Sitting in her bedroom in March, Diamond Essence White saw the news on Facebook: all Broadway theaters were shutting down. She spoke with friends who, like her, were Broadway actors, all of them instantly anxious about making a living, then sat in her room, watched TV and ate ice cream. “This must be serious because Broadway doesn’t shut down,” White remembered thinking. “It was wild.”
White, 25, an actress living in the Bronx, made her Broadway debut in “Dear Evan Hansen” as a Zoe/Alana standby at 22. She credits her love for theater, sparked as early as six or seven, to watching “Annie.”
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I wanna do that,’ so my mom put me in classes really young and I always loved it,” said White. But theater was a hobby, so her mother encouraged her to go to college for journalism, pursuing theater on the side. “There’s no stability in theater,” White acknowledged. “Even right now, there’s no work” – except “for people with bigger names.”
Like many of her peers, she experienced emotional stress and hardships throughout the lockdown. “At first it was really sad, then it was kind of refreshing,” she said. “But then I got COVID and the whole situation got really depressing. It was like it was never ending.”
SAG-AFTRA, the labor union representing on-camera and audio talent, said that COVID’s impact on the industry has been “severe.”
“Work opportunities have been reduced, including the cancellation of existing projects, with a corresponding effect on incomes,” said Ray Rodriguez, the union’s chief contracts officer. “Actors have lost health insurance. Those who can work must spend significant additional times complying with testing and quarantine procedures.”
Last spring, after landing a role in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan, White was ready to get on a plane. But the show was cancelled, so she stayed on in her day job, as a barista at Field of Beans at the Major League Baseball headquarters in Manhattan. Financially, that worked in her favor at first. “They thought it wasn’t gonna last very long, so we received paid time off until July,” she said.
But then she found herself laid off, and has since relied on about $441 a week in unemployment insurance. “I’ve been looking for a job but it’s so hard right now,” she said.
White looked confident, however, sitting at a Columbia University picnic table. She wore a black, white and beige coat with a white scarf and ripped, blue jeans. Her dark hair was curled and her velvety blue heeled boots added flair.
The city’s economy has also felt the lack of theater. “Over the long run, the performing arts have been a big part of what makes New York City different from other parts of the country,” said Martin Kohli, chief regional economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Looking at unemployment insurance through June of 2019, “roughly two-thirds of the theater jobs in the city and state are gone,” said Kohli.
And COVID-19 has deterred tourism, another vital contributor. Alyssa Schmid, a spokesperson for NYC & Company, said that about 22.9 million visitors had come to the city in 2020, about a 66 percent plunge from the year before.
As a creative outlet, White began writing her own projects, including a screenplay for a feature film – a love story exploring themes of colorism and bias in the Black community. She’s still reworking it after friends provided feedback. She has also enrolled in virtual writing workshops and takes acting classes and voice lessons via Zoom.
In a one-on-one Zoom voice lesson, White stood in her bedroom, warming up. “Yah yah yah yah yah,” she sang, moving up and down the scale. Her new puppy, Willow, fussy and wanting attention, kept barking and interrupting. Working from home has its downsides. Eventually she calmed him down and could focus on singing.
Each time White finished an exercise, a smile spread across her face as she listened for instruction. “The center of the back of your tongue is about a half an inch too high,” said Priscilla Bagley, her teacher.
Seemingly effortlessly, White corrected this in the next exercise. “You’re back in the zone now,” said Bagley, seated at her piano in her home on Long Island.
Bagley, who has worked with White for about four years, saw her perform in her first Broadway role in “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“The moment she took the stage, and I heard her voice echoing through the theater, I just cried,” said Bagley. “I think that’s the moment that every voice teacher dreams of.”
Bagley has struggled as well since the pandemic began. Previously, she earned about $1,500 a week teaching private clients; she now makes about $500. “All of the private voice teachers, coaches, accompanists – overnight, all of us who were working at a really high level were all out of work,” said Bagley. “Honestly, I’m dispensable. I’m not a priority, lessons are not a priority. And I totally get it.”
Bagley, who also teaches voice at Long Island University, reduced her rates for private lessons, hoping university students might want to practice during the winter break.
At 51, “for the first time in my life I had to get unemployment,” she said. Normally, “if things got hard or expensive, I could teach a couple more lessons. I could hustle and make it work. And I have been completely deprived of that.”
Jahlil Burke, 26, another out-of-work actor, currently a server at a Spuntino restaurant on Long Island, met White in 2016. “We had a mutual friend in a show she was in, so I came to support my friend and we went out to dinner and we connected,” said Burke.
He praises Diamond’s “amazing ability to fully embody a character,” noting that “I’ll question her, and she has a full back story for why she does it.”
Burke also pointed out White’s versatility. She sat in on Burke’s rehearsal for a production of “A Chorus Line” at Cultural Arts Playhouse, when the actress playing Morales was unable to perform one weekend. White stepped up. “The director saw her and was like, ‘Do you know “A Chorus Line”?’ and she was like, ‘Kind of.’”
Drafted, she played the role in two shows during one weekend. “They never really rehearsed me for it, so I just kind of had to learn by video,” recalled White. “It wasn’t my best work, but it got done.”
Despite all of the uncertainty of the pandemic, White still intends to pursue acting. In fact, she said, “It’s made me want to act more. I’ve heard from a lot of actors that ‘I’m done with acting,’ but for me, it’s reaffirmed my love for it.”
(Photo by Hannah Flynn)