Inside Amber Iman’s Return to Broadway With a Live, In-Person Audience

Broadway performer and activist Amber Iman became the first woman—and first Black woman—to perform on Broadway since the pandemic shutdown with a pop-up concert April 10, the second in NY PopsUp’s series of re-opening events following an April 3 performance featuring Savion Glover and Nathan Lane.

“Y’all, we are in a theatre on the Broad- and the -way!” said Iman to cathartic cheers from a socially distanced audience predominately made up of Broadway performers.

Broadway performers get ready to watch Amber Iman's NY PopsUp concert
Broadway performers get ready to watch Amber Iman’s NY PopsUp concert Logan Culwell-Block

Though held at the Broadway Theatre, the afternoon event looked substantially different than a typical Broadway outing. For starters, all invited audience members had homework. Along with a pre-show health questionnaire, attendees had to have proof of a recent negative COVID test, or proof of a completed COVID-19 vaccine cycle from at least 14 days prior. Temperatures were taken upon arrival, after which audience members were seated with social distancing guidelines in effect.

Attendees spent the moments before the performance began catching up with friends and co-workers, with even a few cautious hugs shared between vaccinated colleagues. “I haven’t seen you in over a year!” could be heard more than once.

When the lights went down and Iman took the stage, everything unusual about the experience melted away as the audience was reminded of the power of live performance, of being in a room together with other people all watching the same thing.

The Shuffle Along… star’s set, performed with music director and pianist Michael O. Mitchell, included fresh takes on such songs as “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Love Will Save the Day,” “Imagine,” and “Party in the USA.” Iman also returned to her Nina Simone roots (she inhabited the legendary High Priestress of Soul in Broadway’s Soul Doctor) with a performance of “Be My Husband.” Crystal Monee Hall (Rent) and Marcus Paul James (Ain’t Too Proud) joined Iman for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with James providing the high-flying vocal arrangement as well.

Iman spent much of the time between numbers speaking to an audience of her peers about the challenging year that Broadway artists have faced with live theatre largely shuttered.

Amber Iman
Amber Iman Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I… think about all the things that we have been through over the past year, what we suffered through, what we endured. We endured Zoom baby showers and bar mitzvahs. … self-tapes and self sabotage, and then black squares and Black rage, and also white tears that sometimes turned into white silence. … We lost ambition and loved ones, family members and friends, and sometimes it felt like we lost our way. And then we turned that around and made a way out of no way. We pivoted. We expanded. We created and built. Some of y’all built businesses—some of y’all built whole children!—friendships and relationships and books and screenplays and pilots and movements. And then there was a collective centering of health and wellness and self—because we had more than Monday off.”

At one point during the concert, Iman had the house lights raised and she asked the audience to share things they had learned about themselves during the pandemic, kicking it off with her own experience of learning to be a celebrity chef and mixologist; “I put ‘celebrity’ before everything just to make it sound better, so y’all can do that too when you answer.” Answers ranged from becoming a “celebrity” baker, to learning to set boundaries, to realizing that we have the power to tell the stories we want to tell in the way we want to tell them.

Towards the close of the Scott Rudin-produced event, Iman spoke to the Broadway community’s anxieties about the eventual reopening, particularly after a year that saw calls from community leaders and activists for the theatre industry to address longstanding, systemic problems surrounding equity, inclusion, and working conditions.

“We’re getting closer and closer to a re-opening … We are [going to be] walking back into these [audition and rehearsal] rooms with a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear, doubt, hopelessness. … But I think we as a collective know what we’re up against. We’ve read the emails. We went to the town halls. We’ve seen the articles and the cover stories. … And I just want to put this into the air that, y’all, we are going to be alright. The love that I have felt in this room today lets me know that we are going to be alright, and we’re going to show up for each other … and we are not going to allow stuff to go down without us speaking up… That’s what it’s going to take. When we get back, it’s going to take a collective sense of a community.”