Ariana DeBose will be the first to tell you she’s been waiting a long time for this. The Tony nominee worked steadily on Broadway in shows like Hamilton and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical for almost a decade. But this? A feature film directed by Ryan Murphy? Opposite Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Kerry Washington? This is way different. Because with The Prom, DeBose is becoming the movie star she wished she could watch growing up.
The musical was an anomaly when it premiered on Broadway in 2018. It’s not based on an existing story, like the life of a pop diva or a movie—instead, its premise revolves around Indiana teen Emma, who wants to take her girlfriend to prom. When this “scandal” leads to the event being canceled, four New York stage actors take up the cause in the name of positive PR.
For the Netflix movie adaptation, DeBose plays Emma’s closeted girlfriend, Alyssa Greene, who feels like an outsider around her cheer squad peers and controlling mother. “Alyssa is struggling with her identity,” DeBose explains. “She wants to stand in her power, but she’s also trying to please everyone, and it’s very hard to reconcile those two wants.” DeBose established a connection to the character the moment she saw Isabelle McCalla originate the role on Broadway—she “represented queer girls so beautifully,” DeBose says—and her own audition with Murphy was more a conversation about her experiences as a queer woman than reading lines. “When I auditioned, I thought a lot about how we identify with our communities and how Alyssa would manifest through me,” she says. “My lived experiences allowed me to play Alyssa to the fullest degree.”
As an Afro-Latinx actress, DeBose is all too familiar with the feeling of navigating a tightrope between two worlds. “I was raised in a community that didn’t necessarily understand me,” the 29-year-old says. For young people of color, society’s entrenched biases repeatedly communicate that the deck is stacked against them. This only heightens the fears of those who struggle with their identity. “I was surrounded by lots of different cultures, but I didn’t necessarily have access to my culture,” DeBose explains. “I felt very much accepted within my home, but it was always hard to truly connect with people [outside] because I never felt fully understood.”
Like her character, DeBose learned to love herself as she is. “There are days where you understand the moments you’re in and the emotions racing through your body, and there are days where nothing makes sense,” she says. “I do believe that part of self-love is giving ourselves the spectrum of grace to explore that. And I think we all must commit to being imperfect.”
While Broadway has a reputation for being inclusive, LGBTQ+ representation has primarily been limited to gay white men, with some notable exceptions, like 2015’s Best Musical Tony winner Fun Home. But in a rare move for theater, The Prom doesn’t concentrate on Emma’s trauma from being rejected by her parents and classmates. Instead, the show engages in the biggest act of rebellion one can take on a global stage: queer joy. It begs audiences to create space for acceptance and self-love in a world where members of the LGBTQ+ community encounter daily acts of hate. In the same breath, it demands the theater world leave its comfort zone and truly be at the forefront of inclusivity—a reminder that there are living, breathing people behind every banner waved and policy enacted. The Prom presents a world where the key to happiness is to accept people for who they are. It’s a powerful message everyone—queer and not—could stand to be reminded of.
“We need queer joy now more than ever,” DeBose says. “I want to make work that allows people to see themselves. Not just young people, but all people.” She hopes The Prom sparks conversations where there may be silence or outright violence. She’s especially thrilled to share the film with the folks at the youth organization Covenant House, where she has volunteered “for a long time,” since many there identify as LGBTQ+. After the film’s release, DeBose and co-star Jo Ellen Pellman launched the Unruly Hearts Initiative to connect audiences with Covenant House, The Trevor Project, and the Point Foundation, trusted organizations that advocate for the LGBTQ+ community through resources for housing insecurity solutions, mentorship, education, and access to mental health care. “I just want cupcakes and sprinkles for everyone after the year we’ve had,” DeBose says with a laugh.
The fact that The Prom even made it to screens before the end of 2020 is its own miracle. The film had only two days left of shooting when the pandemic forced an industry-wide shutdown in March, but it was among the first productions to resume filming in July. “The person handling your hair and makeup was always in full PPE,” DeBose recalls. “Even down to details around getting a soda from craft services! No one else could touch anything you touched.” Despite the uncharted territory, the four-day shoot was a success, though filming scenes with Pellman, which often relied on instinctual touch like holding hands, often felt challenging.
DeBose is an empath, so she feels acutely the pain her Broadway community is going through as the pandemic rages on. New York theaters have shut down before, but never for this long or with this level of ambiguity around when they might reopen. Producers are on Zoom calls every day, trying to figure out when and how the business can reemerge. It’s not lost on DeBose that most of her friends and colleagues are unemployed in an industry that brought $52.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all circumstance,” she says. “We are a creative community. If one thing doesn’t work, we get up, and we try again. I’m very confident in our abilities to find a solution. However, I don’t quite know what that is right now.”
Throughout our conversation, DeBose makes it clear her outlook is about so much more than entertainment or accolades. It’s about the performers being seen with the same humanity as those consuming the art. “We’re all really suffering in a way,” she says of Broadway’s shutdown. “We’re all looking for a solution in our minds and hearts, and our unions are working really hard to find one, but it’s not easy.”
She knows the industry is ripe for change, especially in the wake of this summer’s nationwide reckoning on race. The stage community came together on social media to share their experiences of feeling silenced, marginalized, and tokenized as they’ve pursued careers on Broadway. Newly-formed collectives like We See You, White American Theater are demanding active measures to counter structural racism onstage and off, and a deeper reckoning is taking place that might not have been possible if Broadway were in full swing.
“Many people in the entertainment field want to go back to the way things were because it’s easy; it’s an established precedent,” she says. “Things only change when we move forward. I do think you’re going to see a new generation of artists who will kindly help facilitate this change.” It’s clear she’ll be one of them. “When we take a step back and see what the system has historically benefited, that’s when we have to pay attention,” she continues. “It’s time to dismantle those pre-existing systems. The only way we do that is by getting involved in our communities and workplaces.”
That’s why it’s not just about the quality of DeBose’s work, though few would dispute her talent. It’s the choices she makes in the roles she wants to inhabit, both with the messaging behind each performance and the people and organizations she chooses to work with. Next year, she’ll play the coveted role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. And as we talk on the phone, she’s on the set of the Apple TV+ Brigadoon-inspired musical comedy series, which co-stars her The Prom colleague Keegan-Michael Key, as well as Cecily Strong, Kristin Chenoweth, and Alan Cumming.
“As artists, many times we’re offered lots of jobs, and if you are a woman of color like myself, we are used to scarcity. It’s very easy for us to just say yes to the next thing that comes,” she emphasizes. “It is hard to say no, but I think part of the reset is learning to demand our worth.”
DeBose will become indelible to the countless BIPOC viewers and members of the LGBTQ+ community who will encounter her for the first time in The Prom. She can rest assured that her accomplishments would make her younger self proud as hell.
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