~ 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, in 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 theatregoers 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 theatregoers 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.
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