~ Black Broadway History ~
BTAAV’s look at some important works in
the History of Black theatre
Theatrical landmarks that reflect both Broadway and the broader society’s evolving appreciation for the African-American artistic experience.
“The African Company, based at the African Grove Theater, became a critical support group and band of comrades through which Aldridge practiced and honed his craft. The African Grove, as it was referred to, was attended “all types of black New Yorkers — free and slave, middle-class and working-class”¹ and was the first resident African American theater in the United States. Originally hosted by William Alexander Brown as a backyard poetry and skit get-together, James Hewlett, a regular customer and entertainer, suggested that the two men hire additional Black actors and make a theater troop.”
“The African Grove Theatre and Company had to be mobile when they started doing plays because the police were constantly raiding their performances and pressuring them to stop performing, due to the rowdiness of the White members of the audience. William Over states that the Whites had initially found it curious and amusing that a company of Black actors was attempting to do Shakespeare, but that they later became very hostile. The African Theatre attempted to remedy the situation by creating a partitioned area for Whites at the back of the theatre, but the hostile whites continued to create disturbances which eventually closed the theater.”²
A TRIP TO COONTOWN (1868)
Black History: First African American Written Musical Comedy On Broadway. A Trip to Coontown, which opened at the Third Avenue Theatre on April 4, was a landmark in that it was entirely written, performed, and produced by Blacks. It was the creation of two particularly talented Negroes, Bob Cole and Billy Johnson. Johnson played Jim Flimflammer, a “bunco steerer” (what today we would call a “con man”) who tries to fleece old Silas Green out of a $5,000 pension, but is outsmarted by the old man. Cole played a tramp called Wayside Willie. The show created no stir on Broadway. Robert Cole and Billy Johnson – ROBERT ALLEN “BOB” COLE: PRODUCED THE FIRST MUSICAL CREATED AND OWNED BY BLACK SHOWMEN Bob Cole was a composer, playwright, actor, and stage producer and director. He wrote and produced A Trip to Coontown in 1898. It was the first musical entirely created and owned by Black showmen. Cole later partnered with brothers J. Rosamond Johnson, pianist and singer, and James Weldon Johnson, pianist, guitarist and lawyer, which resulted in over 200 songs. Robert Allen “Bob” Cole was born on July 1, 1868. He was the oldest of five siblings. His family was driven musically, both his parents were square dancers.
At fifteen years of age, Bob was forcibly moved to live with his distant relatives, of his mother’s side, in Florida – due to his violent confrontation with the son of the mayor of Athens, Bob had to flee the town before dire consequences occurred. However, after a short amount of time, Bob was reunited with his family after they moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Cole later moved to Florida, where he was able to be involved in a small string quartet for a short period of time. Later, pursuing a career in the music business, he worked at a resort in Asbury Park, New Jersey, as a “singing bellboy.”
He later moved to Chicago where he was able to become a comedian. He told jokes, played the guitar, and would sing in various clubs throughout the city. He gradually gained popularity in the public eye, and began rising in the field of Black musicals. Around the early 1890s, with the support of the Chicago firm of Will Rossitier, Bob Cole presented his two legally published songs: “Parthenia Took a Likin’ to a Coon” and “In Shin Bone Alley.” Cole produced four “Genuine Negro songs by a Genuine Negro Minstrel” that were published by Brooks and Denton of New York and London. These four songs were: “Fly, fly, fly,” “Move up, Johnson,” “Colored aristocracy,” and “Dem golden clouds.” Cole established his own black production company with the group of individuals who also left the Troubadours; resultantly, he and the group created the famous A Trip to Coontown.
The musical, consisting of only Black actors and revolving around the traditional minstrel stereotypes, delved into the story of a con artist, Jimmy Flimflammer, and his failed attempts to rob an elderly man of his pension. Furthermore, in order to maintain the interest of the audience, the play also included variety, or comedic, acts to liven the show. By 1902, Cole gained ultimate success, financially, and wrote the article “The Negro and the Stage” for the Colored American Magazine. In it, he reveals his concerns toward the crippling imaged placed on African-American performers. Cole committed suicide by drowning himself in a creek in the Catskills in 1911 after a nervous breakdown and period of clinical depression that worsened in 1910.
1898 – First All-Black Show Produced at a Major House
The premiere of the one-act musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk, technically didn’t take place in a theater. The extended after-show featured an all-Black cast and took place on the roof garden of the Casino Theatre, a Broadway venue, in front of an exclusively White audience.
In Dahomey (1903)
“In Dahomey opened, at the New York Theater. This was a landmark American musical comedy and was “the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by Blacks at a major Broadway Theater.
It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The production was produced by McVon Hurtig and Harry Seamon and starred Black actors James Smith and George Sisay and one of the leading comedians in America at that time, Bert Williams.”
In Dahomey ran for 53 performances.
Treemonisha was a critically acclaimed concert musical production presented by American Classicsin 2011.
“This was an evening of wonderful music … I’d like to think that Scott Joplin himself would have been proud and pleased to hear such a great tribute to his music.” – Roger Hall, AmericanMusicPreservation.com, 5/8/11
“At a time when several musical theater pieces actually “had legs” on Broadway stages lampooning plantation life, Scott Joplin’s (1868-1917) opera Treemonisha (1911) was the first serious and substantive work set in that milieu. The opera, in three acts with twenty seven musical numbers and 230 pages of manuscript, was rejected by every publisher Joplin approached. That the project was deemed too big and too risky to produce (an American opera written by a Black composer, even one of Joplin’s stature) was an unfortunate sign of the times. Joplin eventually published the score himself at considerable financial risk, working relentlessly to solicit funds for a production. The opera’s only “performance” during his lifetime was an unsuccessful backers’ audition in 1915, in Harlem with the composer at the piano.
Treemonisha, which ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh called a “Black folk fable with the intent of parable, ” tells the story of the girl Treemonisha, found as a baby under a “sacred tree” by her foster mother Monisha and raised by Monisha and husband Ned on a plantation in Texarkana. The surrounding forests are populated by conjurers and magicians peddling their “bags of luck” and other charms at a time when superstition prevailed. Treemonisha refuses to be swayed by the conjurer Zozetrick, and despite the presence of friends, family, a preacher, cornhuskers and cotton pickers nearby, she is kidnapped by the conjurers in retaliation for disputing their beliefs. She is ultimately rescued and returns home, the conjurers are forgiven, and Treemonisha becomes the leader and voice of her people. The central premise – and triumph – of the opera is the victory of education over superstition and of good over evil, leading to forgiveness and ultimate redemption.”
Bert Williams in The Ziegfeld Follies (1910)
Bert Williams was a Bahamian-American entertainer, one of the pre-eminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time. He was by far the best-selling black recording artist before 1920. Bert Williams had his first success when he teamed up with George Walker in 1895 in a comic act that pitted Walker’s fast-talking city slicker against Williams’ slow-moving country bumpkin. Tall and light-skinned, Williams always put on the traditional blackface makeup that all minstrels wore (he said it helped him get into character and would wear it throughout his career), but the wit and dignity he brought to his performances made both blacks and whites appreciate his character as a funny everyman instead of as just a crude caricature. By 1903 Williams and Walker were starring in In Dahomey, the first all-Black musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theatre. But after Walker fell ill from syphilis in 1909 (he would die two years later) Florenz Ziegfeld invited Williams to be a headliner in his Follies of 1910, making him the first Black to perform on Broadway as an equal alongside Whites. Although he formed close relationships with such co-stars as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, Williams was still forced to stay home when other Follies performers traveled across the segregated South.
Charles Gilpin The Emperor Jones, (1920)
Charles Sidney Gilpin was one of the most highly regarded stage actors of the 1920s. He played in critical debuts in New York City: the 1919 premier of John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln and the lead role of Brutus Jones in the 1920 premier of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, also touring with the play. With a few rare exceptions, Black roles in dramatic plays on Broadway had been performed by White actors who used burnt cork or greasepaint to make themselves appear darker but in 1919, producer William H. Harris, Jr. hired the African-American actor Charles S. Gilpin to play a character based on the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the play Abraham Lincoln. Gilpin’s performance, honed during his years in small Black companies, including as director of Harlem’s celebrated Lafayette Players, convinced Eugene O’Neill to cast him in the title role of The Emperor Jones, making Gilpin the first black man to lead an integrated cast on the Great White Way. His portrayal of Brutus Jones, an escapee from an American prison who becomes such a despotic ruler of a West Indian island that the natives rise up against him, was hailed by the critics but the actor’s dispute with O’Neill over the repeated use of the N-word in the play and his ongoing drinking problem caused him to be replaced in the London production by Paul Robeson.
Shuffle Along (1921)
Shuffle Along is a musical with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and a thin revue-style connecting plot about a mayoral race, written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The piece premiered on Broadway in 1921, running for 504 performances – an unusually long run during that decade. There had been earlier all-Black musicals on Broadway but they were old-fashioned affairs like A Trip to Coontown and borrowed heavily from the minstrel tradition. Shuffle Along took its inspiration from the new sounds of jazz and Tin Pan Alley tunes. Its book writers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, former classmates at the all-Black Fisk University, adapted the story from a comic vaudeville routine they’d once performed about a three-way mayoral race and then added in a romantic subplot. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, among the first African-American acts on the vaudeville circuit to forgo blackface and to adopt a sophisticated style of dress, wrote the score, which included the ballad “Love Will Find a Way” and the now-classic “(I’m Just) Wild About Harry.” Their Shuffle Along proved to be not only a huge hit that ran for a then-unbelievable 504 performances but set the template for a spate of similar shows that featured Black performers, syncopated rhythms and flashy dance numbers. It also had the distinction of being the first Broadway show that allowed African Americans to sit downstairs in the orchestra section.
Porgy and Bess (1935)
Porgy and Bess is an English-language opera by the American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.
“Opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York on October 10, 1935. 124 performances. An opera by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Produced by The Theatre Guild. Cast: Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, John W. Bubbles, Ruby Elzy, Warren Coleman, Abbie Mitchell, Edward Matthews, Georgette Harvey, and the Eva Jessye Choir.
PORGY AND BESS is probably the most famous and most successful American opera from the twentieth century and at times has been the most controversial. Based on DuBose Heyward’s novel, PORGY, and the play that was adapted from it by Heyward and his wife Dorothy, it has long been considered the crowning achievement in the stellar careers of all of the authors. Since its debut in 1935, the story of the crippled beggar transformed by his unexpected and improbable love for Bess, has been performed all over the world by theatre and opera companies. The landmark 1953 Broadway revival toured for years as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the U.S. State Department, and in 1959 the opera was filmed by Samuel Goldwyn. In 1993 Trevor Nunn’s lauded staging for Glyndebourne Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden was televised.”
The best-known Black opera ever to play on Broadway, Porgy and Bess was written by a trio of White men: the brothers George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, a southerner who wrote the novel “Porgy” about a crippled beggar who lives in the poor black fishing community of Catfish Row and falls for the local bad-girl Bess. George Gershwin had long been fascinated by African-American culture and he was excited about setting Heyward’s story to music. But Porgy and Bess was controversial right from the start. Music critics thought the score was too lightweight. Theatre critics thought the operatic recitative was off-putting. And many African Americans complained that the story, which dealt with drugs, gambling, and loose sex, stereotyped Black people. The original production closed before it could recoup its investment but a1976 Houston Grand Opera production restored the show’s reputation, Diane Paulus’ recent 2012 revival with Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles won a Tony and such songs as “Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now” remain among the best-loved and most performed in the American Songbook.
Paul Robeson in Othello, (1943)
Paul Leroy Robeson was an American bass baritone concert artist and stage and film actor who became famous both for his cultural accomplishments and for his political activism. Educated at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, N.J., where he was an All-America football and Columbia University, he was also a star athlete in his youth.. He was an all-American football player in college and earned a law degree at Columbia University, but Paul Robeson scored his greatest accomplishments on the stage.
Tall, charismatic and blessed with a deep melodious voice that made him a favorite on the concert circuit, he began acting in all-Black Harlem productions and also became friendly with members of the Provincetown Players, whose resident playwright Eugene O’Neill cast Robeson in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the controversial 1924 play about the ill-fated marriage between a white woman and a black man. That production, which drew protests letters and newspaper editorials, would help prepare Robeson for his greatest challenge — and greatest triumph — when he took on the title role in Othello, with the husband-and-wife team of José Ferrer and Uta Hagen as Iago and Desdemona. Robeson had played the part earlier in London but he had been unsatisfied with that performance and worked hard to realize a fuller creation of the jealous Moor (he and Hagen even embarked on an affair). The payoff was a production that ran for 296 performances, longer than any previous production of Shakespeare on Broadway.
A Raisin In The Sun (1959)
With a cast in which all but one character is African-American, A Raisin in the Sun was considered a risky investment, and it took over a year for producer Phillip Rose to raise enough money to launch it. There was disagreement with how it should be played, with focus on the mother or focus on the son. When the play hit New York, Sidney Poitier played it with the focus on the son and found not only his calling but also an audience enthralled.Borrowing its title from the lines of a Langston Hughes poem (“What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”) Lorraine Hansberry’s pioneering drama debuted just five years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision officially ended segregation in the U.S. It told the story of a Black family whose yearning for a piece of the American Dream included moving to a modest home in an unwelcoming white community. The legendary production starred Claudia McNeil as the family’s widowed matriarch, Sidney Poitier as her grown son, Ruby Dee as his wife and Diana Sands as the intellectual younger sister who, like a growing number of Blacks, was trying to connect with her African roots. Lloyd Richards, who would later go on to head the Yale School of Drama, directed the production, breaking through another color barrier as the first African American to stage a drama on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun lost that year’s Tony race for Best Drama to The Miracle Worker but 15 years later, its musical adaptation Raisin would win for Best Musical.
Prior to the 1960s, there were virtually no outlets for the wealth of Black theatrical talent in America. Playwrights writing realistically about the Black experience could not get their work produced, and even the most successful performers, such as Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, were confined to playing roles as servants. It was disenfranchised artists such as these who set out to create a theater concentrating primarily on themes of Black life. In 1965, Playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone came together to make these dreams a reality with the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). The main catalyst for this project was the 1959 production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”Written by Lorraine Hansberry, of “A Raisin in the Sun” was a gritty, realistic view of Black family life.
The long-running play gave many Black theater people the opportunity to meet and work together. Robert Hooks and Douglas Turner Ward were castmates in the road company. Together they dreamed of starting a theater company run by and for Black people. While acting in Leroi Jones’ play “The Dutchman”, Hooks began spending nights teaching to local Black youth. In a public performance primarily for parents and neighbors, the kids put on a one-act play by Ward. A newspaper critic who had attended the performance recommended that Ward’s plays be produced commercially. While Hooks raised money, Ward wrote plays. The pair recruited a theater manager, Gerald Krone, and the three men produced an evening of Black-oriented, satiric one act plays. One of these short plays, “Day of Absence”, was a reverse minstrel show, with Black actors in whiteface performing the roles of whites in a small Southern town on a day when all the Blacks have mysteriously disappeared.
The plays, performed at the St. Marks Play House in Greenwich Village, were a major success. They ran for 504 performances and won Ward an Obie Award for acting and a Drama Desk Award for writing. Impressed with his work, the NEW YORK TIMES invited Ward to write an article on the condition of black artists in American theater. Ward’s piece in the Times became a manifesto for the establishment of a resident black theater company. With money from the Ford Foundation and a home at the St. Marks Playhouse, the Negro Ensemble Company formed officially in 1967.
The Blacks: A Clown Show (1961)
The Blacks was, after The Balcony, the second of Genet’s plays to be staged in New York. The production was the longest-running Off-Broadway non-musical of the decade. This 1961 New York production opened on 4 May at the St. Mark’s Playhouse and ran for 1,408 performances. It was directed by Gene Frankel, with sets by Kim E. Swados, music by Charles Gross, and costumes and masks by Patricia Zipprodt. The original cast featured James Earl Jones as Deodatus, Roscoe Lee Browne as Archibald, Louis Gossett, Jr., as Edgar, Cicely Tyson as Stephanie, Godfrey Cambridge as Diouf, Maya Angelou as the White Queen and Charles Gordone as the burglar.
|Award||Person / Company||Function|
|1||WON||1961 Obie Award, Special Citation||Bernard Frechtman||Translator|
|2||WON||1961 Obie Award, Best New Play||Jean Genet||Playwright|
|3||WON||1961 Obie Award, Distinguished Performance||Godfrey M. Cambridge||Actor|
The Blacks: A Clown Show (French: Les Nègres, clownerie) is a play by the French dramatist Jean Genet. Published in 1958, it was first performed in a production directed by Roger Blin at the Théâtre de Lutèce in Paris, which opened on 28 October 1959.
A review of the Theatre Royal Stratford East production (2007) states:
In a prefatory note, Genet specifies the conditions under which he anticipates the play would be performed, revealing his characteristic concern with the politics and ritual of theatricality:
Day of Absence (1965)
Since the Whitehouse cant seem to answer the question concerning the number of Black people working there, I have another theory..
Douglass Turner Ward, one of the founders and former Executive Producer of the Negro Ensemble Company produced a play “Day of Absence”
What would the world look like if everyone that Donald J. Trump had ever disdained — the Mexicans and the Muslims, the nasty women and the failing journalists — vanished? How would a morning unfold if Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” suddenly turned up empty? If those we look down on disappeared overnight, how would we go on?
That’s the question posed by Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day of Absence,” a “satirical fantasy” that kicked off the pioneering Negro Ensemble Company in 1965.
Fifty-one years later, the company has revived it in a feisty, slapdash production at Theater 80 St. Marks, featuring several cast members who starred in the original version.
In “Day of Absence,” the White residents of a Southern town wake to find all the Black people gone.
As shoes go unshined and babies unfed, the municipality devolves into chaos. It isn’t long before even the segregationist mayor is begging: “I’ll be kneeling in the middle of Dixie Avenue to kiss the first shoe of the first one ’a you to show up. I’ll smooch any other spot you request.
Erase this nightmare ’n’ we’ll concede any demand you make, just come on back — please?”
At one point several white racist towns people cant seem to locate their White friends and come to the conclusion and say; “They must have been secret niggras”..
A “reverse minstrel show,” “Day of Absence” is performed by Black actors in whiteface, save for a white actor who appears as an announcer and a Black actor who comes on in the end without benefit of cosmetics. Mr. Ward’s wit is scathing, if not exactly nuanced.
There’s cruel humor in a White cop who goes crazy when he has no Black men to assault and a Klan member upset that he wasn’t the one to drive the African-Americans out of town.
No Place to Be Somebody (1969)
PLAYWRIGHT: CHARLES GORDONE
“No Place to be Somebody is a 1969 play written by American playwright Charles Gordone. It was during his employment as a bartender in Greenwich Village that Gordone found the inspiration for his first major work, No Place to be Somebody, for which he received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.”
“It was during his employment as a bartender in Greenwich Village that Gordone found the inspiration for his first major work, No Place to be Somebody, for which he received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gordone’s Pulitzer signified two “firsts”: he was the first African American playwright to receive a Pulitzer, and “No Place to be Somebody” was the first off-Broadway play to receive the award.
Written over the course of seven years, the play explores racial tensions in a Civil Rights-era story about a Black bartender who tries to outsmart a white mobster syndicate. In his final speech, on June 1995, delivered at the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, Gordone described the play as being “about country folk who had migrated to the big city, seeking the urban myth of success, only to find disappointment, despair, and death.” After an experimental production directed by Gordone, in November 1967, the play was produced in a showcase of three weekends at The Other Stage in Joe Papp’s Public Theater in South Manhattan by director Edward Cornell. The play was then launched on May 4, 1969, by Joseph Papp on a 248-performance run at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater, followed by an acclaimed limited engagement at Broadway’s ANTA Theatre. The play’s run (at New York’s ANTA Playhouse) lasted 15 performances, followed by three national touring companies from 1970 to 1977, all of which Gordone directed.
The play was revived in 1987 at The Matrix Theatre Company in Los Angeles, California in an adaptation directed by Bill Duke and starring one of the original cast from the play’s initial 1969 run, Ron Thompson, in the role of Shanty Mulligan.”
|CLARENCE DERWENT AWARD|
|1969||MOST PROMISING MALE PERFORMER||
|DRAMA DESK AWARD|
|1969||MOST PROMISING PLAYWRIGHT||
|1970||PULITZER PRIZE FOR DRAMA||
|THEATRE WORLD AWARDS|
|1969||THEATRE WORLD AWARD||
Ossie Davis’s award-winning 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, was turned into an exciting new musical by Peter Udell (lyrics) and Gary Geld (music), two protégés of Frank Loesser, with a book by Udell and producer/director Philip Rose. Driven by a magnificent cast in which Cleavon Little played the title character and Melba Moore, discovered earlier in Hair, took her first starring role, it opened at the Broadway Theatre on March 15, 1970 for a long run of 688 performances. Also on board for that triumphant run were Sherman Helmsley, in the days before he became George Jefferson in TV’s All In The Family; cabaret performer Novella Nelson; and blues and gospel singer Linda Hopkins.
Purlie is a musical with a book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose, and Peter Udell, lyrics by Udell, and music by Gary Geld. It is based on Davis’s 1961 play Purlie Victorious, which was later made into the 1963 film Gone Are the Days! and which included many of the original Broadway cast, including Davis, Ruby Dee, Alan Alda, Beah Richards, Godfrey Cambridge, and Sorrell Booke.
Purlie is set in an era when Jim Crow laws still were in effect in the American South. Its focus is on the dynamic, traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, who returns to his small Georgia town hoping to save Big Bethel, the community’s church, and emancipate the cotton pickers who work on oppressive Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s plantation. With the assistance of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie hopes to pry loose from Cotchipee an inheritance due his long-lost cousin and use the money to achieve his goals. Also playing a part in Purlie’s plans is Cotchipee’s son Charlie, who ultimately proves to be far more fair-minded than his Simon Legree-like father and who saves the church from destruction with an act of defiance that has dire consequences for the tyrannical Cap’n.
Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death (1971)
Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is a musical with a book, music, and lyrics by Melvin Van Peebles. The musical contains some material also on three of Van Peebles’ albums, Brer Soul, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and As Serious as a Heart-Attack, some of which were yet to come out. Annoyed that he wasn’t seeing the kinds of Black people and issues onstage that he saw on the streets, Melvin Van Peebles wrote the book, music and lyrics for a linked series of vignettes in which characters such as prostitutes, junkies, militants, and everyday working stiffs lamented the drugs, homelessness, unemployment, police corruption and other ills of ghetto life. The show famously ended with a female character (Minnie Gentry -Actress) facing the audience and intoning, “I put a curse on you.” Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (Musical, Original) opened in New York City Oct 20, 1971, and played through Jul 30, 1972. Critics were conflicted, and traditional theatergoers were wary. So Van Peebles drummed up support for his show by persuading Black stars like Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell to make cameo appearances and by reaching out to Black churches and civic groups, a form of target marketing that would be adapted by other productions seeking to bring out African-American and other under-represented ticket buyers.
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1971)
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope is a musical revue first staged in 1971 with music, lyrics and book by Micki Grant. It was originally produced by Edward Padula.
“Zesty and fun…lively score and lyrics…Deserves a wide audience.” – The New York Times
“The kind of show at which you want to blow kisses.” – Sunday Times
“Sends you home wanting to snap your fingers and click your heels.” – The New York Daily News
“Magical combination of passion and humor…perfect.” – The New Yorker
The all-singing, all-dancing show focuses on the African-American experience with songs on such topics as tenements, slumlords, ghetto life, student protests, black power, and feminism. The music is a mixture of gospel, jazz, funk, soul, calypso, and soft rock.
The show had its first staging at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. in 1971, with subsequent stagings at the Locust and Walnut Street Theatres in Philadelphia.
The restaged Broadway production, directed by Vinnette Carroll and choreographed by George Faison, opened to acclaim on April 19, 1972, at the Playhouse Theatre, where it ran for two months before transferring to the Edison. It had a total run of 1065 performances. In his The New York Times review of the opening night, Clive Barnes described it as “a mixture of a block party and a revival meeting” and wrote: “It is the unexpected that is the most delightful. Last night at the Playhouse Theater a new musical came clapping, stomping and stamping in. It is fresh, fun and Black. …Black heroes such as Flip Wilson and Godfrey Cambridge, and even Bella Abzug and Ralph Nader are mentioned and the show makes wry mockery of the changing times and celebrates the rise of Black aspiration and achievements. …the show is full of talent working together with a cohesian rarely encountered outside the dance world.” Time Magazine theatre critic T. E. Kalem also praised the show, writing: “…all heaven breaks loose on stage. This is the kind of show at which you want to blow kisses.”
The cast included Grant, Alex Bradford, Hope Clarke, and Arnold Wilkerson. With Vinnette Carroll as director, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope became the first Broadway play to be directed by an African-American woman, and Micki Grant was the first woman to write both the music and lyrics to a Broadway musical.
The 1972 Los Angeles production featured Paula Kelly.
An original cast recording was released on the Polydor label in 1972, produced by Jerry Ragovoy.
In 2016 the York Theatre Company staged a limited engagement of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope with 10 performances between February 27 and March 6.
In July 2018 the show was revived in the Encores! Off-Center season at New York City Center, choreographed and directed by Savion Glover.
Inner City (1971
Musical – Original
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
First Preview: November 29, 1971
Opening Date: December 19, 1971
Closing Date: March 11, 1972
Music: Helen Miller
Lyrics: Eve Merriam
A Street Cantata – Ethel Barrymore Theatre, (12/19/1971 – 3/11/1972) – “Once upon a time in 1969 the prolific and insightful poet, Eve Merriam, penned a book of poems using traditional nursery rhymes as a jumping-off point for social and political commentary of the day. Covering such topics as crime, drug abuse, unemployment, and inadequate housing, by 1982 Ms. Merriam’s book had become one of the most banned in the country. In 1971 Broadway director Tom O’Horgan conceived a new musical based on Ms. Merriam’s book called Inner City. Instead of a cynical and pessimistic observation of life in the urban jungles of America, O’Horgan shaped the material into a theatrical event that was fast, funny, playful, touching and, ultimately, a rousing celebration of everyday contemporary life to which everyone – including those comfortably nestled in the suburbs – could relate.”
– The original Broadway production of Inner City ran for just under 100 performances and featured cast member Linda Hopkins, who was awarded the 1972 Tony Award for her performance. A cast album was recorded by RCA (recently re-issued digitally by Sony’s Masterworks division), and the show developed a cult following.
Inner City: Opening Night Cast
Paulette Ellen Jones
A series of nursery-rhyme parodies highlighting the diminishing quality of life in the center of America’s cities are presented in song.
[“The subtitle to Inner City, “A Street Cantata,” pretty much describes what the revue that opened on December 14, 1971 at the Barrymore Theatre was all about – a celebration of urban life as seen through the eyes of its ghetto citizens, but with a twist. Based on Eve Merriam’s The Inner City Mother Goose, it dealt with the classic nursery rhymes repertory, suffused with social protest attitudes that were not in the original, the whole thing set to music by Helen Miller, and directed by Tom O’Horgan. Larry Marshall, Linda Hopkins and Delores Hall were the undisputed stars of the show, which ran for three months, playing 97 performances.”}
The Wiz (1975)
The Wiz, Charlie Smalls’ musical adaption of The Wizard of Oz, opened at the Majestic Theatre January 5, 1975. The show ran 1,672 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
The original production starred Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, and featured Tiger Haynes, Hinton Battle, Ted Ross, and Andre De Shields in supporting roles. The show was revived again in 1984 starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy once more..
Geoffrey Holder had already been a successful actor, dancer, choreographer, TV pitchman (most famously as 7-Up’s “Uncola” man) and was working as the costume designer for this disco-era retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” when he was asked to take over as director during the show’s out-of-town tryout. He recast the principal roles of Dorothy, the girl who leaves her Kansas home for the magical land of Oz, and the traveling companions she finds there. He also expanded the exuberant approach he’d taken with the costumes to encompass the entire production. But opening night reviews were still so tepid that the producer considered closing the show until a TV commercial featuring its signature “Ease on Down the Road” number and the resultant good word of mouth from those who followed that advice turned The Wiz into a hit that ran for four years and won seven Tonys, including the top prize for that year’s Best Musical. In 2015 The Wiz Live! joined NBC’s series of live musical events.
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976)
Poet and playwright Ntozake Shange debuted her groundbreaking work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in 1974. Using an innovative form she defined as a choreopoem, a blend of poetry, storytelling, music, and dance, Shange presented a series of dramatic monologues that invoked the lives, loves, and struggles of women of color.
On September 15, 1976, for colored girls… opened at the Booth Theatre on Broadway and became a smash success, running for 742 performances. Since then, the play has been produced by theater companies around the world and also adapted for television and as a feature film.
Inspired by personal events—including Ms. Shange’s multiple attempts to take her own life, the “choreopoem” weaves spoken word and dance pieces to tell the story of seven Black women, each identified solely by a color (Ms. Shange herself played the Lady in Orange). While ultimately uniting the seven women in “a laying on of hands,” the piece aims to explore the abuse, abandonment, and violence women of color endure.
In 1976, the play earned Ms. Shange an Obie Award, as well as a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. It was adapted for television in 1982 as part of PBS’ American Playhouse series, and a 2010 film version from Tyler Perry
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978)
Musical by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr.
Image result for Ain’t Misbehavin broadway
DescriptionAin’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., and music by various composers and lyricists as arranged and orchestrated by Luther Henderson. It is named after the song by Fats Waller, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. Wikipedia
Composer: Fats Waller
Lyrics: Various Artists
Book: Murray Horwitz; Richard Maltby Jr.
Ain’t Misbehavin‘ opened in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret on February 8, 1978. The cast included Irene Cara, Nell Carter, André DeShields, Armelia McQueen, and Ken Page.
The musical is a tribute to the Black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness, and ethnic pride, and takes its title from the 1929 Waller song “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. It was a time when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out the new beat known as swing. Five performers present an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect Waller’s view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret on February 8, 1978. The cast included Irene Cara, Nell Carter, André DeShields, Armelia McQueen, and Ken Page and was staged by Arthur Faria, now recognized as one of the original authors, and directed by Maltby. The New York Times reviewer wrote: “The show moves with the zing and sparkle of a Waller recording-filled with bright melodies and asides.” Its reception was such that it was decided to develop it into a full-scale production.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre on May 9, 1978, and transferred to the Plymouth Theatre and then to the Belasco Theatre and closed on February 21, 1982, after 1604 performances and fourteen previews. Maltby was the director, with musical staging and choreography by Arthur Faria. The original cast featured Nell Carter, André DeShields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page, and Charlayne Woodard. Luther Henderson, who adapted Waller’s music for the revue, appeared as the production’s original pianist. Replacements later in the run included Debbie Allen, Yvette Freeman, Adriane Lenox, and Alan Weeks. An original cast recording was released by RCA Victor.
Dreamgirls is a Broadway musical, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen. Based on the show business aspirations and successes of R&B acts such as The Supremes, The Shirelles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and others, the musical follows the story of a young female singing trio from Chicago, Illinois called “The Dreams”, who become music superstars.
Staged with a mostly African-American cast and originally starring Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, Ben Harney, Cleavant Derricks, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Obba Babatundé, the musical opened on December 20, 1981, at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. The musical was then nominated for 13 Tony Awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical, and won six. It was later adapted into a motion picture from DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures in 2006. The film starred Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose, and Keith Robinson.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)
Set in a shabby Chicago recording studio, August Wilson’s Broadway debut was based loosely on the recording sessions that the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey made for Paramount Records in 1923. The play’s rivalry between the older and younger generations of musicians in the band reflected the aspirations, frustrations, and rage that African Americans struggled with as they tried to crossover into a white world without losing the vital connection to their roots. Critics hailed the show as the most important Black play since A Raisin in the Sun and cheered Wilson’s arrival as a major new voice in the American theatre. Over the next two decades, he would write a play about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century, finishing the last just before his death at 60 in 2005. Nine of his 10-play cycle have been produced on Broadway and two, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won Pulitzer Prizes. Production Team DWIGHT ANDREWS Musical Director PETER MARADUDIN Lighting Designer CHARLES HENRY MCCLENNAHAN Scenic Designer JAN NEBOZENKO Sound Designer DAPHNE PASCUCCI Costume Designer LLOYD RICHARDS Director John Carpenter Sturdyvant studio owner Lou Criscuolo Irvin Ma’s manager Scott Davenport-Richards Sylvester Ma’s nephew Charles S. Dutton Levee trumpeter Leonard Jackson Slow Drag bassist Robert Judd Toledo pianist Christopher Loomis Policeman Theresa Merritt Ma Rainey Aleta Mitchell Dussie Mae Joe Seneca Cutler trombonist Understudies: Peter Boyden (Sturdyvant, Irvin, Policeman), Bill Cobbs (Cutler), Arthur French (Slow Drag, Toledo), Brent Jennings (Levee, Sylvester) and Ebony Jo-Ann (Ma Rainey, Dussie Mae)
Brian Stokes Mitchell.
[ It led the 1998 Tony Awards with thirteen Tony Award nominations, but Disney’sThe Lion King won as Best Musical. The musical won awards for Best Featured Actress (McDonald), Original Score, Book, and Orchestrations. According to The New York Times, “The chief competition for The Lion King was Ragtime, a lavish musical.” ]
Ragtime is a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty. The music includes marches, cakewalks, gospel, and ragtime.
Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Black Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a White upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.
Historical figures including Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, Admiral Peary, Matthew Henson, and Emma Goldman are represented in the stories.
Ragtime is a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty. The music includes marches, cakewalks, gospel, and ragtime. Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Wikipedia
First performance: December 8, 1996
Composer: Stephen Flaherty
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Lyricist: Lynn Ahrens
Before It Hits Home (1993)
Suzan-Lori Parks centered this existential study of what it means to be a Black man in 21st-century America around two brothers symbolically named Lincoln and Booth, who were abandoned by their parents as kids, share a small room and eke out a living, hustling cards and doing odd jobs. In a subversion of the old theatrical tradition of blackface, Parks gives one of them the job of impersonating Abe Lincoln in a local sideshow which requires him to wear whiteface. Like Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, this show started at the Public Theater and was directed by George C. Wolfe. The downtown production, which starred Geoffrey Wright and Don Cheadle, sold out, but theatergoers were less enthusiastic when the show moved uptown to Broadway with the rapper Mos Def taking over from Cheadle and the show closed after just 144 performances despite winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which made Parks the first African-American woman to win that honor.
The Scottsboro Boys (2010)
Musical by David Thompson
DescriptionThe Scottsboro Boys is a musical with a book by David Thompson, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the Scottsboro Boys trial, the musical is one of the last collaborations between Kander and Ebb prior to the latter’s death.
The Scottsboro Boys is a musical with a book by David Thompson, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the Scottsboro Boys trial, the musical is one of the last collaborations between Kander and Ebb prior to the latter’s death. The musical has the framework of a minstrel show, altered to “create a musical social critique” with a company that, except for one, consists “entirely of African-American performers”.
The musical debuted Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2010 for a run of only two months. It received twelve Tony Award nominations but failed to win any. The previous record for nominations without a win was eleven, held by Steel Pier and the original production of Chicago, both also by Kander and Ebb. The musical’s twelve nominations were second only to The Book of Mormon, which garnered fourteen nominations that year. Nevertheless, The Scottsboro Boys played in US regional theatres in 2012 and moved to London in 2013, where, after a sell-out production at the Young Vic, it moved to the West End in 2014.
Music: John Kander
Playwright: David Thompson
Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. (2016)
Musical by George C. Wolfe
DescriptionShuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is a musical with a score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and a libretto by George C. Wolfe, based on the original book of the 1921 musical revue Shuffle Along, by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Wikipedia
First performance: April 28, 2016
Playwright: George C. Wolfe
Award: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical
Choir Boy (2019)
Choir Boys For half a century, the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys has been dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men. One talented student has been waiting for years to take his rightful place as the leader of the legendary gospel choir. But can he make his way through the hallowed halls of this institution if he sings in his own key?
Now, we’re thrilled to bring this soaring music-filled work to Broadway. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is an Oscar®-winning screenwriter of Moonlight and a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship Grant. Directing is Trip Cullman (Murder Ballad). CAST & CREATIVE
Pharus Jonathan Burke
Headmaster Marrow Chuck Cooper
Mr. Pendleton Austin Pendleton
Junior Davis Nicholas L. Ashe
Anthony Justin “AJ” James John Clay III
David Heard Caleb Eberhardt
Bobby Marrow J. Quinton Johnson
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Director Trip Cullman
Set and Costume Designer David Zinn
Lighting Designer Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Designer Fitz Patton
Movement Camille A. Brown
Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements Jason Michael Webb
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations. (2019)
A Moving and Personal Story Amid the Civil Unrest that Tore America Apart.
of Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations
CAST & CREATIVE
for Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations
Otis Williams Derrick Baskin
Paul Williams James Harkness
Melvin Franklin Jawan M. Jackson
David Ruffin Ephraim Sykes
Eddie Kendricks Jeremy Pope
Director – Des McAnuff
Book – Dominique Morisseau
Choreographer – Sergio Trujillo
Set Designer – Robert Brill
Costume Designer – Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer – Howell Binkley
Music Director and Arrangements – Kenny Seymour
Sound Designer – Steven Canyon Kennedy
Projection Designer – Peter Nigrini
Ain’t Too Proud follows The Temptations’ journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With their signature dance moves and unmistakable harmonies, they rose to the top of the charts creating an amazing 42 Top Ten Hits with 14 reaching number one. Through friendship and betrayal amid the civil unrest that tore America apart, their moving and personal story still resonates five decades later.
The cast also features Esther Antoine, Shawn Bowers, E. Clayton Cornelious, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., Taylor Symone Jackson, Jahi Kearse, Jarvis B. Manning Jr., Joshua Morgan, Saint Aubyn, Rashidra Scott, Nasia Thomas, Christian Thompson, Curtis Wiley, and Candice Marie Woods.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (musical)
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr., and music by various composers and lyricists as arranged and orchestrated by Luther Henderson. It is named after the song by Fats Waller (with Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf), “Ain’t Misbehavin'”.
The musical is a tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness, and ethnic pride, and takes its title from the 1929 Waller song “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. It was a time when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out the new beat known as swing. Five performers present an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect Waller’s view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play.
Bandanna Land (also known as In Bandanna Land) (1908) is a musical with a book and lyrics written by Jesse A. Shipp, and Alex Rogers, respectively, and music composed primarily by Will Marion Cook. Created by and featuring African Americans, it was the third musical written by the team whose previous works included In Dahomey (1902) and Abyssinia (1906). It was the last show featuring the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker, comedians who starred in these musicals. (Walker became ill during the post-Broadway tour and died in 1911).
Black Nativity is a retelling of the classic Nativity story with an entirely black cast. Traditional Christmas carols are sung in gospel style, with a few songs created specifically for the show. Originally written by Langston Hughes, the show was first performed Off-Broadway on December 11, 1961, and was one of the first plays written by an African American to be staged there. The show had a successful tour of Europe in 1962, one of its appearances being at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy. Black Nativity has been performed annually in Boston, Massachusetts at various locations, such as the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, Boston Opera House, Tremont Temple, Roxbury Community College, Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium, and presently at Emerson College’s Paramount Theater since 1969 & is considered the longest-running production of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.” The original 160 singers were arranged by age group and vocal range, with an assortment of soloists, along with the narrator, and Mary and Joseph, who are both mute, as well as musicians & ASL interpreters.
The original name for this play was Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? Alvin Ailey was a part of the original Off-Broadway cast, but he and Carmen de Lavalladedeparted from the show prior to its opening, in a dispute over the title being changed to Black Nativity
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk is a musical that debuted Off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater in 1995 and moved to Broadway in 1996. The show was conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe, and featured music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesnay; lyrics by Reg E. Gaines, George C. Wolfe and Ann Duquesnay; and a book by Reg E. Gaines. The choreography was by Savion Glover.
Cabin in the Sky (musical)
Cabin in the Sky is a musical with music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root, and lyrics by John Latouche. The musical opened on Broadway in 1940. The show is described as a “parable of Southern Negro Life with echoes of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (which would be turned into the musical Carousel) and Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures.
Carmen Jones is a 1943 Broadway musical with music by Georges Bizet (orchestrated for Broadway by Robert Russell Bennett) and lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II which was performed at The Broadway Theatre. Conceptually, it is Bizet’s opera Carmen updated to a World War II-era African-American setting. (Bizet’s opera was, in turn, based on the 1846 novella by Prosper Mérimée.) The Broadway musical was produced by Billy Rose, using an all-black cast, and directed by Hassard Short. Robert Shaw prepared the choral portions of the show.
The original Broadway production starred Muriel Smith (alternating with Muriel Rahn) in the title role. The original Broadway cast members were nearly all new to the stage; Kennedy and Muir write that on the first day of rehearsal only one member had ever been on a stage before.
The 1954 film was adapted by Hammerstein and Harry Kleiner. It was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.
The musical has also been revived in London, running for a season in 1991 at London’s Old Vic and most recently in London’s Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre in 2007.
In 2018, it was revived off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company under the direction of John Doyle and Anika Noni Rose in the title role.
Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk
Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk is a one-act musical by composer Will Marion Cook and librettist Paul Laurence Dunbar.
The piece premiered in 1898 and was the first Broadway musical with an all-black cast. It starred the famous African-American performer Ernest Hogan. Popular songs from the show included “Who Dat Say Chicken In Dis Crowd” (one of the first documented uses of the well-known “Who Dat?” comedy motif) and the finale, “Darktown Is Out Tonight”.
The Color Purple (musical)
The Color Purple is a musical with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Based on the 1982 novel of the same name by Alice Walker and its 1985 film adaptation, the show follows the journey of Celie, an African-American woman in the American South from the early to the mid-20th century.
The original Broadway production ran from 2005 to 2008, earning eleven Tony Award nominations in 2006. An enthusiastically acclaimed Broadway revival opened in late 2015 and ran through early 2017, winning two 2016 Tony Awards—including Best Revival of a Musical.
Dreamgirls is a Broadway musical, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen. Based on the show business aspirations and successes of R&B acts such as The Supremes, The Shirelles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and others, the musical follows the story of a young female singing trio from Chicago, Illinois called “The Dreams”, who become music superstars.
Staged with a mostly African-American cast and originally starring Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, Ben Harney, Cleavant Derricks, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Obba Babatundé, the musical opened on December 20, 1981, at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. The musical was then nominated for 13 Tony Awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical, and won six. It was later adapted into a motion picture from DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures in 2006. The film starred Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose, and Keith Robinson.
Eclipsed is a play written by Danai Gurira. (Not to be confused with the play Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan about life in a Magdalene Laundry in 1960s Ireland) It takes place in 2003 and tells the story of five Liberian women and their tale of survival near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. It became the first play with an all-black and female creative cast and team to premiere on Broadway.
Eclipsed premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC in 2009, then opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in October 2015 with positive reviews and ran until November 2015. The following year, it transferred to Broadway, premiering at the John Golden Theatre with an opening on March 6, 2016. Its Broadway run closed on June 19, 2016.
The Emperor Jones
The Emperor Jones is a 1920 play by American dramatist Eugene O’Neill that tells the tale of Brutus Jones, a resourceful, self-assured African American and a former Pullman porter, who kills another black man in a dice game, is jailed, and later escapes to a small, backward Caribbean island where he sets himself up as emperor. The play recounts his story in flashbacks as Brutus makes his way through the jungle in an attempt to escape former subjects who have rebelled against him.
Originally called The Silver Bullet, the play is one of O’Neill’s major experimental works, mixing expressionism and realism, and the use of an unreliable narrator and multiple points of view. It was also an oblique commentary on the U.S. occupation of Haiti after bloody rebellions there, an act of imperialism that was much condemned in O’Neill’s radical political circles in New York. The Emperor Jones draws on O’Neill’s own hallucinatory experience hacking through the jungle while prospecting for gold in Honduras in 1909, as well as the brief, brutal presidency of Haiti’s Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.
The Emperor Jones was O’Neill’s first big box-office hit. It established him as a successful playwright after he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his first play, the much less well-known Beyond the Horizon (1920). The Emperor Jones was included in Burns Mantle’s The Best Plays of 1920–1921.
Fences is a 1985 play by American playwright August Wilson. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle”. Like all of the “Pittsburgh” plays, Fences explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes. The play won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. The play was first developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 1983 National Playwrights Conference and premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985.
Four Saints in Three Acts
Four Saints in Three Acts is an opera by American composer Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Written in 1927-8, it contains about 20 saints and is in at least four acts. It was groundbreaking for form, content, and its all-black cast, with singers directed by Eva Jessye, a prominent black choral director, and supported by her choir.
Thomson suggested the topic, and the libretto as delivered can be read in Stein’s collected works. The opera features two 16th-century Spanish saints—the former mercenary Ignatius of Loyola and the mystic Teresa of Avila—as well as their colleagues, real and imagined: St. Plan, St. Settlement, St. Plot, St. Chavez, etc. Thomson decided to divide St. Teresa’s role between two singers, “St. Teresa I” and “St. Teresa II”, and added the master and mistress of ceremonies (Compère and Commère—literally, the “godparents”) to sing Stein’s stage directions.
The Hot Mikado (1939 production)
The Hot Mikado was a musical theatre adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado with an African-American cast. It was first produced by Mike Toddon Broadway in 1939. It starred Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the title role, with musical arrangements by Charles L. Cooke and direction by Hassard Short.
Mike Todd produced The Hot Mikado after the Federal Theatre Project turned down his offer to manage the WPA production of The Swing Mikado (another all-Black adaptation of The Mikado). Todd’s adaptation was jazzier than The Swing Mikado and had a “full-voiced, star-studded cast to back up its sass.” It follows both the storyline of The Mikado and the spectacle of the original and was noted for its wild costuming.”Rosa Brown’s outfit, a winged dress with train and a gigantic hat, weighed thirty-five pounds.” The spectacle and jazzed-up score received enthusiastic reviews and drew audiences; “critic George Jean Nathan presented it as the ‘best all-around musical show’, named Nat Karson ‘the season’s best costumer’, and hailed two performers, Rosa Brown as ‘best blues singer’ and, to no one’s surprise, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson as ‘best hoofer.'”
In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy is a landmark 1903 American musical comedy described by theatre historian Gerald Bordman as “the first full-length musical written and played by blacks to be performed at a major Broadway house.” It features music by Will Marion Cook, book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was written by Jesse A. Shipp as a satire on the American Colonization Society’s back-to-Africa movement of the earlier nineteenth century.
In Dahomey is regarded as a marquee turning point for African-American representation in vaudeville theater. It opened on February 18, 1903, at the New York Theatre, starring George Walker and Bert Williams, two iconic figures of vaudeville entertainment at the time. The musical ran for 53 completed performances, including two tours in the United States and one tour of the United Kingdom. In total, In Dahomey ran for a combined four years.
It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues
It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues is a musical revue written by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor, and Dan Wheetman. It was originally produced at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts and later presented by the Crossroads Theatre, in association with San Diego Repertory Theatre and Alabama Shakespeare Festival in New York City.
The revue traces the history of “blues” music with more than three dozen songs. Ron Taylor acted as singing narrator. It was directed by Randal Myler with movement by Donald McKayle.
It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues started as a Denver Center Theater Company school touring show in circa 1994. The Denver Center production played at the Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.), in November 1996. It subsequently opened in New York City at the New Victory Theater in March 1999 for a limited run, and then transferred to Broadway. It opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on April 26, 1999, transferred to the Ambassador Theatre on 9/7/1999, and ran until January 9, 2000, with 284 performances.
In 2011, the show was revived by the New Haarlem Arts Theater at the Aaron Davis Hall on the City College of New York campus.
Jelly’s Last Jam
Jelly’s Last Jam is a musical with a book by George C. Wolfe, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and music by Jelly Roll Morton and Luther Henderson. Based on the life and career of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known as Jelly Roll Morton and generally regarded as one of the primary driving forces behind the introduction of jazz to the American public in the early 20th century, it also serves as a social commentary on the African-American experience during the era. LaMothe was born into a Louisiana Creole family that was established and free before the Civil War.
Jitney is a play by August Wilson. The eighth in his “Pittsburgh Cycle”, this play is set in a worn-down gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in early autumn 1977. The play premiered on Broadway in 2017.
Jitney was written in 1979 and first produced at the small Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1982. When Wilson took his mother to see that production they arrived by jitney. That was followed by a separate production at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. After Wilson had a series of plays produced on Broadway, Eddie Gilbert, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, read the 1979 script and asked to produce it.
In response, Wilson returned to Pittsburgh in 1996 re-writing it extensively for what is referred to as its professional premiere, which was directed by Marion McClinton. This was the first Pittsburgh Cycle premiere not to be directed by Lloyd Richards. Over the next four years, there were up to 20 productions nationwide, many with the same core cast as in Pittsburgh, including the 1997 production at the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, which was directed by Walter Dallas, and the 1998 production at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, directed by McClinton.
Wilson continued working on the script. Jitney opened Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre on April 25, 2000, and closed on September 10, because another play was coming in. The play next moved to the Union Square Theatre on September 19, 2000, where it closed on January 28, 2001. Jitneyran successfully Off-Broadway, and was the only one of the 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays not to appear on Broadway, possibly because Wilson’s previous play had lost money, making investors cautious. Directed by Marion McClinton, the cast featured four actors who had been with it almost continuously since 1996: Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), Paul Butler (Becker), Willis Burks (Shealy) and Stephen McKinley Henderson (Turnbo).
Jitney went on to London and ran at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre from October 16, 2001, through November 21, 2001. It won the Olivier Award for best play of the year. Directed by McClinton, it featured much of the New York cast.
McClinton’s production moved to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in early 2002.
The play has been performed often in regional theater, including at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 2001, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2002, Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. in 2007, and the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. in 2008.
The Broadway premiere of Jitney began previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on December 28, 2016, and opened on January 19, 2017. The play closed on March 12, 2017. The play, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
King Hedley II is a play by American playwright August Wilson, the ninth in his ten-part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play ran on Broadway in 2001 and was revived Off-Broadway in 2007.
King Hedley II premiered at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 11, 1999, and played a number of other regional theaters, including Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington before its Broadway engagement.
The play opened on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre on May 1, 2001, and closed on July 1, 2001, after 72 performances and 24 previews. Directed by Marion McClinton, the cast featured Brian Stokes Mitchell (King), Leslie Uggams (Ruby), Charles Brown (Elmore), Viola Davis (Tonya), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Stool Pigeon), and Monté Russell (Mister).
The play ran off-Broadway at the Peter Norton Space, New York City, in a Signature Theatre Company production, from March 11, 2007, through April 22, 2007, in a season that featured Wilson’s work.
Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life is a 1930 play by American authors Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The process of writing the play led Hughes and Hurston, who had been close friends, to sever their relationship. Mule Bone was not staged until 1991 when it was produced in New York City by the Lincoln Center Theater.
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A BRIEF OVERVIEW ON THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATRE -African American Almanac COPYRIGHT 2008 Cengage Learning
A BRIEF OVERVIEW ON THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATRE- Aspects of the dramatic performing arts can be found in cultures around the world. Globally speaking, American Theater is a relatively new tradition. As theater has evolved from the African roots of Greek tragedy to Shakespearean epics, American stages have produced a wide range of plays, largely influenced by the diverse peoples inhabiting this nation. In its early years, American Theater reflected the lives of its proponents, namely White, property-owning, Christian men. Ironically, even as America established itself as a sovereign nation, the drama of the day came largely from Europe, which boasted a unique canon of work. Still, as early as 1821 Black American artists were creating, staging and performing for mixed audiences, showcasing both existing and original work. One of the first theater companies to approach the dramatic performing arts from an African American perspective was The African Grove Theater in New York City. It was founded by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett, both who had traveled by ship throughout the Caribbean, where story-telling, performance, dance, and music were essential to the culture and survival of the slaves working on sugar cane and tobacco plantations, salt flats, and mines. The company performed tragedies and comedies from Shakespeare to American playwrights.
Eventually, the need for work that came from within the African American experience proved itself. Two years after it opened, the first play written and produced by an African American was presented at the African Grove in 1823. The play, “The Drama of King Shotaway,” by Brown, played to mixed (though predominately Black) audiences that year. However, many whites were adamantly opposed to the existence of such a theater and frequent police raids, harassment and threats forced Brown and Hewlett to relocate the theater several times throughout the lower East side of Manhattan. Eventually, the White opposition won out over the tenacity of the black actors, directors, and producers of The African Grove Theater Company and it closed its doors permanently. As Americans established a canon of their own, dominant political and social trends were addressed by the work.
One of the nation’s most successful and fraught enterprises was racialized slavery in the American South. Depicted on white stages, Black characters often fit into stereotypical characters which would haunt American stages for decades to come. Some of the most prevalent of those was the Sambo, the Uncle, the Mammy, and the Jezebel. These For more information see Bernard L. Peterson Jr.’s “Introduction: The Origin and Development of the Black American Playwright from the Antebellum Period to World War II,” Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Broadcasting Scripts. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990) 1-21.Black Nativity: Now’s The Time©2009 Penumbra Theatre Company racist depictions would be reflected over and again in the theater, usually performed by White actors in blackface. African-American artists struggled against these stereotypical images as soon as they entered the public sphere.
In 1857, William Wells Brown, (no relation to William Henry Brown) juxtaposed a stereotypical Black male character named Cato with an exemplary Black male character named Glen in his play The Escape; or a Leap for Freedom. This play high lighted the difference between an image created by black people for black audiences and an image created by White people for White audiences. It was an important statement. Still, the popularity of comical representations of Black Americans continued. Minstrelsy was very popular in the 19th Century. This performance tradition was created as whites made light of and fantasized about slave life and plantation culture in the antebellum South.
White entertainers in blackface would do comedic impressions of, or parody, the stories, songs and dance, jokes and music of Blacks for White audiences. Minstrelsy was a very lucrative and beloved form of theater for White audiences for many years. White theatre-goers filled houses to laugh at representations of blacks as happy, contented and dim-witted. The tradition would continue long into the mid-1900s. Responsible for the creation of one familiar American character, Jim Crow, this theatre tradition was hardly benign. Its impact had a life that extended far beyond the stage in American social, political and civil rights policy. For many years, (largely due to the audience expectations created by these white performers) the only work Black performers could find was to perform in minstrel shows, in blackface. This absurd situation reinforces the notion that the depictions of Blackness and Black people on White stages were not real. Even Black actors had to “perform” White ideas of Blackness by darkening their skin, wearing silly costumes and miming the White actors’ racist depictions of Black people. In Hollywood, some of America’s most revered epic films depict the early stereotypes created in the theater and in the 1920s and 30s. Black artists, writers, and musicians began responding to the racist depictions and creating their own artistic representations of Black life and philosophy. This period of burgeoning talent and new work is known as The Harlem Renaissance.
In 1923, the first serious play written by a Black playwright produced on Broadway. It was called The Chip Woman’s Fortune by Willis Richardson. Still, the prevalent trend was for White artists and producers to pull from the Black narrative, song, and dance and parody it for audiences. Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer were particularly concerned with white representations of blackness in the theater.
Read below, Langston Hughes’ famous poem “Notes on Commercial Theater”:2 Ibid., 165.
Black Nativity: Now’s The Time©2009 Penumbra Theatre Company
You’ve taken my blues and gone –You sing ’em on Broadway And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl, And you mixed ’em up with symphonies And you fixed ’em. So they don’t sound like me.Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.You also took my spirituals and gone You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones All kinds of Swing Mikados And in everything but what’s about me – But someday somebody ‘Stand up and talk about me –Black and beautiful –And sing about me,And put on plays about me!I reckon it’ll be Me myself!Yes, it’ll be me.
This poem echoes one of the founding tenets of another critical moment in black theater history, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. It was during this period that some of the most celebrated Black writers responded vociferously to the racism American citizens were struggling against in the Civil Rights Movement. Self-representation became a major focus of the movement—art was created by, for, and about Black people. Artists such as LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Nikki Giovanni, Harold Cruse, Ray Durem, Adrienne Kennedy, Larry Neal, and Sonia Sanchez all produced seminal work during this period of time.
In 1959 Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in New York City. It was the first time a play written by a black playwright, directed by a Black director(Lloyd Richards) and written about Black people was presented at this level. The next twenty years saw an eruption of African American theater companies springing up around the country, one of which was Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. Founded in 1976 by Artistic Director Lou Bellamy, Penumbra addressed issues of racial tension and misrepresentation between what was visibly separate black and white Americas. Over the last 30 years, Penumbra has provided a consistently clear message that the African American experience is rich, dynamic and critical to the American theater canon. While visiting the Twin Cities, playwright August Wilson said of Penumbra: It was with the indomitable spirit associated with pioneers and visionaries that Lou Bellamy took a handful of actors over [sic] twenty years ago and challenged theme Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. (New York: Vintage, 1995) 215.Black Nativity: Now’s The Time©2009 Penumbra Theatre Company not only to believe in themselves but to have a belief larger than anyone’s disbelief. When I walked through the doors of Penumbra Theatre, I did not know that I would find life-long friends and supporters that would encourage and enable my art. I did not know I would have my first professional production, a musical satire called Black Bart and the Sacred Hills. I did not know then what Penumbra Theatre would come to mean to me and that there would come a time when Penumbra would produce more of my plays than any other theatre in the world. And that their production of The Piano Lesson would become not only my favorite staging but a model of style an eloquence that would inspire my future work. I only knew that I was excited to be in a Black theater that had real lights, assigned seats and a set that was not a hodgepodge of found and borrowed props as had been my experience with all the Black theater I had known. We are what we imagine ourselves to be and we can only imagine what we know to be possible. The founding of PTC enlarged that possibility. And its corresponding success provokes the community to a higher expectation of itself. I became a playwright because I saw where my chosen profession was being sanctioned by a group of Black men and women who were willing to invest their lives and their talent in assuming responsibility for our presence in the world and the conduct of our industry as black Americans.
Through artistically excellent theater, Penumbra has sought to plumb the depths of the human experience by presenting culturally specific and historically accurate depictions of African Americans. Sadly, many of the black theater companies founded during the BAM have closed over the years, largely due to lack of funding, managerial problems, and poor attendance. Penumbra’s survival is a testament to all the people who believe in its power for social change. Our artists, administration, audiences, and community have consistently buoyed us up and kept this important institution afloat on the occasionally stormy seas of non-profit arts administration. Today, because of our growth and the changing world, Penumbra is widely regarded as a pioneer of cross-cultural dialogue. Our template of finding the universal through the specificity of human experience has become a model for teaching, arts application, and criticism. We are nationally and internationally recognized as a preeminent African American theater company. Lou Bellamy explains that Black people not only “have to be at the table” to engage in cross-cultural conversations, but host such debates as well. In an America that increasingly more often accepts oversimplified answers, we seek out nuance and enjoy disturbing the veneer. At Penumbra, we provide the table at which artists and audiences alike may sit down and rigorously engage one another with complicated questions.
We are proud to have these artists in our midst and excited to produce work that circumvents a hackneyed black / white binary.4 August Wilson, excerpted from a speech given at Penumbra Theatre Company, 1997.
For more than 200 years, African American performers have appeared on the American stage. Despite the prejudices that they have faced both within the theater community and from the entertainment-seeking public, they have made significant contributions to American performance art. The artistic heritage of today’s African American actors, dancers, and comedians can be traced back to the last decades of the eighteenth century.
THE ORIGINS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN PERFORMANCE ART
THE EARLIEST PLAYS WITH AFRICAN AMERICAN ACTORS
The first performances by African American actors on the American stage were in plays authored by white playwrights who provided blacks with narrow opportunities to portray shallow characters. Often Blacks were cast in the role of the buffoon in order to appeal to the sensibilities of a bigoted public. In 1769, for example, the cast of Lewis Hallam’s comedy The Padlock included a West Indian slave character named Mongo, who was a clown to be played by a black. Other white-authored plays from the period that depicted blacks in demoralizing roles were Robinson Crusoe, Harlequin (1792) and The Triumph of Love (1795) by John Randolph, which included the native Black character named Sambo. Thus, the earliest appearances of Blacks on the American stage were as characters devoid of intellectual and moral sensibilities.
THE AFRICAN GROVE THEATRE
New York City’s free African American community founded the first African American theater in 1821—the African Grove Theatre, located at Mercer and Bleecker streets “in the rear of the one-mile stone on Broadway.” A group of amateur African American actors organized by Henry Brown presented Richard III at the theater on October 1, 1821. The African Grove Theatre subsequently produced Othello, Hamlet and such lighter works as Tom and Jerry and The Poor Soldier, Obi.
One of the principal actors at the African Grove Theatre was James Hewlet, a West Indian-born black who distinguished himself in roles in Othello and Richard III. Hewlet later toured England and billed himself as “The New York and London Colored Comedian.” Ira Aldridge, who later distinguished himself as one of the great Shakespearean tragic actors, was also a member of the permanent group that performed at the African Grove Theatre. Aldridge was cast in comic and musical roles as well as in Shakespearean tragedies.
The African Grove Theatre also featured the first play written and produced by an African American. The play was Henry Brown’s The Drama of King Shot-away, which was presented in June of 1823.
Because of disturbances created by whites in the audience, the local police raided the African Grove Theatre on several occasions. The theater was wrecked by police and hoodlums during one of these raids, which forced its closing in late 1823. The group of black actors affiliated with the African Grove Theatre, determined to preserve their company, continued for several years to present plays at different rented locations throughout New York City.
Talented slaves were among the earliest African American entertainers in colonial and antebellum America. On plantations throughout the South, slave performers using clappers, jawbones, and blacksmith rasps danced, sang, and told jokes for the entertainment of their fellow slaves as well as their masters, who often showcased their talents at local gatherings. Some masters hired out talented slaves to perform in traveling troupes.
During the late 1820s and early 1830s, white entertainers, exposed to the artistry of black performers, began to imitate blacks in their routines. Blackening their faces with cork, these white entertainers performed jigs, songs, and jokes with topical allusions to blacks in their lyrics. Thus, the art of minstrelsy as a theatrical material was born.
White minstrel troupes in blackface became very popular on the American stage in the 1830s. Among some of the more famous white minstrel performers were Thomas Dartmouth Rice, “Daddy Rice,” the original “Jim Crow,” Edwin Forrest and Dan Emmett, and the Christy Minstrels.
Some traveling white minstrel troupes used black performers to enhance the authenticity of their productions. One such troupe was the Ethiopian Minstrels, whose star performer was William Henry Lane, an African American dancer who used the stage name “Master Juba.” Lane was one of the greatest dancers of his generation. Throughout the United States and England, “Master Juba” was enthusiastically praised by audiences and critics alike. One anonymous English critic, quoted by dance historian Marian Hannah Winter, wrote the following critique of one of Lane’s performances:
Juba exceeded anything ever witnessed in Europe. The style as well as the execution is unlike anything seen in this country. The manner in which he beats time with feet, and the extraordinary command he possesses over them, can only be believed by those who have been present at the exhibition. (“Juba and American Minstrelsy.” Chronicles of the American Dance,edited by Paul Magriel.)
Although black minstrel troupes began to appear in the 1850s, it was not until after the Civil War that they became established on the American stage. Although black minstrels inherited the negative stereotypes that white minstrels had established, the African American performer won a permanent place on the American stage providing a training ground for the many Black dancers, comedians, singers, and composers to come. Notable among these stage personalities were dancer-comedians Billy Kersands, Bert Williams, Bob Height, Dewey “Pig-meat” Martin and Ernest Hogan; singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith; and composers James Bland and William Christopher Handy. To a great extent, Black minstrelsy created a national appreciation for the talent of Black stage entertainers, drawing audiences to black shows and other forms of black entertainment for generations to come.
RECLAIMING THE BLACK IMAGE: 1890 TO 1920
By the 1890s, African American producers, writers, and stage performers sought to reform the demeaning images of blacks that were prevalent on the American stage. The Creole Show, cast by African American producer Sam Jack in 1891, was the first all-black musical to depart from minstrelsy. The Creole Show, which was also notable for its inclusion of a chorus line, premiered in Boston in 1891 and later played at the Chicago World’s Fair for the entire season. In 1895, African American producer John W. Ishaw presented The Octoroon, another all-black musical that moved away from the minstrel tradition. Oriental America, which Ishaw also produced, broke further from minstrel conventions by not closing with the traditional walkaround, but with an operatic medley.
Between 1898 and 1911, 13 all-black musicals opened on Broadway, showcasing the talents of African American musicians, lyricists, directors, producers, and writers.
Trip to Coontown, written and directed by Bob Cole in 1898, completely broke away from the minstrel tradition. The plot of this all-black performance piece was presented completely through music and dance. The first musical produced, written and performed by African Americans on Broadway, it ushered in a new era for blacks on the American stage.
The highly popular Clorindy: The Origin of the Cake-walk, with music by composer Will Marion Cook and lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, opened in 1898 at the Casino Roof Garden. Cook engaged the comic-dance duo of Bert Williams and George Walker and built the show around their talents. Comedian-singer Ernest Hogan was also featured. Hogan would later appear on Broadway in both Rufus Rastus and Oyster Man (1902). Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson wrote and performed in The Shoo-Fly Regiment, another musical that opened on Broadway in 1902.
Williams and Walker premiered their first Broadway musical, The Policy Players, in 1899. This success was followed by the Sons of Ham, which played on Broadway for two seasons beginning in September of 1900. Their most famous musical, In Dahomey, premiered on Broadway in 1903 and after a long run, toured successfully in England. The Southerners, with music by Will Marion Cook, opened on Broadway in 1904 with an interracial cast starring Abbie Mitchell. The Williams and Walker team returned to Broadway in 1906 with a new musical Abyssinia, which consistently played to a full house. Williams and Walker appeared in their last Broadway production together entitled Bandanna Land in 1908. George Walker fell into ill health after the show closed and died in 1911.
Bert Williams went on to appear in Mr. Lord of Koal on Broadway in 1909 and later he was the star comedian performer in the Ziegfield Follies. The last black musical to open on Broadway before the 1920s was His Honor the Barber in 1911, with S. H. Dudley in the lead.
The unique world of black vaudeville employed dancers, comics, and pantomimes who denied access to the American legitimate stage developed their own revues and routines that reflected the African American popular culture. The white owners of the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) hired the entertainers to play to black audiences in large and small towns across America from the early 1900s until the Great Depression.
Vaudeville was the stage where dancers, such as Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, polished the craft that helped them eventually move into the mainstream white theater. Comic Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham developed his legendary “Here Come Da Judge” routine. Tim Moore was wildly popular, later to be seen on Amos n’ Andy as the incorrigible “Kingfish.”
The cakewalk, a dance of slave origin, was said to be a parody of the showy party manners of slave owner families but its mimicry delighted the masters and mistresses. The cakewalk became a national and worldwide rage at the end of the nineteenth century, even though the black bourgeoisie condemned it as vulgar.
Just as the cakewalk was developed to make fun of a white dancing style, ragtime was a response to European classical music. Ragtime was derived from minstrel show tunes and New Orleans street marches. Pianists Ben Harvey and Scott Joplin made its distinctive rhythmic syncopation popular in the 1890s. One of the earliest examples of the form is the “Harlem Rag” of 1895.
Humor was used to cope with the pain and frustration of everyday life. Markham’s “Here Come Da Judge” routine was a critical farce on a legal system that afforded no justice or protection for African Americans. Ventriloquist Johnnie Woods with his sidekick Little Henry played the circuit as a dapper, prosperous gentleman berating and chiding the incorrigible dummy, dressed in a red check suit with bad manners and poor breeding. These comedy styles were later imitated by white performers such as Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Abbott and Costello, who were a success on the white stage where blacks were not allowed.
What white folks derided as demeaning and vulgar became grist for the comic and satiric black player. They took the white notions of low-class and made a joke of it. The subject of race on the black stage was ground for debate, commiseration, derision, and mockery. But they also condemned bad manners and attitudes among themselves.
Although Black performers were often able to bridge the gap from folk and vaudeville entertainment to the musical classics and drama, White audiences typically expected them to restrict themselves to the more “Negroid” comedy routines and minstrel styles. However, the privileged few of high society saw some of the best of the black players at the “colored clubs” such as the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn and the Club Alabam’ in New York. The Cotton Club boasted a Chorus Line of “tall, tan and terrific” black women as well as the hottest black entertainment.
THE BLACK PERFORMER IN EUROPE 1900 TO 1920
Many Black performers who struggled on the American circuit found great success in Europe. The “black craze” of African American art, music and dance took Paris by storm in the 1920s. Ballroom dancers such as Fredi Washington and Al Moore, the singers Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker and producers such as Claude Hopkins found a receptive audience amongst “Roaring Twenties” Parisians. Europe was not as color-conscious as the United States. The elegant and refined Washington and Moore were so light-skinned that they were not totally accepted on the black circuit with their “white style” act. However, Europe welcomed their sophisticated artistry and style.
Hopkins introduced singer Josephine Baker to Paris where she developed her flamboyant and provocative act before appreciative Europeans. In the Folies Bergère, Baker pushed the boundaries of nudity and innuendo in her singing and dancing and she remained an international sensation throughout her career.
The dancer and pantomime Johnny Hudgins was an enormous hit with black and white audiences both in the United States and Europe. He was filmed by Jean Renoir in a short entitled Charleston in the 1920s, which left behind a detailed account of his act. His characters included the “Ballroom Dancer,” the “Ice Skater,” and the “Pullman Porter.” One of his more notable numbers involved him performing the Charleston in a lady’s feather-plumed straw hat.
THE DRAMATIC THEATER FROM 1900 TO 1940
Black actors on the American dramatic stage, like the performers in all-black musicals, struggled to shed the demeaning image of the African American projected by most white-produced minstrelsy and drama. The presentation of three plays—The Rider of Dreams, Granny Maumee, and Simon the Cyrenian—by white playwright Ridgely Torrence at the Garden Theatre in Madison Square Garden on April 5, 1917, was an exceptional and highly successful effort to objectively portray the African American on the dramatic stage.
During the Harlem Renaissance years, the African American dramatic actor remained less active than the black performer in musicals, and the image of blacks projected by white playwrights was generally inadequate. For example, although Charles Gilpin starred in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones at the Provincetown Theatre in 1920, critic Loften Mitchell noted that:
This play, while offering one of the most magnificent roles for a Negro in the American theater, is the first in a long line to deal with the Negro on this level. O’Neill obviously saw in the Negro rich subject matter, but he was either incapable or unwilling to deal directly with the matter. (Black Drama, the Story of the American Negro in the Theatre, 1967.)
Nonetheless, African American actors and actresses had to accept the roles in which they were cast by white playwrights. In 1924, the O’Neill play All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings opened at the Provincetown Theatre with Paul Robeson and Mary Blair to mixed reviews because of its interracial theme. Rose McClendon starred in Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom in 1926 and was ably supported by Abbie Mitchell and Jules Bledsoe. Marc Connelly’sGreen Pastures opened on Broadway on February 26, 1930, with Richard B. Harrison playing “De Lawd.” It ran for 557 performances and was taken on an extensive road tour.
In the 1930s, Langston Hughes brought the African American voice to the stage. Three of his plays were produced successfully on Broadway. Mulatto, which opened in 1935, starred Rose McClendon and Morris McKenney and had the longest Broadway run of any play written by an African American with 373 consecutive performances. The other two plays were Little Ham(1935) and Troubled Island (1936).
THE FEDERAL THEATER PROJECT
In the mid-1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored one of the greatest organized efforts to assist and encourage American actors, especially African American actors. The Federal Theater Project employed a total of 851 African American actors to work in 16 segregated units of the project in Chicago, New York and other cities from 1935 until 1939 when Congress ended the project. While the project was in operation, African American actors appeared in 75 plays including classics, vaudeville routines, contemporary comedies, children’s shows, circuses and “living newspaper” performances. Notable among the African American actors who worked in the project—and later became stars on Broadway and in film—were Butterfly McQueen, Canada Lee, Rex Ingram, Katherine Dunham, Edna Thomas, Thomas Anderson, and Arthur Dooley Wilson.
In the wake of the Federal Theater Project, The American Negro Theater was established in Harlem by Abram Hill, Austin Briggs-Hall, Frederick O’Neal and Hattie King-Reeves. Its objective was to authentically portray African American life and to give African American actors and playwrights a forum for their talents. Some of their productions eventually made it to Broadway. In 1944, the theater produced Anna Lucasta in the basement of the 135th Street Library in Harlem. It was successful enough to move to Broadway and featured Hilda Simms, Frederick O’Neal, Alice Childress, Alvin Childress, Earle Hyman, and Herbert Henry. Abram Hill’s Walk Hard opened in Harlem in 1946 and became a Broadway production with Maxwell Glanville in the lead. The American Negro Theater provided a training ground for many African American actors who later became stars on Broadway and in Hollywood including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier.
DRAMATIC THEATER IN THE 1950S
The rise of television in the 1950s generally had an adverse effect on the American theater. Employment for all actors fell sharply, especially for African American actors. Ethel Waters did, however, open on Broadway in 1950 as the lead in Member of the Wedding, which was well-received. Louis Peterson’s Take a Giant Step opened on Broadway in September of 1953 to critical praise; in the cast were Frederick O’Neal, Helen Martin, Maxwell Glanville, Pauline Myers, Estelle Evans, and Louis Gossett Jr.
One of the most successful all-black plays to appear on Broadway opened in March of 1959—Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It was directed by the legendary African American director Lloyd Richards. Its cast included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, Louis Gossett Jr., Ivan Dixon, Lonnie Elder III, and Douglas Turner Ward. Lorraine Hansberry was hailed a pioneer that paved the way for African American political and social playwrights.
THE DRAMATIC THEATER SINCE 1960
As the Civil Rights movement challenged the national conscience in the 1960s, every facet of African American life changed including black performing arts. More plays about African Americans by both black and white playwrights were produced, providing increased employment for Black actors. A particularly significant year was 1961.
On May 4, 1961, The Blacks, by French playwright/author Jean Genet, opened Off-Broadway at the St. Mark’s Theater. A play about black Americans written for white audiences, The Blacks provided employment for a host of African American actors including Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett Jr., Helen Martin, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Maya Angelou, Charles Gordone and many others who appeared in its road tours. Subsequently, African American dramatic actors appeared on and Off-Broadway in several major plays by white playwrights. Notable among them were: In White America by Judith Rutherford Marechal (1968), with Gloria Foster and Moses Gunn; The Great White Hope by William Sackler (1968), starring James Earl Jones; and So Nice, They Named It Twice by Neil Harris (1975), featuring Bill Jay and Veronica Redd.
Also in 1961, African American fashion designer, Ellen Stewart, founded La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club)—the oldest remaining avant-garde theatre in the United States. Known as the mother of Off-Off-Broadway Theatre, Stewart gave young American and international playwrights an incubator in which to develop their original work without the pressures or constraints of commercial theatre. A venerated institution with more than 50 Obie awards, La MaMa was the birthplace for plays such as Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Stewart is also credited with launching the careers of notable actors, directors, and playwrights such as Tom Eyen (Dreamgirls) and Adrienne Kennedy (Funnyhouse of the Negro).
On May 23, 1961, when the LeRoi Jones’ play, The Dutchman, opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the black revolutionary play was introduced to theater audiences. African American actors were provided with the opportunity to perform in roles that not only affirmed blackness but portrayed black political militancy. Several black revolutionary plays followed that afforded opportunities for African American actors including James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie(1964), with Al Freeman Jr. and Diana Sands; and The Toilet/The Slave, (1964) by LeRoi Jones, starring James Spruill, Walter Jones, Nan Martin, and Al Freeman Jr.
That same year, Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka) founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School to make theater more accessible by “taking it to the streets.” The objective was to promote interaction between the artists and the audience. Baraka and many other playwrights, poets and essayists believed that their primary responsibility was to create work for and about African American people. This philosophy evolved into the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Artists of the BAM raged against theatrical convention and mandated that the only art of worth reflected the cultural, social and political concerns of their communities. In addition to Baraka, some of the award-winning playwrights of the BAM were Ed Bullins, The Taking of Miss Janie(1975); Richard Wesley, The Black Terror (1972); Sonia Sanchez, Next Stop the Bronx (1968); and Adrienne Kennedy, The Funnyhouse of the Negro (1964).
The dissident voices of the Black Arts Movement gave rise to a wave of black regional theater companies such as the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, the Penumbra Theatre in Minnesota, The New Federal Theatre in New York, the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Jomandi Productions in Atlanta and the St. Louis Repertory Theatre to name a few. Their focus was to foster the development of playwrights, actors, managers, and technicians and to provide the African American community with plays steeped in a cultural context.
The most venerable institution of the Black Theatre Movement was the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) founded in New York in 1967. This theatrical production company, initially financed by a three-year grant of $1.2 million from the Ford Foundation, was the brainchild of playwright/actor Douglas Turner Ward. Originally housed at the St. Mark’s Theater, the company moved to Theater Four. Actor Robert Hooks served as executive director, Gerald Krone as administrative director and Douglas Turner Ward as artistic director.
The Negro Ensemble staged more than 100 productions and featured the work of many black playwrights including Nobel Laureates, Wole Soyinka and Derek Wolcott. Three plays went to Broadway under Ward’s direction: Joseph A. Walker’s Tony Award-winning drama, The River Niger (1973); Leslie Lee’s Obie winner, The First Breeze of Summer (1975); and Samm-Art Williams’s Tony-nominated play, Home (1980). NEC also produced Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play (1981), which won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into A Soldier’s Story (1984), a film starring Denzel Washington. The Negro Ensemble Company provided work for a plethora of outstanding African American actors and actresses including Louis Gossett Jr., Charles Brown, Denise Nicholas, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Michele Shay, Rosalind Cash, Adolph Ceasar, Frances and Gloria Foster, Glynn Turman, Giancarlo Esposito, Moses Gunn, and Barbara Montgomery.
Independent of the Negro Ensemble Company, several African American playwrights had plays successfully produced on Broadway. Ntozake Shange’s widely acclaimed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1977) had a cast of seven African American actresses including Trazana Beverley, the first African American actress to win a Tony for Best Featured Actress in Play. Twenty-seven years later, Phylicia Rashad was the first and only African American woman to win Best Actress in a Play for the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
James Earl Jones was the first African American man to win a Tony for Best Actor in 1969 forThe Great White Hope. Jones won his second Tony for Best Actor in 1987 for Fences by August Wilson. Actors who have also won Tonys for their roles in an August Wilson play are Lawrence Fishburne (Two Trains Running), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Seven Guitars), Mary Alice (Fences), L Scott Caldwell (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) and Viola Davis (King Hedley II). Lloyd Richards also won a Tony for Best Direction (Fences).
Hailed as one the most celebrated and prolific American playwrights, August Wilson garnered countless nominations and numerous awards for his cycle of ten plays which chronicled the experiences of African Americans in each decade of the twentieth century. Eight out the ten plays were produced on Broadway including Fences, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. In 1990, The Piano Lesson earned Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize and Drama Desk Award.
He also received the New York Drama Critic’s Award for Best Play for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985), Fences (1987), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988), The Piano Lesson (1990),Two Trains Running (1992), Seven Guitars (1996) and Jitney (2000).
Before his untimely death in 2005, Wilson completed his cycle of plays with Broadway productions of King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and a Yale Repertory Theater production of his last play, Radio Golf, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in 2007. Wilson was one of the strongest voices in American theatre and his influence laid the groundwork for many of the resonant voices in the twenty-first century.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama under the direction of George C. Wolfe. In November of 2002, Parks committed to writing a play a day for the next 365 days which has resulted in the 365/Days /365 Plays National Festival. From November 2006 to November 2007, the Festival will present the plays in over 60 select theatre companies across the country, simultaneously. This constitutes the largest collaboration in American theatre history.
Other award-winning and emerging playwrights include Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel, Crumbs from the Table of Joy), Regina Taylor (Dreams of Sarah Breedlove, Crowns), Cheryl L. West (Birdie Blue, Jar the Floor) Keith Glover (Coming of the Hurricane, Thunder Knocking On The Door) Kia Corthron (Breath, Boom, Come DownBurning), Charles Randolph-White (Cuttin’ Up, Blue), Sarah Jones (Bridge and Tunnel), Tanya Barfield (Blue Door) Daniel Beatty (Emergence-See!), Marcus Gardley (Dance of the Holy Ghosts) and Javon Johnson (The House That Jack Built).
AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSICALS INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Between 1898 and 1911, 13 all-black musicals opened on Broadway. The performances showcased the talents of Ernest Hogan and the comic-dance duo of George Walker and Bert Williams. But for nearly a decade after the close of His Honor the Barber, the Broadway stage did not carry any all-black musicals.
On May 23, 1921, Shuffle Along signaled the return of black musicals to “The Great White Way” and the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance on the American stage. Featuring the talented singer-dancer Florence Mills, Shuffle Along was written by Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles. Mills quickly became a sought-after performer, appearing in The Plantation Revue, which opened on Broadway on July 17, 1922, and later toured England. In 1926, Mills returned to Harlem and played the lead in Blackbirds at the Alhambra Theatre for a six-week run. Subsequently, Mills performed in Paris for six months.
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake returned to Broadway on September 24, 1924, with their new musical Chocolate Dandies. In 1926, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles opened on Broadway in Runnin’ Wild, which introduced the Charleston to the country. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, starring in Blackbirds of 1928, dazzled Broadway audiences with his exciting tap dancing style. Miller and Lyles mounted several other black musicals on Broadway during the 1920s, including Rang Tang (1927) and Keep Shufflin’ (1928), with musical numbers staged by Harlem’s preeminent choreographer Leonard Harper. Harper conceived and staged Hot Chocolates in 1929 with music composed by Fats Waller and lyrics by Andy Razaf. Hot Chocolates introduced the songs “Ain’t Misbehavin”’ and “Black and Blue,” as well as Broadway newcomers Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
When Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, it became the major all-Black musical production of the 1930s. With music by George Gershwin, this adaptation of the novel and play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward was an immediate success as a folk opera. Todd Duncan was cast as Porgy with Ann Brown as Bess and comedian-dancer John Bubbles as the character, Sportin’ Life.
In the 1940s, Black musicals were once again scarce on Broadway. Cabin in the Sky, starring Ethel Waters, Dooley Wilson, Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram, J. Rosamond Johnson, Katherine Dunham, and her dancers, ran for 165 performances after it opened on October 25, 1940. Carmen Jones, perhaps the most successful all-black musical of the decade, opened in 1943 with Luther Saxon, Napoleon Reed, Carlotta Franzel, and Cozy Cove. It ran for 231 performances and was taken on tour. In 1946, St. Louis Woman, featuring Rex Ingram, Pearl Bailey, Juanita Hall, and June Hawkins, played a short run to mixed reviews.
The years from 1961 to the mid-1980s constituted one of the most active periods for African American performers in musical theater. Many of the black musicals produced during these years, both on and Off-Broadway, enjoyed substantial runs and extended road tours.
Langston Hughes’s musical Black Nativity opened on Broadway on December 11, 1961. Directed by Vinnette Carroll, the cast was headed by gospel singers Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith and also featured Alex Bradford, Clive Thompson, Cleo Quitman, and Carl Ford. Although it ran for only 57 performances on Broadway, it went on to tour extensively throughout the United States and abroad.
In 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. dazzled Broadway in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. Davis was supported by a brilliant cast which included Robert Guillaume, Louis Gossett Jr., Lola Falana, and Billy Daniels.
Leslie Uggams and Robert Hooks appeared in Hallelujah Baby, which opened in New York’s Martin Beck Theater on April 26, 1967.
Hallelujah Baby, a musical look at five decades of black history, received a five Tony Awards including Best Actor/Actress for Hooks and Uggams and Best Featured Actress for Lillian Hayman.
Purlie, based on Ossie Davis’ 1961 play Purlie Victorious, opened on May 9, 1970, with Melba Moore and Cleavon Little in lead roles. Purlie received good reviews. Little won Best Actor and Moore won Best Featured Actress.
Micki Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, starring Micki Grant and Alex Bradford, opened on April 19, 1972, to rave reviews. Grant received a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award.
Virginia Capers, Joe Morton, and Helen Martin opened in Raisin, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun, on October 13, 1973. Raisin received the Tony Award for the Best Musical in 1974 and Capers won Best Actress.
Despite initially poor reviews, The Wiz, a black musical version of The Wizard of Oz, became a highly successful show. Opening on Broadway on January 5, 1975, The Wiz featured an array of talented performers including Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle, Ted Ross, André De Shields, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Mabel King. The Wiz swept the Tony Award ceremonies in 1975 winning seven awards including Best Musical. The creative team was honored too. Geoffrey Holder and George Faison won Best Director and Best Choreographer, respectively. It was one of the longest-running black musicals in the history of Broadway with 1,672 performances.
Ain’t Misbehavin’, another popular Black musical of the 1970s, opened on May 8, 1978. Based on a cavalcade of songs composed by Thomas “Fats” Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’ starred Nell Carter, André De Shields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page, and Charlaine Woodard. It played to Broadway audiences for 1,604 performances and Nell Carter received a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress.
Three spectacular black musicals premiered on Broadway in the 1980s. Dreamgirls, which opened at the Imperial Theater on December 20, 1981, captivated Broadway audiences with a cast that included Obba Babatunde, Ben Harney, Cleavant Derricks, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Holiday, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. Dreamgirls ran for 1,522 performances on Broadway and had an extensive road tour. Ben Harney and Jennifer Holiday won Tony Awards for Best Actor/Actress and Cleavant Derricks won for Best Featured Actor. In 2006, Dreamgirls was adapted into a film starring, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose—a Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress in Caroline, Or Change (2004)
In 1986, Debbie Allen opened in the lead role of Sweet Charity. Reviews were favorable and the show established Debbie Allen as a musical theatre actress. Black and Blue opened in 1989 at the Minskoff Theatre. The show was reminiscent of a 1920’s musical revue, spotlighting the illustrious composers of that era. Black and Blue won three Tony Awards including Best Actress for the blues singer, Ruth Brown.
A few new all-black musicals opened in the early 1990s. Five Guys Named Moe was a tribute to musician Louis Jordan, written by Clarke Peters and directed by Charles Augin. Once On This Island told a star-crossed love story set in the French Antilles. The popular musical earned eight 1991 Tony nominations and launched the career of 2006 Tony Award winner, LaChanze. Jelly’s Last Jam was the brainchild of writer/director, George C. Wolfe. The imaginative tribute to Jelly Roll Morton was a commercial success and received 11 Tony nominations. Tonya Pinkins won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress and Gregory Hines, as Jelly Roll Morton, won the Tony for Best Actor in 1992.
The monumental hit Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk opened in 1995. Starring young tap wizard Savion Glover and directed by George C. Wolfe, Noise/Funk celebrated 300 years of African American history in poetry, music, song, and dance. The musical won four 1996 Tony Awards, including Best Choreographer for Glover, Best Director for Wolfe and Best Featured Actress for Ann Duquesnay in her role as ’Da Singer.
In 1969, Arthur Mitchell, who had established himself as one of the leading ballet dancers in the United States, and Karel Shook, a white ballet teacher, founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). It was established after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death to provide the arts of dance and theater to young people in Harlem. DTH made its formal debut in 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Three of Mitchell’s works were premiered at this concert: Rhythmetron, Tones, and Fete Noire.Their repertory was wide-ranging. It included works in the Balanchine tradition such as Serenade, as well as culturally inspired works such as Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla. Among the most spectacular works performed by the theater are Firebird, Giselle, Scheherazade, and Swan Lake. Some of the dancers who have had long associations with the theatre are Lowell Smith, Virginia Johnson, Shelia Rohan, and Troy Game. Many of the theatre’s graduates have gone on to perform with other dance companies in the United States and Europe.In 2004, DTH celebrated its 35th anniversary with an extensive tour of the U.S. and the U.K. Ironically, that same year, the theatre ran into severe financial straits and the Repertory Company has been forced into hiatus. The Dance Theatre of Harlem School (DTHS), however, remains open for training and community outreach. Their “Dancing Through Barriers” Ensemble, comprised of students, renowned and emerging guest artists, performs for the public every second Sunday of the month.BLACK REGIONAL DANCE SCHOOLS
While Ailey and Mitchell built their companies in New York, African American women such as Joan Myers Brown, Ann Williams, Cleo Parker Robinson, Lula Washington, and Jeraldyne Blunden established young, mostly African American dance companies in major American cities. Robinson founded her Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in 1970 in her native city, Denver. That same year, Blunden created her company in Dayton, Ohio and Brown opened her school in Philadelphia. In 1976, Williams founded the Dallas Black Dance Theater and in 1980 Washington created a troupe in Los Angeles that is now known as the Lula Washington Dance Theater.Each institution began as a school with deep roots in African American urban communities. They all started on a shoestring with a few eager young dancers. Their focus was on the discipline of dance and the values of integrity and intelligence. Today these troupes are nationally known for the high quality of their dancing and for repertories that include modern dance classics, some by African American choreographers. These five women have developed a cooperative network through which they exchange ideas and dancers. Collectively, they have trained thousands of dancers, some of whom have gone on to major companies.In 1997, they were honored with a daylong tribute entitled “Dance Women: Living Legends,” in which all five companies performed and celebrated the efforts of these five tenacious women in the pursuit of dance.Debbie Allen founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) as a training institution because she saw a lack of quality in the arts education programs available to children. DADA enrolls close 400 children annually, ages 5-18, in three programs based on age and ability—Early Bird Academy, Pre-Academy and Academy. The school focuses on artistic and academic achievement. DADA students must maintain a 3.0 average while undergoing a rigorous dance curriculum. Students in the Academy are required to take a minimum of 12 classes a week in ballet, African, modern, flamenco, character, tap, jazz, hip hop, salsa and Dunham Technique, with optional classes in aerial training, voice and acting. DADA’s mission is to train young people how to sustain professional careers in dance, musical theatre, film and television.Between 1960 and 2007, many African American dancers have led distinguished careers in concert dance and show dancing. Among them have been Eleo Pomare, Debbie Allen, Rod Rogers, Fred Benjamin, Pepsi Bethel, Eleanor Hampton, Charles Moore, Garth Fagan, Carmen de Lavallade, and Mary Hinkson. Fagan earned a Tony Award in 1998 for choreographic work on the Disney-produced spectacle, The Lion King. Foremost among African American choreographers have been Geoffrey Holder, Louis Johnson, Donald McKayle, Bebe Miller, George Faison, Bill T. Jones, and Donald Byrd who garnered a Tony nomination in 2006 for his choreography on The Color Purple.Prominent among the African American dancers who revived the tap dance tradition are Buster Brown, Honi Coles, Hinton Battle, Gregory Hines, Lavaughn Robinson, Nita Feldman, Ted Levy and Savion Glover. Glover came to prominence in the 1995 Broadway production of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.Two notable small companies that have twenty-five years or more of innovative dance history are Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company and Forces Of Nature Dance Theater.
Bill T. Jones founded his multiracial, multicultural company in 1982 with his partner Arne Zane. The ten member company has a distinctive repertoire that incorporates musically and text driven work. Collaborations with artists such as Max Roach, Keith Haring, The Orion String Quartet, Cassandra Wilson and Fado allow the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company to push dance vernacular to the edge. Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, Still/Here and We Set Out Early, Visibility Was Poor are some of the award-winning, evening-length works Jones in known for.
Choreographer Abdel Salaam and Executive Director Dele Husbands founded Forces of Nature Dance Theatre in 1981 to synthesize the traditions of the African diaspora and American culture into dance. With the use of live and recorded music, Forces’ repertoire blends mythology and ritual with Modern, West African, Ballet and Contemporary House dance forms, forging a new vocabulary of movement. The Legend of Marie Laveau, Ancestral Earths, Passionfruit and From the Mud Below are some of Salaam’s most celebrated creations.”