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; taking a look at the incredible offerings of the most recent season; and considering how 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.

On the 2021-2022 Broadway Season

There are three shows currently on Broadway by Black writers, all of which look at history and the present in different ways.

Dominique Morrisseau’s Skeleton Crew, the third of her The Detroit Projects trilogy, takes us to an automotive factory in Detroit in 2008, just as the auto industry was collapsing during the Great Recession. Star Phylicia Rashad may be known best for The Cosby Show, but she was also the first Black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2004. Skeleton Crew closes on February 20, so make sure to see it soon. (Fun fact: Dominique Morrisseau also wrote Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, which opened on Broadway in 2019 and closed in January 2022.)

Production still from Skeleton Crew on Broadway, showing the main cast in a break room-type space

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and MJ: The Musical both go back further in time to look at the life of two Black musical icons. Tina follows multi-platinum artist Tina Turner from her childhood through her success as a solo star, with a creative team that includes Black book writer Katori Hall. MJ, by Lynn Nottage — the only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice — goes behind the scenes of Michael Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour, using that as a jumping off point for pivotal creative moments from his career.

Production still from Tina: The Tina Turner MusicalProduction still from MJ: The Musical

Coming up, there’s more to look forward to:

  • Paradise Square, with a writing team that includes Black writers Christina Anderson (book) and Masi Asare (lyrics), beginning previews March 15. As the Civil War rages in 1863, the racial harmony between free Black Americans and Irish immigrants in Lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points slum is abruptly broken during the NY Draft Riots of July 1863.
  • for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange, beginning previews April 1. In these 20 poetic monologues, choreographed by Camille Brown (Once on This Island, Choir Boy), seven Black women weave interconnected stories of love and struggle. This marks the choreopoem’s first return to Broadway since its award-winning debut in 1977.
  • A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson, beginning previews April 6, in which Usher, a Black, queer writer is writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer… until his thoughts begin to take center stage. A Strange Loop — as the tagline describes it, the “big, Black, and queer-ass Great American Musical” — was also the first musical written by a Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

And of course, something historic happened earlier this season. As Broadway reopened late in 2021, an incredible number of shows by Black playwrights hit the stage one after another — eight in total. Unfortunately, all of these plays but Skeleton Crew have since closed, due in no small part due to the effect of Omicron on the theater industry, but we were glad to have them while they were here.

First up was Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the first Broadway show to open after the shutdown. Harkening back to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the Book of Exodus, it also trod entirely new paths as its main characters Moses and Kitch bear the weight of both history and the present, as young Black men living with both existential dread and the constant fear of being killed by police.

Next, Ruben Santiago-Hudson (also the director of Skeleton Crew!) starred as all 20 characters in Lackawanna Blues, the one-man show and montage of memory he first debuted in 2001 about his surrogate family growing up.

Chicken and Biscuits, by Douglas Lyons, was a new comedy about non-stop family drama at a funeral. (It was directed by Zhailon Levingston, the director of industry initiatives at the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and the youngest Black director in Broadway history!)

Thoughts of a Colored Man, by Keenan Scott II, blended spoken word, slam poetry, rhythm, and humor, to shine a light on the vibrant inner lives of seven Black men in a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

"When I got to college and started reading plays, I wasn’t seeing myself," Scott told The New York Times. "I wasn’t seeing my essence as a young Black man captured onstage."

In November, Trouble in Mind at last took the Broadway stage — after a wait spanning more than 65 years. Alice Childress’s comedy-drama about racism in theater, featuring a Black stage actress and the rehearsal process for an anti-lynching play, was first produced in 1955; a planned Broadway run at that time was canceled when Childress refused to tone down the play’s conclusion for the comfort of white audiences.

Clyde’s, written by Lynn Nottage — yes, the Lynn Nottage who wrote MJ, in addition to other powerful places about race, class, power, and history like Intimate Apparel, Ruined, and Sweat — starred award-winning actors Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas-Jones in a show about the formerly incarcerated kitchen staff of a truck stop sandwich shop.

And of course, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play returned to Broadway in December after an initial run from October 2019 through January 2020. The most Tony-nominated play of all time, it 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 initial 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.)

Read more about this spectacular season:

The Grio, Black playwrights wrote every new play on Broadway’s fall lineup
NPR, Broadway Is Reopening This Fall, And Every New Play Is By A Black Writer
The New York Times, Broadway Is Brimming With Black Playwrights. But for How Long?

On Activism
The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police sparked a fire of calls for change that rippled through almost every industry in America — including Broadway.
That June, the newly established Broadway for Racial Justice released a video sharing anonymous accounts from Black actors of racism in costume fittings, workshop rehearsals, tech rehearsals, fight choreography sessions, and more.

Shortly after, a blistering letter called “We See You, White American Theater” was released, calling out all forms of racism in a white-dominated industry — only token slots, if any, for BIPOC plays among overwhelmingly white seasons and creative teams; harm done to BIPOC staff members considered disposable; work by BIPOC theatermakers that is discredited, coopted, and undermined; stereotypes that go unchallenged; and even more.

Although the group behind the letter and subsequent demands remained anonymous, the letter spoke to over 300 theatre artists of color who signed on to it, determined to force the theater industry to consider the ways it has been permeated and propped up by systemic racism and white supremacy.

However, 2020 was hardly the first time that Black artists have called out the whiteness of theater. There has always been a tension around the questions of who tells the story and whose stories are told.

The 2021 season shows as much — just consider Alice Childress back in 1955, writing Trouble in Mind about a Black actress stuck in a series of limiting, one-dimensional roles, with a white director who tells her that the audience will never see her as a full person. Or look even further back, more than a century ago to 1921, with William Ferris warning of “catering to a race prejudice for a few dimes and shekels.” (See the “On Beginnings” section for more on this!)

This newest iteration of a long, long conversation — sometimes a loud one, and sometimes a stifled one — about racism and power in the theater industry is still ongoing; while change is happening, it’s with the ponderousness of an unwieldy multi-billion dollar industry that doesn’t speak or act with a single voice.

In the past two years, theaters around the country have put out anti-racism statements and commitments, including Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway. Shows like Hamilton, The Lion King, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Book of Mormon have made minor or more dramatic changes to their scripts and staging to fix racist elements. Still, the work continues.

Forbes took a look at the past two years of the racial reckoning on Broadway in an article that came out before Broadway reopened, speaking to members of some of the following organizations and resources:

  • Black Theatre United, an advocacy group founded in 2020 by artists including Brandon Victor Dixon, LaChanze, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter.
  • The Broadway Advocacy Coalition, founded by Jacquelyn Bell, Amber Iman, Cameron J. Ross, Britton Smith, Adrienne Warren, and Christian Dante White following the murder of Philando Castile in 2016 as they attempted to answer the question, “How can the arts play a more meaningful role in creating a just world?” This started with their first Broadway for Black Lives Matter event, and has continued with fellowships, scholarships, workshops, and even more initiatives.
  • The Black Theare Coalition, which aims to increase employment opportunities for Black theatre professionals, including through paid apprenticeships and fellowships.
  • The BIPOC Director Database, which was inspired by the BIPOC Theater Designers and Technicians database to help theatre companies connect with BIPOC directors.
  • Everybody Black, co-founded by Kimberly Dodson to push for industry transparency and continue to transform theatre.

Award Milestones

A look at Black history on Broadway wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging some of the award milestones by Black performers:

1950: Juanita Hall became the first Black person to win a Tony Award (Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical, for South Pacific)

1954: Harry Belafonte became the first Black man to win a Tony Award (Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical, for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac)

1962: Diahann Carroll is the first Black winner in a lead role (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, for No Strings), four years after Lena Horne was the first Black woman nominated (for Jamaica)

1969: James Earl Jones is the first Black Man to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play (for The Great White Hope), nine years after Siney Poitier was the first Black man nominated (for A Raisin in the Sun)

1970: Cleavon Little is the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (for Purlie), fifteen years after Sammy Davis was the first Black man nominated (for Golden Boy)

1974: Joseph A. Walker is the first Black playwright to win the Tony Award for Best Play (for The River Niger), fourteen years after Lorraine Hansberry was the first to be nominated (for A Raisin in the Sun, which also marked the first play by a Black woman on Broadway)

1975: George Faison is the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Choreography (for The Wiz), ten years after Donald McKayle was the first nominated for the same award (for Golden Boy)

1975: Geoffrey Holder is the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Costume Design (for The Wiz)

1975: Geoffrey Holder is the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical (for The Wiz), three years after Gilbert Moses was the first Black man nominated for the same award (for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death)

1975: Charlie Smalls was the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre (for The Wiz), three years after Melvin Van Peebles was the first Black man nominated for the award (for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death)

1975: The Wiz won the Tony Award for Best Musical; producer Ken Harper was the first Black man to accept the award

1977: Trazana Beverley is the first Black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play (for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/when the rainbow is enuf), thirteen years after Diana Sands was the first Black woman nominated (for Blues for Mister Charlie)

1982: Zakes Mokae became the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (for Master Harold…and the Boys), 20 years after Godfrey M. Cambridge was the first Black man nominated (for Purlie Victorious)

1987: Lloyd Richards is the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play (for Fences), 27 years after he was first nominated for the same award (for A Raisin in the Sun)

2004: Phylicia Rashad is the first Black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play (for A Raisin in the Sun), 44 years after Claudia McNeil became the first Black woman nominated (...also for A Raisin in the Sun)

2008: Stew is the first Black man to win the Tony Award for best Book of a Musical (for Passing Strange), more than three decades after Melvin Van Peebles became the first Black man nominated for the same award (for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death)

2010: Daryl Waters was the first Black man to win the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations (for Memphis), 13 years after Luther Henderson was the first Black man nominated for the same award (for Play On!)

2014: Brandon Victor Dixon is the first Black producer to accept the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (for Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

2016: 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)

2017: Mike Jackson, John Legend, and Ron Simons are the first Black producers to accept the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play (for August Wilson’s Jitney), thirteen years after Susan Batson was the first Black producer nominated (for A Raisin in the Sun)

As of the 2021 Tony Awards, George C. Wolfe is the most nominated Black theater artist, with 24 total nominations, covering his work as a director, producer, and writer. He’s won five awards, just one shy of the legendary Audra McDonald, who’s won six — more competitive awards than any other actor, and the only person to have won Tony Awards in four different acting categories.

Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play (2020) is also the play production with the most Tony nominations.

On Beginnings

The first all-Black show on Broadway took place very literally on Broadway, rather than in it; the one-act musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk, by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, was presented on the Roof Garden of the Casino Theatre in 1898. (See: Celebrating Black History Month: Broadway Milestones You Ought to Know from Broadway.com)

Five years later, In Dahomey, by Cook, Dunbar, and Jesse Shipp, became the first full-length Broadway musical comedy with an all-Black cast and writing team. A satire of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, the show starred iconic Vaudeville comedians George Walker and Bert Williams.

Walker and Williams performed in blackface and featured minstrel-style racial caricatures — some of the only roles available to Black performers at the time — but In Dahomey was still ambitious enough that white critics reportedly complained that they weren’t ‘black’ enough, causing Walker to tell the Toledo Bee, ‘It’s all rot, this slap-­stick-­bandanna handkerchief-­bladder in the face act, with which Negro acting is associated. It ought to die out, and we are trying hard to kill it.’ (See: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s ’Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America from The New York Times Magazine.)

Sixteen years after In Dahomey, another very notable show opened, and one you might have heard of: Shuffle Along, created by Black Vaudeville veterans Eubie Blake (music), Noble Sissle (lyrics), Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles (book). The production opened on May 23, 1921, just a week before the Tulsa Race Massacre. In New York, even though Black actors had appeared on the stage for decades, the risk of furious white reactions to the show was high enough that Sissle, Miller, and Lyles were poised by an exit on opening night, ready to make a frantic dash to Harlem if white audience members turned sour. Telling this story in Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the rules of the Great White Way, Caseen Gaines said, ‘There was a legitimate chance that the musical comedy could give way to an all-out race war that would almost certainly spill out onto Sixty-Third Street.’

The moment of greatest tension came as the show approached the song ‘Love Will Find a Way’ — as Gaines put it, a song featuring a Black woman who wasn’t one of the stock racist caricatures and archetypes, expressing ‘a sincere and unfunny love, emotionally articulated in song,’ for a Black man. To Sissle, Miller, and Lyle’s relief, the crowd loved the song, and the show went on for a successful 504 performances until it closed in 1922. (And, although the Sixty-Third Street Theater was a little out of the way, performances at comparable price to those at theaters in Times Square. As Eubie Blake said, quoted in Al Rose’s book Eubie Blake, ‘Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson, Ernest R. Hogan—they played on Broadway, too… [But] they never got $5 for a ticket. It was a dollar, top. See, it’s the price that makes Broadway.’)

A contemporary editorial in the Baltimore Afro-American said about Shuffle Along, ‘It means that notwithstanding the suppression; the prejudice; the handicaps and the struggle directly due to race; that the pinnacle of every American performer’s ambition may be reached.’

Like In Dahomey, Shuffle Along isn’t what we would think of now as forward thinking. For one, it still used blackface, along with comedy based on racial stereotypes and colorism. Even in 1921, Black scholar William H. Ferris warned of portraying a simplistic view of Black life, limiting potential representation in future productions, and ‘catering to a race prejudice for a few dimes and shekels,’ as Gaines quoted in Footnotes. And, in a classic case of a white man getting the credit for a Black man’s work, manager Al Mayer and producer John Cort replaced Black director Lawrence Deas with white director Walter Brooks just prior to the show’s Broadway debut, even though Brooks reportedly changed very little about Deas’s direction.

But narratively, Shuffle Along created Black characters who were allowed to have genuine emotions and interiority; it ‘challenged the notion of what was socially taboo,’ in Gaines’ words; it propelled the careers of performers like Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole, and Florence Mills; it helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance; it brought a modern, syncopated jazz score and stunning new dancing to Broadway; and, like the Walker and Williams shows, it was an instrumental part of the creation of the musical as we know it today.

As Sullivan put it, ‘the very innovation that Williams and Walker had introduced — the reason their productions were so important to Broadway and black theater and the creation of ‘Shuffle Along’ — was that their shows had a new kind of coherence. It would seem very loose to us, but it was different from vaudeville, closer to drama. Their musical comedies were musical, but they were also comedies, meaning they were plays.’

Shuffle Along catapulted back into popular consciousness In 2016, when Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe adapted it into the musical Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, about the challenges of creating and mounting the original show. With an all-star cast of Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, and more, and choreography by Savion Glover, it was nominated for 10 Tony Awards.

On Theatres

August Wilson is 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. Out of 41 Broadway theaters, and the more than 20 named after someone, it remains the only Broadway theater named after a Black person.