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In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to 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.
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 feels particularly apparent in some recent shows of the past few years. 2016’s Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed focused on the challenges and influence of the hit 1921 musical, which was one of the first Broadway musicals with an all-black cast and writing team. 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.
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 steps into the role of another magical woman: Elsa in the Broadway production of Frozen. Other shows currently on Broadway showcase 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.
We’re also looking forward to upcoming performances, such as Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, Or Change (previews begin March 13); Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo (previews begin March 24); Andre Braugher in Birthday Candles (previews begin April 2); Jesse Williams in Take Me Out (previews begin April 2), and more.
Playbill’s The Ensemblist has 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 is celebrating 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.
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: