It’s not a requirement for nonprofits to have an official theme song, but when Vanessa Williams heard the demo “Stand for Change,” she knew it would be a perfect match for the work of Black Theatre United and the talent of its members.
The song was penned by NYU professors Dave Schroeder and Phil Galdston, the latter of whom is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer who previously collaborated with Williams on the blockbuster single “Save the Best for Last.” They not only welcomed her into the NYU family as a visiting professor but also presented her with the track. “I thought it was fantastic but I didn’t think it’s a solo thing for me,” she explained. “I thought it would be fantastic for Black Theatre United as a group not only because, as a whole, everyone is extremely talented but our purpose and mission is all about change. It’s all about saying their names, being brave and taking a step forward. The song is a perfect addition to our message.”
The coalition — comprised of performers, directors, musicians, writers, producers and stage professionals — came together in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd last summer in the spirit of activism, advocacy and creating lasting change in the theater community. Its members include Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Anna Deavere Smith, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Wendell Pierce, LaChanze, Brandon Victor Dixon, Kenny Leon, Norm Lewis, Capathia Jenkins, Tamara Tunie, Lillias White, Darius de Haas, Allyson Tucker, Michael McElroy, Natasha Williams, Lisa Dawn Cave, Carin Ford and Shele Williams.
Once it was confirmed that the song would become a BTU single — Williams credits Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman with making that happen and coordinating a partnership with Republic Records Action Committee (R2AC), a task force aimed at taking on social injustices — the biggest challenge became getting members to record and, later, shoot a music video. With everyone scattered and working on various productions, those who could meet did so inside New Jersey Performing Arts Center while others, like McDonald and Deavere Smith, filmed solo.
“We are honored to work with Black Theatre United on such an important mission to help bring light to the racial disparities in the Black theater community with ‘Stand for Change,’” says Avery Lipman, co-founder and president of Republic Records. “The song conveys a vital message that will inspire change not only in the theater world but all over the world.”
The video, produced by HunterPark Prods. partners Bethanie Schwartz and Lauren Tuttman in collaboration with Liz Curtis, was directed by filmmaker Michael Cooke and features many of the performers dressed for a black-tie event while belting it out at center stage. “There were a lot of tears and screams,” Williams says of the chance to be together in person, with all the necessary COVID-19 precautions and protocols in place. “Besides the mechanics of getting it done, the feeling of getting all glammed up, holding hands, singing about standing for change, saying their names and bringing light into the dark, it was a joyful experience.”
Williams says now that the song is out in the world, she hopes it takes on a life of its own. “I would love it to be the ‘We Are the World’ of our time. I hope that ‘Stand for Change’ can be one of those songs that you see dance companies perform, choruses sing because it is so moving and so relevant. Black Theatre United had the wonderful opportunity to be the first to record it, but I hope it’s one of those wonderful songs that lives on and that we were just the seed that helped it spread love and change.”
Sales of the single will help fund BTU’s future endeavors, which, thus far, have included a series of town hall discussions. One featured NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill with McDonald and another featured Viola Davis in conversation with Fair Fight and Fair Count’s Stacey Abrams and Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean. Williams made it clear they are just getting warmed up and in the future they plan on growing the board, its membership, outreach and experiences. “I hope that we’re here for my grandchildren with a legacy that will last forever.”