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In honor of Black History Month, we turn our attention to Broadway — celebrating Black Broadway trailblazers and the history of Black performers within one of Times Square’s longest-running traditions, but also how history is being made right now.
Stage and Screen
Broadway has been closed for most of the past year, for the safety of its actors, audiences, crew, and everyone else. In the time since, we have walked through the district looking at the theaters in their stolid stone permanence, and we have turned to the screen to see the performers and performances we love and to support what, and whom, we can. This February, we're thinking about August Wilson, perhaps the most well-known Black American playwright and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (Fences, The Piano Lesson) and two Tony Awards for Best Play (Fences) and Best Revival of a Play (Jitney, posthumously) among numerous other awards and nominations. He passed away in 2005; shortly afterwards, the Virginia Theatre was renamed the August Wilson Theatre in his honor. It remains the only Broadway theater named after a Black person.
Not only does August Wilson have his own crucial place in Black history, he also chronicled it. The ten plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle are also known as the Century Cycle because they explore different facets of the African-American experience in the 20th Century, each set within a different decade — from Gem of the Ocean in the 1900s to Radio Golf in the 1990s. All were produced on Broadway, although Jitney, his oldest play in the cycle (covering the 1970s), also took the longest to make it to Broadway; 35 years after its 1982 debut, the revival officially opened on Broadway in 2017.
We may not have stages right now, but we still have screens: a film adaptation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the second play in the cycle to be released and the third in terms of time period, was released at the end of 2020 and is currently streaming on Netflix. It was directed by George C. Wolfe, a Black playwright and director with his own place in theatrical history as the director and writer of Jelly's Last Jam and the director and creator of Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, as well as the director of both parts of Angels in America; Caroline, or Change; The Normal Heart; Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed; and even more.
This past year has also continued to remind us of the ways in which Broadway still has much farther to go. In 2020, T. Oliver Reid, Warren Adams and Reginald “Reggie” Van Lee co-founded the Black Theatre Coalition after running the numbers on the stark scarcity of Black theater professionals, particularly in off-stage roles. They're hoping to increase employment opportunities by 500% by 2030, starting with establishing partnerships with top Broadway agencies and shows and identifying candidates for employment and internships.
Theatermakers of color also joined together for the open letter We See You, White American Theater, calling out racist hypocrisy and other forms of harm perpetrated within the theater industry and demanding better acknowledgement, working conditions, hiring and artistic practices, and more.
Other pre-existing organizations have continued their work championing and promoting Black voices in the arts, such as Broadway Black, and working to fight racism in a variety of ways, such as the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. BAC was founded in 2016 in response to ongoing systemic racism and police brutality; their inaugural Broadway for Black Lives Matter event was in part responding to the murder of Eric Garner. BAC unites artists with legal experts and community leaders through partnerships, performances, and fundraising to make a difference on issues including criminal justice reform, education equity, and immigration.
Theatre and History
In her TED Studio presentation on the history of African American social dances and their influence, Once on this Island choreographer Camille A. Brown says, “The present always contains the past. And the past shapes who we are and who we will be.”
It’s as true for society as it is for dance, and it’s as true for Broadway as it is for society and dance, where new innovations play with decades of theatrical history as well as broader cultural changes and musical influences, where shows are constantly being revived with new meanings, where the cultural legacy of racism but also the incredible work and achievements of Black performers, creators, designers, directors, and more have all woven into the fabric of where Broadway is today — and where it will be in twenty or one hundred years.
The confluence of the past and present is something that is being continuously navigated and retold in theater. 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of Shuffle Along, the surprise Broadway hit by four Black Vaudeville veterans and starring an all-Black cast that impacted the musical theater industry as a whole, launched the careers of several cast members, and for many years defined what Black musical theater was and could be. The show itself received the musical treatment of its own in 2016, with Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which focused on the challenges and influence of the show.
Other shows in the past few years have continued to explore the themes of race and history in a variety of ways. Once On This Island, which ran from November 2017 to January 2019, brought together elements from Romeo and Juliet and The Little Mermaid along with the influence of colonialism in French Antilles archipelago. 2019's Choir Boy had lead character Pharus navigate finding his own space and path within the legacy of the legendary gospel choir at his prep school.
Caroline, or Change, which was meant to return to Broadway in 2020 with Sharon D. Clarke in the leading role and is now projected to open in fall 2021, takes viewers to 1963 Louisiana on a musical journey through the contentious relationship between a Jewish boy and his African-American maid.
Jeremy O. Harris's acclaimed Slave Play, which ran from October 2019 through January 2020, took a scorching look at the intersection of desire, trauma, and the history race and racism in America, and how that affects our relationships today. (Slave Play’s run overlapped with another artistic work in the Theater District that played with the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy: Kehinde Wiley’s sculpture Rumors of War. The New Yorker featured a conversation between the two of them, which you can read here: Kehinde Wiley and Jeremy O. Harris’s Meeting of the Minds.)
A Soldier’s Play, which opened in January 2020, takes place in 1944 and explores internalized racism through the mystery of the murder of a Black sergeant at a US Army base. David Alan Grier, one of the stars of the new production along with Blair Underwood, was in the original, Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway production of A Soldier’s Play by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981, and also appeared in the 1984 film adaptation A Soldier’s Story.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, which opened in February 2019, goes back to the 1960s to tell the story of the iconic African-American vocal group, just as Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which began performances in October 2019, follows multi-platinum artist Tina Turner from her childhood through her success as a solo star.
[Video: Actress Adrienne Warren talking about Tina Turner]
“History is happening in Manhattan, and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world!” – “The Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton
The 2016 Tony Awards marked the first time all four musical performance awards were won by performers of color, all of whom were Black actors: Cynthia Erivo (Leading Actress, The Color Purple); Leslie Odom, Jr. (Leading Actor, Hamilton); Renée Elise Goldsberry (Featured Actress, Hamilton); and Daveed Diggs (Featured Actor, Hamilton). George C. Wolfe is the most-nominated African-American theater artist with 14 individual nominations for directing or writing, and 24 including his work as a producer. His most recent nomination was for directing Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus in spring 2019. In 2019, actor André De Shields won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for his incredible performance as Hermes in Hadestown. With the Tony Award, a 2020 Grammy (he’s a principal soloist on the Hadestown Original Broadway Cast Recording, which won for Best Musical Theater Album) and a 1982 Emmy for his performance in Ain’t Misbehavin’, he’s one award away from joining the exclusive EGOT club.
History is made not just by the trailblazers, but also by the people who do the work after them to turn the trail into the road, paving the way from the past to the future. Just over a year after actress Brittney Johnson became the first Black woman to play Glinda in the Broadway production of Wicked, actress Ciara Renée stepped into the role of another magical woman: Elsa in the Broadway production of Frozen. Other shows on Broadway pre-pandemic showcased the talents of more than 150 incredible Black actors including LisaGay Hamilton and Kyle Scatliffe in To Kill A Mockingbird; Jenny Jules and Nadia Brown in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Jeanette Bayardelle, Austin Scott, and Kimber Elayne Sprawl in Girl From The North Country; Sahr Ngaujah in Moulin Rouge!; Adrienne Warren and many more in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical; Derrick Baskin, Ephraim Sykes, and their castmates in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations; Isaac Powell, Dharon E. Jones, and others in West Side Story; Adrianna Hicks, Brittney Mack, and Anna Uzele in SIX; James Monroe Iglehart, Jimmie Jeter, Krystal Joy Brown, and others in Hamilton, and many more.
Playbill’s The Ensemblist featured some of the black ensemble members of these shows in posts for Black History Month 2020, starting with Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and performers making their Broadway debuts in shows like Mean Girls, The Lion King, and more.
Broadway.com celebrated Black History Month 2020 by asking actors, directors and playwrights to talk about a Black theater artist who inspired them, with Adrienne Warren talking about George C. Wolfe, James Monroe Iglehart honoring Ted Ross, and more. They're continuing this tradition in 2021 throughout February.
And if you’d like to take a look — and a listen — at the past, BroadwayBox has a Black History Month on Broadway playlist on Spotify: