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.
The August Wilson Theatre, formerly the only Broadway theater named after a Black person, got company last year. In 2022, two different theaters were renamed to celebrate influential Black performers, as part of the Shuberts, Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn’s pledge to increase racial and cultural diversity in their theaters.
In March 2022, the Shuberts announced that the Cort Theatre, which was currently being renovated, would be renamed after James Earl Jones. The construction finished that summer and the marquee was revealed on September 12, 2022.
James Earl Jones (1931–) has a long and distinguished career in theater, film, and television; after almost 70 years in the entertainment industry, he’s one of the few performers to have received at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award each. His Broadway career began in 1958, with his debut in Sunrise at Campobello at the Cort Theatre — the playhouse which now bears his name. Since then, among his numerous other theatrical credits, he’s gone on to perform in almost twenty Broadway shows, with the most recent being The Gin Game in 2015-2016; won two Tonys for Best Actor in a Play (The Great White Hope, 1969, and Fences, 1987); been nominated for two more (On Golden Pond, 2005, and The Best Man, 2012); and received a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2017.
In June 2022, the Nederlanders announced that the Brooks Atkinson Theatre would be renamed after Lena Horne. The new marquee was unveiled on November 1, 2022, making it the first theater named for a Black woman.
A New York native, Lena Horne (1917–2010) navigated the worlds of nightclub entertainment, Old Hollywood, television, Broadway, and more. In 1958, she became the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award for her work as Savannah in the musical Jamaica. In 1981, she returned to Broadway and received a special achievement Tony Award for Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for 333 performances — a record number for a solo show. Horne was also a civil rights activist for almost all of her career: suing businesses for discrimination, fighting for integrated audiences, criticizing racism in Hollywood, attending rallies and marches including the March on Washington, and more.
In 2005, Jujamcyn Theaters renamed the Virginia Theatre to honor August Wilson, who had just passed away.
August Wilson (1945–2005) 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. His work extensively explores the African-American experience, race relations, discrimination, identity, and the history of exploitation; he is best known for The Pittsburgh Cycle (or The Century Cycle), a series of ten plays that look at the everyday experience of Black America, each set during a different decade. The first of these plays to premiere on Broadway was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984 at the Cort Theatre (now the James Earl Jones Theare). The last was also the first to be written: 1982 play Jitney, which premiered on Broadway in 2017 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
On the 2022-2023 Broadway Season
There are two shows currently on Broadway with Black writers, both musicals.
MJ the Musical by Lynn Nottage — the only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice — has been on Broadway since December 2021; the show goes behind the scenes of Michael Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour, using that as a jumping off point for pivotal creative moments from Jackson’s career.
On Broadway since November 2022 and with Amber Ruffin as one of two book writers, Some Like It Hot takes the classic Hollywood romp about two musicians crossdressing to escape gangsters and refreshes it into a new (and distinctly more diverse than the all-white original) musical comedy.
Although not written by a Black writer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedy Between Riverside and Crazy features acclaimed performances by Stephen McKinley Henderson and Common in its story about a retired Black police officer faced with eviction from his rent controlled apartment. Extended through February 19, Between Riverside and Crazy will also stream performances through February 12.
Still other phenomenal shows which closed earlier in the season considered and recreated history in a multitude of ways. A revival of Death of a Salesman that transferred from the West End starred Sharon D Clarke and Wendell Pierce as the Lomans, reimagining the classic Arthur Miller play from the perspective of an African-American family. Also returning to Broadway were August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (with the iconic Samuel L. Jackson, among others) and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, both Pulitzer Prize winners that tackle thorny sibling relationships amidst a heavy weight of family history.
Ohio State Murders marked both the Broadway debut of acclaimed 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy and the first production in the newly restored and renamed James Earl Jones Theatre. Audra McDonald starred as a woman thinking back to the abduction and drowning of one of her infant twin daughters when she was an undergraduate at the titular university in 1952, and the racism at the heart of both the murder and her college experience.
“Since her theatrical debut with “Funnyhouse of a Negro” Off Broadway in 1964, at 32, Kennedy has addressed the heart- and head sickness of racism, the confusion of sex and gender and the illusion of the self with incantatory paradoxes, visceral symbols, sidelong pop-culture references and violent contradictions.” Read more about Adrienne Kennedy from The New York Times
This season, Jordan Cooper became the youngest Black American to make his Broadway playwriting debut, at 27. His show Ain’t No Mo’ took us all the way into another world — one where the US government offered a program to buy every Black person in America a one-way ticket to Africa. The intertwined sketches that follow took a biting look about what it means to be Black in today’s America.
Michael R. Jackson’s Tony-winning musical A Strange Loop took an equally piercing look through the lens of Usher, who is living in NYC and trying to write the Big, Black, and Queer American Musical, all while dealing with his own self-loathing as well as the feeling of being too gay, too fat, and either too Black or not Black enough for his family, the queer community, the theater world, and the world in general.
Coming up this spring, there’s more to look forward to with the highly-anticipated Broadway debut of James Ijames’ Fat Ham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play which reinvents Hamlet into an examination of Blackness, queerness, love, loss, trauma, joy, complex family relationships, and barbecue.
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.
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.
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.