Black Broadway History ~ Moments*

A look at some important works in the history of Black theatre.

Take a look at the accomplishments that African Americans have made, those stories that Black artists have created on Broadway that helped tell the American story.

BLACK THEATRE AFRICAN AMERICAN VOICES

Twenty landmark shows that reflect both Broadway and the broader society’s evolving appreciation for the African-American artistic experience.

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.


Bert Williams in The Ziegfeld Follies, 1910


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)
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

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

The best-known Black musical 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

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)
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.
7. Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death, (1971)

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 facing the audience and intoning, “I put a curse on you.” 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.



8. The Wiz, (1975)

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.

9. 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

10. 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)
Fences 1985
A 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. Troy Maxson, a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues now reduced to collecting trash, must deal with his headstrong football-player son and his wife, who reevaluates their marriage when Troy comes home with the baby he fathered with another woman. Fences Broadway Original Cast Tatyana Ali. Raynell. (Understudy) Mary Alice. Rose. (Troy’s wife) Ray Aranha. Jim Bono. (Troy’s friend) Ethel Ayler. Rose. (Understudy) Charles Brown. Lyons. (Troy’s oldest son by a previous marriage) Frankie R. Faison. Gabriel. (Troy’s brother) Mike Hodge. Jim Bono. Gabriel. … James Earl Jones. Troy Maxson. Production Team CANDICE DONNELLY Costume Designer DANIANNE MIZZY Lighting Designer LLOYD RICHARDS Director JAMES D. SANDEFUR Scenic Designer

Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, 1996

Tap dancing had always been a staple of Black shows but George C. Wolfe, the artistic director of The Public Theater, where the show got its start, and the young dance prodigy Savion Glover transformed the art of hoofing into a vehicle through which they told the history of Black Americans from their arrival in this country as slaves to the emergence of hip-hop as a dominant force in pop culture. Glover was barely 10 years old when he made his Broadway debut as a replacement in The Tap Dance Kid but in the intervening years, he apprenticed himself to past masters of the art such as Henry LeTang, Honi Coles, Sammy Davis Jr., and Gregory Hines, with whom the teen Glover performed a dance-off in the 1992 show Jelly’s Last Jam. Now an adult, Glover combined his respect for the tap tradition (da Noise) with a more emphatic approach that echoed the dynamism of the politically-charged rap music performed by groups like Public Enemy (da Funk). That mix brought a contemporary sensibility to Broadway that helped the show run for 1,135 performances. SYNOPSIS: Songs and dance, particularly innovative tap stylings led by choreographer Savion Glover, highlight the history of black men in America from slavery to the present day. MUSIC: DARYL WATERS, ANN DUQUESNAY, ZANE MARK BOOK: REG E. GAINES LYRICS: GEORGE C. WOLFE, ANN DUQUESNAY, REG E. GAINES. Savion Glover ‘da Beat Vincent Bingham Performer Grin & Flash Where’s the Beat? Jared Crawford Drummer Ann Duquesnay ‘da Singer The Chanteuse Where’s the Beat? Savion Glover Lil’ Dahlin’ Where’s the Beat? Dulé Hill Performer The Kid Where’s the Beat? Raymond King Drummer Jimmy Tate Performer Grin & Flash Where’s the Beat? Baakari Wilder Performer Uncle Huck-A-Buck Where’s the Beat? Jeffrey Wright ‘da Voice The Voice Where’s the Beat? Standby: Mark Gerald Douglas (‘da Voice) and Lynette G. DuPré (‘da Singer) Understudies: David Peter Chapman (Drummer), Omar A. Edwards (Performer), Derick K. Grant (Performer), Dulé Hill (Uncle Huck-A-Buck), Joseph Monroe Webb (Performer) and Baakari Wilder (‘da Beat)

13. Topdog/Underdog, 2002
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.
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