncomfortable our history may make us, I know that it's something that we can't ignore or stuff under the rug. As an artist I never just want to be a peacekeeper. I want to be a peace maker, and making peace and understanding, and bringing clarity and bringing unity, especially at a time such as this in our country...it requires some discomfort.