Black Broadway Theatre History ~
Our Moments and Circumstances
A look at important moments in
the History of Black Theatre
Researched and Edited
by Dale Ricardo Shields
Educational Purposes Only [No Copyright Infringement Intended]
Images may be subject to copyright.
“In 1841, Dan Emmett and Frank Brower, blackface performers with the Cincinnati Circus Company, became friends. Two years later they formed the Virginia Minstrels with two other blackface comedians, Dill Whitock and Dick Pelham. They were the first real minstrelsy troupe, performing full-length concerts.
In 1845, the Ethiopian Serenaders appealed to a more refined audience by cutting out some of the bawdy elements of minstrelsy but it was the Christy’s Minstrels who were responsible for establishing the three-act formula which came to define minstrelsy shows. The first act would begin with a song, dance, and tambourine music; the second act put on a variety of performances, including the popular stump speech and a final act featured a sketch about life on the plantation.
By the 1850s, the subject matter of the minstrelsy shows was becoming nastier, reveling in depictions of the racist and sexual abuse that occurred on plantations. However, when the abolitionist novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was published in 1852, illustrating the real plight of slaves, the pro-slavery minstrelsy shows reacted by focusing once more on the myth of the idyllic plantation lifestyle. But by that time the wheels of the impending American Civil War were already in motion.
Three years before the war, William Wells Brown, an abolitionist lecturer, and novelist published ‘The Escape,’also named, ‘A Leap for Freedom.’This is regarded as the first black play ever published.
Following the civil war, genuine blacks became regularly involved in Ethiopian Minstrelsy although they would generally follow the same conventions as the whites, including applying blackface.”
Black theatrical landmarks reflect both Broadway and the broader artistic society’s evolving appreciation for the African-American artistic experience.
“Black Theater: The Making of a Movement” documents the birth of a new theatre out of the Civil Rights activism of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. It is a veritable video encyclopedia of the leading figures, institutions, and events of a movement that transformed the American stage.
Ben Vereen, George Faison, Maurice Hines, and more join “On Stage Across America” to take a look at the history and social significance of African-Americans on Broadway.
New York City
“As the overview explains, Black theatre’s quest for legitimacy began by emulating mainstream American theatrical traditions at the African Grove in New York City in 1821 and in Minstrelsy before it stumbled, lost its way, and then found its own aesthetic.” – BlackPast.org
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Black theatre, in the United States, dramatic movement encompassing plays written by, for, and about African Americans.
The minstrel shows of the early 19th century are believed by some to be the roots of Black theatre, but they initially were written by whites, acted by whites in blackface, and performed for white audiences. After the American Civil War, Black actors began to perform in minstrel shows (then called “Ethiopian minstrelsy”), and by the turn of the 20th century, they were producing Black musicals, many of which were written, produced, and acted entirely by African Americans. The first known play by a Black American was James Brown’s King Shotaway (1823). William Wells Brown’s The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), was the first Black play published, but the first real success of an African American dramatist was Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel (1916).
Black theatre flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Experimental groups and Black theatre companies emerged in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Among these was the Ethiopian Art Theatre, which established Paul Robeson as America’s foremost Black actor. Garland Anderson’s play Appearances (1925) was the first play of African American authorship to be produced on Broadway, but Black theatre did not create a Broadway hit until Langston Hughes’s Mulatto (1935) won wide acclaim. In that same year, the Federal Theatre Project was founded, providing a training ground for African Americans. In the late 1930s, Black community theatres began to appear, revealing talents such as those of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. By 1940 Black theatre was firmly grounded in the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights’ Company.
After World War II Black theatre grew more progressive, more radical, and sometimes more militant, reflecting the ideals of the Black revolution and seeking to establish mythology and symbolism apart from White culture. Councils were organized to abolish the use of racial stereotypes in theatre and to integrate African American playwrights into the mainstream of American dramaturgy. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and other successful Black plays of the 1950s portrayed the difficulty of African Americans maintaining an identity in a society that degraded them.
The 1960s saw the emergence of a new Black theatre, angrier and more defiant than its predecessors, with Amiri Baraka (originally LeRoi Jones) as its strongest proponent. Baraka’s plays, including the award-winning Dutchman (1964), depicted whites’ exploitation of African Americans. He established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem in 1965 and inspired playwright Ed Bullins and others seeking to create a strong “Black aesthetic” in American theatre. During the 1980s and ’90s August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, and George Wolfe were among the most important creators of Black theatre.
THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT (1965-1975)
POSTED ON MARCH 21, 2014 BY CONTRIBUTED by HANNAH FOSTER
The Black Arts Movement was the name given to a group of politically motivated black poets, artists, dramatists, musicians, and writers who emerged in the wake of the Black Power Movement. The poet Imamu Amiri Baraka is widely considered to be the father of the Black Arts Movement, which began in 1965 and ended in 1975.
After Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, those who embraced the Black Power movement often fell into one of two camps: the Revolutionary Nationalists, who were best represented by the Black Panther Party, and the Cultural Nationalists. The latter group called for the creation of poetry, novels, visual arts, and theater to reflect pride in black history and culture. This new emphasis was an affirmation of the autonomy of Black artists to create black art for black people as a means to awaken black consciousness and achieve liberation.
The Black Arts Movement was formally established in 1965 when Baraka opened the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem. The movement had its greatest impact on theater and poetry. Although it began in the New York/Newark Area, it soon spread to Chicago, Illinois, Detroit, Michigan, and San Francisco, California. In Chicago, Hoyt Fuller and John Johnson edited and published Negro Digest (later Black World), which promoted the work of new black literary artists. Also in Chicago, Third World Press published black writers and poets. In Detroit, Lotus Press and Broadside Press republished older works of black poetry. These Midwestern publishing houses brought recognition to edgy, experimental poets. New black theater groups were also established. In 1969, Robert Chrisman and Nathan Hare established The Black Scholar, which was the first scholarly journal to promote black studies within academia.
There was also a collaboration between the cultural nationalists of the Black Arts Movement and mainstream black musicians, particularly celebrated jazz musicians including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Archie Shepp, and others. Cultural nationalists saw jazz as a distinctly Black art form that was more politically appealing than soul, gospel, rhythm and blues, and other genres of black music.
Although the creative works of the movement were often profound and innovative, they also often alienated both black and white mainstream culture with their raw shock value which often embraced violence. Some of the most prominent works were also seen as racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and sexist. Many works put forth a Black hyper-masculinity in response to historical humiliation and degradation of African American men but usually at the expense of some black female voices.
The movement began to fade when Baraka and other leading members shifted from Black Nationalism to Marxism in the mid-1970s, a shift that alienated many who had previously identified with the movement. Additionally, Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin achieved cultural recognition and economic success as their works began to be celebrated by the white mainstream.
The Black Arts Movement left behind many timeless and stirring pieces of literature, poetry, and theater. Ironically despite the male-dominated nature of the movement, several black female writers rose to lasting fame including Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, among others. Additionally, the Black Arts Movement helped lay the foundation for modern-day spoken word and hip-hop.
- Slavery Comes to North America, 1619 –
1601-1700 1619 Approximately 20 Blacks from a Dutch slaver are purchased as indentured workers for the English settlement of Jamestown. These are the first Africans in the English North American colonies.
- Rise of the Cotton Industry, 1793 –
1701-1800 1793 The United States Congress enacts the first Fugitive Slave Law. Providing assistance to fugitive slaves is now a criminal offense. 1701-1800 1793 Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin in Georgia which he patents on March 13. The development of the cotton gin provides a major boost to the slave-based cotton economy of the South.
- Nat Turner’s Revolt, August 1831 –
1801-1900 1831 North Carolina enacts a statute that bans teaching slaves to read and write. 1801-1900 1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, killing at least 57 Whites. 1801-1900 1831 Alabama makes it illegal for enslaved or free Blacks to preach.
- Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, 1831 –
1801-1900 1831 William Lloyd Garrison of Boston founds The Liberator, the first abolitionist newspaper in the United States. 1801-1900 1831 Jarena Lee’s The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady, was the first autobiography by an African American woman.
- Dred Scott Case, March 6, 1857 –
1801-1900 1857 On March 6, the Dred Scott Decision is handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
- John Brown’s Raid, October 16, 1859 –
1801-1900 1859 On October 16, John Brown leads twenty men, including five African Americans (John Copeland, Shields Green, Lewis S. Leary, Dangerfield Newby, and Osborne Anderson), in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now We
- Civil War and Emancipation, 1861 –
1801-1900 1859 Harriett Wilson of Milford, New Hampshire publishes Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, the first novel by an African American woman.
- The Post-Slavery South, 1865 –
1801-1900 1865 On February 1, 1865, Abraham Lincoln signs the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery throughout the United States. 1801-1900 1865 On March 3, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide health care, education, and technical assistance to emancipated slaves. Congress also charters the Freedman’s Bank to promote savings and thrift among the ex-slaves. 1801-1900 1865 Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. 1801-1900 1865 On April 15, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington, D.C. 1801-1900 1865 On June 19, enslaved African Americans in Texas finally receive news of their emancipation. From that point, they commemorate that day as Juneteenth. 1801-1900 1865 Between September and November, a number of ex-Confederate states pass so-called Black Codes. 1801-1900 1865 The Ku Klux Klan is formed on December 24th in Pulaski, Tennessee by six educated, middle-class former Confederate veterans. The Klan soon adopts terror tactics to thwart the aspirations of the formerly enslaved and their supporters. 1801-1900 1865 John S. Rock is the first African American to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. 1801-1900 1865 Martin R. Delany‘s appointment as Major by President Abraham Lincoln makes him the highest-ranking African American officer during the Civil War. 1801-1900 1865 On January 16, General William T. Sherman issues Special Field Order No. 15 which gives 400,000 acres of abandoned coastal land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to formerly enslaved people. This order becomes the basis for subsequent “40 acres and a mule. 1801-1900 1865 With the approval of the Georgia Legislature on December 6, the 13th Amendment took effect and outlawed slavery throughout the United States and its possessions. 1801-1900 1889 Frederick Douglass is appointed Minister to Haiti.
- ‘Separate But Equal,’ 1896 –
1801-1900 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson is decided on May 18 when the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Southern segregation laws and practices (Jim Crow) do not conflict with the 13th and 14th Amendments. The Court defends its ruling by articulating the separate but equal doctrine 1801-1900 1896 On July 21 the National Association of Colored Women is formed in Washington, D.C. Mary Church Terrell is chosen as its first president. 1801-1900 1896 In September George Washington Carver is appointed director of agricultural research at Tuskegee Institute. His work advances peanut, sweet potato, and soybean farming.
- Washington, Carver & Du Bois, 1900 –
1801-1900 1900 In January James Weldon Johnson writes the lyrics and his brother John Rosamond Johnson composes the music for Lift Every Voice and Sing in their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida in celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. The song is eventually referred to as the Black (Negro) Anthem. 1801-1900 1900 On August 23, the National Negro Business League is founded in Boston by Booker T. Washington to promote business enterprise.
- NAACP Founded, 1909 –
1801-1900 1900 An estimated 30,000 black teachers have been trained since the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865. They are a major factor in helping more than half the Black population achieve literacy by this date. 1901-2000 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks is published on April 27. In it Du Bois rejects the gradualism of Booker T. Washington, calling for agitation on behalf of African American rights.
- Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, 1916 –
1901-2000 1916 Marcus Garvey founds the New York Division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association with sixteen members. Four years later the UNIA holds its national convention in Harlem. At its height, the organization claims nearly two million members. 1901-2000 1916 In January the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) begins publishing the Journal of Negro History which becomes the first scholarly journal devoted to the study of African American history.
- Harlem Renaissance, 1920
1901-2000 1920 Former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opens the Club Deluxe in Harlem. Two years later gangster Owney Madden buys the club and changes its name to the Cotton Club.
- African Americans in WWII, 1941
1901-2000 1921 Shuffle Along by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake opens on Broadway on May 23. This is the first major play of the Harlem Renaissance. 1901-2000 1924 Photographer James Van Der Zee begins his career by capturing images of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. 1901-2000 1925 The New Negro by Alain Locke is published in New York City. 1901-2000 1926 Carter G. Woodson establishes Negro History Week in February between the Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass Birthdays. 1901-2000 1926 The Carnegie Corporation purchases Arturo Schomburg‘s collection of books and artifacts on African American life. The collection becomes the basis for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. 1901-2000 1927 Chicago businessman Abe Saperstein forms the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team in Chicago on January 30. 1901-2000 1929 Fats Waller‘s musical, Aint Misbehavin, opens on Broadway. 1901-2000 1932 Gospel Composer Thomas Dorsey writes “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” 1901-2000 1932 Dudley Murphy releases the film The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson. 1901-2000 1934 Zora Neale Hurston‘s first novel, Jonahs Gourd Vine, is published. 1901-2000 1934 After operating under a number of names, the Apollo Theater opens under its current name in Harlem. 1901-2000 1937 In October, Katherine Dunham forms the Negro Dance Group, a company of Black artists dedicated to presenting aspects of African American and African-Caribbean Dance. The company eventually becomes the Katherine Dunham Group. 1901-2000 1938 Jacob Lawrence holds his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and completes his Toussaint L’Overture series. 1901-2000 1939 Popular contralto Marian Anderson sings at Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people on Easter Sunday after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. 1901-2000 1939 Bill Bojangles Robinson organizes the Black Actors Guild. 1901-2000 1940 On February 29, Hattie McDaniel receives an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her role in Gone With the Wind. She becomes the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. 1901-2000 1940 Richard Wright publishes his first novel, Native Son. 1901-2000 1941 Mary Lucinda Dawson founds the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh. 1901-2000 1942 While teaching at Livingstone College in North Carolina, Margaret Walker publishes For My People, which she began as her master’s thesis at the University of Iowa.
- Jackie Robinson, 1947
1901-2000 1948 Timmie Rogers, comedian, dancer, and singer, launches the first all-Black variety show, Sugar Hill Times, on CBS Television. 1901-2000 1950 On May 1, Gwendolyn Brooks of Chicago becomes the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. She wins the prize in Poetry. 1901-2000 1950 Juanita Hall became the first African American to win a Tony award. She was honored for her role in the Broadway play, South Pacific. 1901-2000 1952 Ralph Ellison publishes Invisible Man. 1901-2000 1953 James Baldwin publishes his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It On The Mountain.
- Brown v. Board Of Education, May 17, 1954
1901-2000 1954 On May 17, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declares segregation in all public schools in the United States unconstitutional, nullifying the earlier judicial doctrine of separate but equal. 1901-2000 1954 Malcolm X becomes Minister of the Nation of Islam‘s Harlem Temple 7.
- Emmett Till, August 1955
1901-2000 1955 On January 7 Marian Anderson becomes the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera
- Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, December 1955
1901-2000 1956 On November 11, Nat King Cole becomes the first African American to host a prime time variety show on national television. He appears on NBC. 1901-2000 1956 Harry Belafonte‘s “Calypso,” released by RCA Records, is the first album in history to sell more than one million copies.
- Central High School integrated, September 1957
1901-2000 1958 The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is formed in New York. 1901-2000 1959 Lorraine Hansberry‘s “A Raisin in the Sun” opens in New York on March 11 with Sidney Poitier in the starring role. It is the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. 1901-2000 1959 Ella Fitzgerald and William “Count” Basie become the first African American performers to win Grammy awards.
- Sit-in Movement and Founding of SNCC, 1960
1901-2000 1960 On Nov. 8, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy defeats Vice President Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in history. Many observers credit African American voters with Kennedy’s narrow margin of victory.
- CORE and Freedom Rides, May 1961
- Integration of Ole Miss, September 1962
- Birmingham Church Bombed, 1963
- ‘I Have a Dream,’ 1963
- Civil Rights Act of 1964, July 1964
1901-2000 1964 Sidney Poitier wins the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the film, “Lilies of the Field.” He is the first African American male actor to win in that category.
- Freedom Summer and the ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders, June 1964
1901-2000 1964 On June 21 civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are abducted and killed by terrorists in Mississippi.
- Selma to Montgomery March, March 1965
- Malcolm X Shot to Death, February 1965
- Voting Rights Act of 1965, August 1965
1901-2000 1965 Alex Haley publishes The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
- Rise of Black Power 1966
1901-2000 1966 On October 15, The Black Panther Party is formed in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. 1901-2000 1967 On November 13, Carl Stokes and Richard G. Hatcher are elected the first Black mayors of Cleveland and Gary, Indiana, respectively.
- Fair Housing Act, April 1968
- MLK Assassinated, April 4, 1968
1901-2000 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4. In the wake of the assassination 125 cities in 29 states experience uprisings. By April 11, 46 people are killed and 35,000 are injured in these confrontations. 1901-2000 1968 New York Senator and Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated on June 5 in Los Angeles. 1901-2000 1969 On December 4, Chicago police kill Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clarke. 1901-2000 1969 Jimi Hendrix headlines the Woodstock Musical Festival near Bethel, New York between August 15 and August 18. Over 500,000 people attend what is to that point the largest musical concert in history. 1901-2000 1970 On October 12, Charles Gordone becomes the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play, “No Place to Be Somebody.“ 1901-2000 1971 Beverly Johnson is the first Black woman to appear on the cover of a major fashion magazine (Glamour).
- Shirley Chisholm Runs for President, 1972
1901-2000 1977 The eighth and final night for the miniseries based on Alex Haley‘s Roots is shown on February 3. This final episode achieves the highest ratings to that point for a single television program.
- The Bakke Decision and Affirmative Action, 1978
1901-2000 1978 Max Robinson becomes the first Black network anchor when he begins broadcasting for ABC-TV News from Chicago. 1901-2000 1979 The Sugar Hill Gang records “Rappers Delight” in Harlem. 1901-2000 1982 Bryant Gumbel is named anchor of The Today Show, becoming the first African American to hold the post on a major network. 1901-2000 1982 Michael Jackson‘s album, Thriller, is released. It will eventually sell 45 million copies worldwide, becoming the best selling album in music history. 1901-2000 1983 Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American crowned Miss America on September 18 in Atlantic City. In July 1984 she relinquishes her crown to Suzette Charles when nude photos of her appear in Penthouse magazine. 1901-2000 1983 On November 2, President Ronald Reagan signs a bill establishing January 20 as a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1901-2000 1983 Alice Walker‘s The Color Purple wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Jesse Jackson Galvanizes Black Voters, 1984
1901-2000 1984 In September The Cosby Show starring Bill Cosby makes its television debut. The show runs for eight seasons and will become the most successful series in television history featuring a mostly African American cast. 1901-2000 1985 Gwendolyn Brooks of Chicago is named U.S. Poet-Laureate. She is the first African American to hold that honor.
- Oprah Winfrey Launches Syndicated Talk Show, 1986
1901-2000 1987 Rita Dove wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Art and Literature 1901-2000 1987 August Wilson‘s play, Fences, wins a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. 1901-2000 1987 Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. 1901-2000 1990 August Wilson wins a Pulitzer Prize for the play The Piano Lesson. 1901-2000 1991 Julie Dash releases Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film by an African American woman.
- Los Angeles Riots, 1992
1901-2000 1993 On October 7, Toni Morrison becomes the first Black American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The work honored is her novel, Beloved.
- Million Man March 1995
1901-2000 1995 The Million Man March organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan and other political activists is held in Washington, D.C. on October 17.
- Colin Powell Becomes Secretary of State, 2001
2001- 2002 In March, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington win Oscars for best actress and best actor for their portrayals in Monster’s Ball and Training Day respectively.
- Barack Obama Becomes 44th US President, 2008
- The Black Lives Matter Movement 2013
- George Floyd Protests 2020
- Kamala Harris Becomes the First Woman and First Black US Vice President, 2021
The Drama of King Shotaway – William Henry Brown (1823)
Thought to be the first-ever play produced by a Black playwright. No copies exist.
The Escape/A Leap for Freedom – William Wells Brown (1858)
The first play produced by a Black playwright that is still in existence.
Clorindy/The Origin of the Cakewalk – Paul Laurence Dunbar/Will Marion Cook (1898)
The first Broadway musical to feature an all-Black cast.
In Dahomey – Paul Laurence Dunbar/Will Marion Cook/Jesse Shipp (1903)
The first all-Black musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theater
The Oyster Man – Ernest Hogan (1907)
Hogan was the first African American to both produce and star in a Broadway production.
Rachel – Angeline W. Grimke (1916)
The first play authored by a Black person and featuring a Black cast to be presented to a mixed audience.
Three Plays for a Negro Theatre – Ridgely Torrence (1917)
The first Broadway play to feature an all-Black cast
Shuffle Along – Eubie Blake/Noble Lee Sissle (1921)
Hugely popular Broadway musical featuring Paul Robeson and shown more than 500 times.
Appearances – Garland Anderson (1925)
The first Broadway play of Black authorship
Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South – Martin Jones (1935)
Written by Langston Hughes, Mulatto was the first play of Black authorship to receive widespread success.
Big White Fog – Theodore Ward (1938)
A play about the fictional Mason family and depicting the emerging conflict between African American integrationist and nationalist sympathies.
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansbury (1959)
A Broadway play commenting on the difficulties of preserving African American identity in a racist culture.
Street Scene – Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes (1947)
First major interracial Broadway collaboration
Dutchman and the Slave – LeRoi Jones (1964)
Hard-hitting off-Broadway play centering on a dialogue between a white woman Lulu and black man Clay. Jones received an Obie and later changed his name to Amiri Baraka.
The Wiz – Charlie Smalls (1975)
A Broadway musical based on The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – August Wilson (1984)
First of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle which charted the lives of various characters from the 1920s to the 1990s.
Top Dog/Underdog – Suzan Lori-Parks (2001)
“The African Company, based at the African Grove Theater, became a critical support group and a 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 Rossiter, 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 image 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 – “The first full-length musical comedy to feature an all-Black cast and writing team to play inside a major Broadway theater would come later. Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy, which satirized the “back to Africa” movement of the early 19th century, ran for 53 performances at the New York Theatre, going on to tour nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, this was also one of the many shows in which Black actors appeared in blackface.” – Broadway.com
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 Classics in 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 were 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 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 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.
The Howard Players
The oldest Black student acting group in the country
During the period from 1919 to 1925, drama at the University reached a peak both financially and technically. In 1919, T. Montgomery Gregory was appointed head of the Department of Speech. Under his direction, courses in Dramatic Art were offered for academic credit for the first time and the College Dramatic Club became known as the Howard Players. The practical work of acting, character portrayal, technical work for the stage, the making of costumes and production management became the course offerings in Dramatic Art. The Department had its own business office, costume rooms and scenic workshop.The Players specialized in the production of plays of Negro life written by students and others. Probably one of the most notable achievements of the Howard Players was the presentation of Emperor Jones with Charles Gilpin recreating his original role.
Some of the plays presented by the Howard Players during the period of 1919 to 1949 include Genifriede by Helen I. Webb; The Death Dance by Thelma Duncan; A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen; The Seer by James W. Butcher; The Monkey’s Paw and The Proposal by Anton Chekhov; Divine Comedy by Owen Dodson; the premier performance of Amen Corner by James Baldwin; Hamlet by William Shakespeare and another premier, Medea In Africa, by Robinson J. Jefferies.
In 1949, under the leadership of Anne Cook, the Howard Players became the first college drama group to serve as ambassadors of goodwill, as they toured two plays throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany for a three-month period.
Notable members of the acting group include Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show, Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison and Chadwick Boseman. The Howard Players changed the game for Black theatre as it was nearly nonexistent in the early 1900’s in Washington D.C.
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 premiere 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.
“1920 – Charles Gilpin, the First African-American Honored by the Drama League
Charles Gilpin broke onto the scene as the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones when the play premiered on Broadway. The Drama League named him as one of 10 people who impacted the American theater that year but didn’t invite him to the awards dinner because of his race. After O’Neill led a protest for the League to do the right thing and invite Gilpin, the organization obliged.” – Broadway.com
Shuffle Along (1921)
“After leaving New York, the show toured the nation and became the first African-American musical to play in White theatres across the country. Shuffle Along brought Black jazz communities and White Broadway audiences together in a way that had never been seen before. Langston Hughes (who saw the production as a student in 1921) later defined it as the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.”
“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.”
Fun fact: The entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker appeared as one of the dancers in the 1921 Broadway production of Shuffle Along.
THOMAS M. GREGORY: KEY FIGURE IN THE NATIONAL NEGRO THEATER MOVEMENT
Thomas Montgomery Gregory was key in cultivating and nurturing the concept of a National Negro Theater Movement during the early decades of the 20th century against the backdrop of an 80-year-old minstrel tradition and the popularity of Black-themed dramatic works by white writers, underscored by the commercially fledgling efforts of Black playwrights in America.
Gregory was a native of Washington. His mother, Fannie Emma Hagan, a former Howard student of Madagascan descent, was an independent-minded woman, who, while a Howard faculty spouse, mentored young students and devoted much of her life to the upliftment of “colored women.”
He was educated at Williston Seminary (1902-1906), then Harvard University, where he was a member and also president of the varsity debating team, graduating in the celebrated Class of 1910 which included T.S. Eliot, Walter Lippmann, and John Reed. His father, James Monroe Gregory, who transferred from Oberlin College in 1868 to become the first student enrolled in Howard University’s College Department, was in the university’s first graduating class of three men and stayed on as a member of the faculty.
After completing his studies at Harvard University, Montgomery Gregory was appointed English Instructor at Howard, rising quickly to Professor and, in 1919, Head of the department.
In 1919 Gregory founded the acclaimed college theater troupe, The Howard Player. Gregory was the organizer of the Howard University Department of Dramatic Art and Public Speaking (1921) and co-creator with Alain Locke of The Stylus literary club (1916).
He was appointed the first director of the drama department and was joined in his efforts by acting coach Marie Moore Forrest, and acclaimed New York stage designer Cleon Throckmorton of the Provincetown Players. The department’s course in Pageantry and Drama was the first of its kind in the U.S. to be offered for credit.
Early in Gregory’s career, he began to formulate the notion that the Black race could, and should necessarily, use the arts as a means for social change. He articulated his “empowerment through artistic achievement” framework in “Race in Art,” an article for The Citizen, a Boston-based magazine, published in 1915 by Charles F. Lane, with Gregory, George W. Ellis, and William Stanley Braithwaite.
Through his work at Howard, Gregory generated national interest in legitimate Black drama, collaborating with important playwrights such as Willis Richardson, Paul Green, and Eugene O’Neill, and creating, via The Howard Players, a critically acclaimed forum for student-written plays and performances. George Pierce Baker of the 47 Workshop at Harvard University cited The Howard Players as one of the two most creative college theater companies in the United States, with The Carolina Playmakers of the University of North Carolina being the other.
In 1927, Gregory contributed “The Negro in Drama” to the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In late winter, Gregory and Locke’s Plays of Negro Life was published.
FEDERAL THEATRE PROJECT (NEGRO UNITS)
CONTRIBUTED BY: ANTHONY DUANE HILL
In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project (FTP) as part of the New Deal economic recovery program. Negro units, also called The Negro Theatre Project (NTP), were set up in 23 cities throughout the United States. This short-lived (1935-1939) project provided much-needed employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theatre technicians, and playwrights. It was a major boost for African American theatre during the Depression-era.
These units were situated throughout the country in four geographical sectors. In the East, the most productive units were located in New York City, New York, Boston, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey. In the South, units were placed in Raleigh, North Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. In the Midwest, they were situated in Chicago, Illinois, Peoria, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio. In the West, units were in Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles, California.
The best-known and most active FTP was The New York Negro Unit (1935-1939). Located at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, it staged some 30 productions. Two white directors, John Houseman and Orson Welles headed it in 1935. Three black directors, Edward Perry, Carlton Moss, and H. F. V. Edward replaced them in 1936. The unit’s most popular production was the Haitian, or “voodoo,” Macbeth (1935), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set in the Caribbean, under the direction of Wells. Other productions included Frank Wilson’s folk drama Walk Together, Children (1936), which described the forced deportation of 100 African American children from the South to the North to work for menial wages. Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen’s The Conjur Man Dies (1936), a farcical mystery in three acts, dramatized Rudolph Fisher’s mystery-melodrama. Also in 1936, J. Augustus Smith and Peter Morrell co-authored Turpentine, a social drama in three acts and ten scenes that focused on the evils of the Southern labor camp system. George MacEntee’s The Case of Philip Lawrence (1937) was a courtroom melodrama. Haiti by William DuBois (not to be confused with W.E.B. DuBois), appeared in 1938 as a historical drama about the overthrow of a Haitian government. The Negro Youth Theatre, a popular subdivision of the New York Negro Unit, produced Conrad Seiler’s social drama Sweet Land (January 1937), which toured the streets of New York with the production during the following summer.
The Newark Negro Unit, in combination with the white New Jersey unit, produced one of the most successful FTP productions by a black author, The Trial of Dr. Beck. Hughes Allison’s play was a courtroom melodrama about color stratification among upwardly mobile Blacks. The Trial was produced at Union City and Newark, New Jersey in 1937 and then transferred to the Maxine Elliott Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for four weeks.
The Philadelphia Negro Unit produced Prelude in Swing, a 1939 musical documentary by Carlton Moss. The Boston Negro Unit was directed and run by Ralf Coleman, also a playwright and one of the leading performers. His brother Warren Coleman, and H. Jack Bates, the main resident playwright, assisted him. Broadway and film actor Frank Silvera was also a member and leading actor with this unit. Among the plays this unit produced (c. 1937-1938) were Bates’s Cinda, a Black version of Cinderella, Dear Morpheus, a fantasy of love and marriage, Streets of Gold, Black Acres, The Legend of Jo Emma, The Lost Disciple, and Coleman’s Swing Song. The Hartford Negro Unit produced Trilogy in Black by Ward Courtney in 1937. The Raleigh Negro Unit produced Heaven Bound, a black morality play adapted by Laura Ward in 1936.
Shirley Graham (later Mrs. W.E.B. DuBois) headed The Chicago Negro Unit from 1936 to 1939. This unit rivaled the New York unit in the originality, popularity, and variety of its offerings. The Chicago unit’s most acclaimed production The Swing Mikado (1938), was a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which was a hit both in Chicago and New York City. Other productions by this unit included Lew Payton’s Did Adam Sin? (1936), Little Black Sambo (1937), a children’s operetta, and Theodore Ward’s drama on the Depression, Big White Fog (1938).
In the Far West, The Seattle Negro Unit’s (1936-1939) play production over four seasons (1936-1939) was boosted greatly by the presence of playwright-in-resident Theodore Browne. The unit staged four of his plays, including Lysistrata, an African American adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy, and Natural Man, a dramatization of the John Henry legend. Go Down Moses was a play about Harriet Tubman and her involvement in the Underground Railroad. Swing, Gates, Swing was a musical revue. The Los Angeles Negro Unit produced two plays by black playwrights. John Henry by Frank B. Wells in 1936, about the legendary railroad worker, and Run Little Chillun’! in 1938-1939), a revival of Hall Johnson’s folk drama that originally appeared on Broadway in 1933. – BLACK PAST
Leigh Whipper, the first Black member of the Actors’ Equity Association (1913), was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1876. His father, William J. Whipper, was a Pennsylvania entrepreneur and abolitionist before the Civil War and later a member of two Constitutional Conventions during the Reconstruction era. His mother, Frances Rollin Whipper, was a writer. Whipper attended public school in Washington, D.C. After leaving Howard University Law School in 1895, he immediately joined the theater.
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.
1935 – Porgy and Bess
George and Ira Gershwin penned this opera, featuring an all-Black cast of classically trained singers. Even though it has been criticized for stereotyping African-Americans with depictions of drug abuse, poverty, and prostitution, it has been revived on Broadway seven times, most recently in the 2012 Audra McDonald- and Norm Lewis-led production. – Broadway.com
The American Negro Theatre
1940 The American Negro Theatre is founded in Harlem by writer Abram Hill and actor Frederick O’Neal. Before it closed in 1949, the group produced 19 plays in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And it’s Studio Theatre training program for beginning actors, launched in 1942, kickstarts the careers of actors such as Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier.
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.
Bloomer Girl 1944
Bloomer Girl is a 1944 Broadway musical with music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, and a book by Sig Herzig and Fred Saidy, based on an unpublished play by Lilith and Dan James. The plot concerns independent Evelina Applegate, a hoop skirt manufacturer’s daughter who defies her father by rejecting hoopskirts and embracing comfortable bloomers advocated by her aunt “Dolly” Bloomer, who was inspired by the women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer. The American Civil War is looming, and abolitionist Evelina refuses to marry suitor Jeff Calhoun until he frees his slave, Pompey.
The original Broadway production opened at the Shubert Theatre on October 5, 1944, directed by William Schorr and produced by John C. Wilson in association with Nat Goldstone. Agnes de Mille was the choreographer, and her contributions included a Civil War ballet. The production starred Celeste Holm as Evelina, David Brooks as Jeff Calhoun, Dooley Wilson as the slave Pompey, and Joan McCracken in the featured dancing role as Daisy. While successful—it closed on April 27, 1946, after 657 performances on Broadway—it has seldom been revived.
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 a 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 who’s 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.
1959 – Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Premieres on Broadway
Inspired by fellow African-American writer and Broadway playwright Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (also known as “A Dream Deferred”), Lorraine Hansberry’s legendary play opened on Broadway in 1959. The story follows a Black family at odds over how to transcend disenfranchisement and segregation in 1950s Chicago. The play has had two Broadway revivals and a musical adaptation, Raisin. – Broadway.com
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 can’t 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 townspeople can’t 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.
Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly!1967 – Pearl Bailey’s All-Black Hello, Dolly!
In what might be seen as a radical casting move even today, in 1967, the entire Broadway cast of Hello, Dolly! turned over to welcome an all-Black cast, led by actress and singer Pearl Bailey as Dolly Levi.
The reviews for Bailey and the new cast were glowing, and the production ran for another two years. Bailey received a 1968 Special Tony Award for her performance.
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 to 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.
PURLIE 1970 Tony Awards
Melba Moore performs “ I Got Love” and is presented the Tony by Jack Cassidy then the company performs “Walk Him Up the Stairs” (look for a ‘pre-Jeffersons’ Sherman Hemsley) and Shirley MacLaine presents the Tony to Cleavon Little.
Purlie! “Walk Him Up the Stairs” (1981 TV Cast)
“The opening number, “Walk Him Up the Stairs,” of the amazing musical Purlie! Starring Robert Guillaume, Melba Moore, Sherman Hemsley, and Rhetta Hughes.”
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.
Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971 Original Broadway Run) Tony Awards 1972
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 on 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 cohesion 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 on 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)
Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk
Director George C. Wolfe collaborated with the prodigious, young choreographer Savion Glover to bring the story of the Black experience in America to vivid life onstage, from the days of slavery to the advent of hip-hop.
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.
“Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk is a musical revue telling the story, through tap, of Black history from slavery to the present. The musical numbers are presented along with supertitles, projected images, and videotapes, and continuing commentary. Wolfe took the rap words of Reg E. Gaines and turned them into “tap/rap (tap dancing informed by hip-hop and funk rhythms).”
The production, which showcased tap dance, won five Tony Awards, including trophies for Wolfe, Glover, and featured actress Ann Duquesnay.
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk 1996 Tony Awards
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
The Trip to Bountiful (2013)
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
Scenic design by Jeff Cowie, costume design by Van Broughton Ramsey, lighting design by Rui Rita, original music and sound design by John Gromada
The Stephen Sondheim Theater
Cast: Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Vanessa Williams, Condola Rashad, Tom Wopat, Devon Abner, Curtis Billings, Pat Bowie, Leon Addison Brown, Arthur French, Susan Heyward, Bill Kux, Linda Powell, Charles Turner
THE GIN GAME
James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson star in THE GIN GAME
Weller Martin (James Earl Jones) and Fonsia Dorsey (Cicely Tyson) meet on the porch of their nursing home and strike up a friendship, with Weller teaching Fonsia how to play gin rummy. As they play, they share stories about the lives they led in the outside world. But when Fonsia wins every hand, Weller becomes increasingly frustrated, until their gin games and conversations become a battleground, with each player exposing the other’s failures, disappointments, and insecurities.
LEGENDARY, POWERFUL, AND UNDENIABLY UNFORGETTABLE.
Two-time Tony Award® winner James Earl Jones squares off with three-time Emmy® and Tony Award® winner Cicely Tyson in the play The New York Times calls “Thoroughly entertaining. The closest thing the theatre offers to a duel at 10 paces.”
This fall marks their first Broadway rematch in nearly 50 years, as D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stunner The Gin Game returns to the John Golden Theatre, the same place where it first astounded audiences in 1977 by raising an ordinary pastime between acquaintances to explosive and shockingly real stakes.
Don’t miss your chance to watch this unbeatable pair of Broadway aces expose every last one of their cards under the direction of Leonard Foglia (Master Class) in this brand-new Broadway production.
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
Nicholas L. Ashe
Austin Justin “AJ” James
Pharus Jonathan Young
George C Wolfe and Savion Glover’s
“Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed”
The cast of the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, perform the number “Broadway Blues” live at the 2016 Tony Awards
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations. (2019)
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.
Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jelani Remy, Derrick Baskin and the Broadway cast of AIN’T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS perform a medley from the show including “Get Ready” (by Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr), “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (by Smokey Robinson), and “I Can’t Get Next to You” (by Norman Whitfiled and Barrett Strong) on NBC’s 93rd Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Playwright – Jeremy O. Harris
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 were 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 a 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 a 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.
Once on This Island is a one-act musical with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, it is set in the French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. It concerns a peasant girl on a tropical island, who uses the power of love to bring people together of different social classes.
The original Broadway production ran from 1990 to 1991, and the West End production opened in 1994, where it won the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The musical was revived on Broadway in a production that opened on December 3, 2017, at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
Passing Strange is a comedy-drama rock musical about a young African American’s artistic journey of self-discovery in Europe, with strong elements of philosophical existentialism, metafiction(especially self-referential humor), and the artistic journey. The musical’s lyrics and book are by Stew with music and orchestrations by Heidi Rodewald and Stew. It was created in collaboration with director Annie Dorsen.
The musical was developed at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2004 and 2005, one of the few works to be invited back for a second round of development. It had productions in Berkeley, California and Off-Broadway before opening on Broadway in 2008, garnering strong reviews and several awards. Spike Lee filmed the musical on Broadway in July 2008, premiering the film in 2009.
The Piano Lesson is a 1987 play by American playwright August Wilson. It is the fourth play in Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle. Wilson began writing this play by playing with the various answers regarding the possibility of “acquir[ing] a sense of self-worth by denying one’s past”. The Piano Lesson received the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
A Romare Bearden painting, The Piano Lesson, inspired Wilson to write a play featuring a strong female character to confront African-American history, paralleling Troy in earlier Fences. However, on finishing his play, Wilson found the ending to stray from the empowered female character as well as from the question regarding self-worth. What The Piano Lesson finally seems to ask is: “What do you do with your legacy, and how do you best put it to use?”
Set in 1936 Pittsburgh during the aftermath of the Great Depression, The Piano Lesson follows the lives of the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household and an heirloom, the family piano, which is decorated with designs carved by an enslaved ancestor. The play focuses on the arguments between a brother and a sister who have different ideas on what to do with the piano. The brother, Boy Willie, is a sharecropper who wants to sell the piano to buy the land (Sutter’s land) where his ancestors toiled as slaves. The sister, Berniece, remains emphatic about keeping the piano, which shows the carved faces of their great-grandfather’s wife and son during the days of their enslavement.
Porgy: A Play in Four Acts is a play by Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward, adapted from the short novel by DuBose Heyward. It was first produced by the Theatre Guild and presented on October 10, 1927 – August 1928 at the Guild Theatre in New York City. Featuring a cast of African Americans at the insistence of its authors—a decision unusual for its time—the original production starred Frank Wilson, Evelyn Ellis, Jack Carter, and Rose McClendon. Porgy marked the Broadway directing debut of Rouben Mamoulian. The play ran a total of 55 weeks in New York, and the original cast toured the United States twice and performed for 11 consecutive weeks in London.
The play tells the story of Porgy, a disabled Black beggar who lives in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It relates his efforts to rescue Bess, the woman he loves, from Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and a drug dealer called Sporting Life.
The play is the basis of the libretto of the opera 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.
Porgy and Bess was first performed in Boston on September 30, 1935, before it moved to Broadway in New York City. It featured a cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time. After an initially unpopular public reception, a 1976 Houston Grand Opera production gained its new popularity, and it is now one of the best-known and most frequently performed operas.
The libretto of Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black street-beggar living in the slums of Charleston. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. The opera plot generally follows the stage play.
In the years following Gershwin’s death, Porgy and Bess were adapted for smaller-scale performances. It was adapted as a film in 1959. Some of the songs in the opera, such as “Summertime”, became popular and are frequently recorded.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the trend has been toward productions with greater fidelity to Gershwin’s original intentions. Smaller-scale productions also continue to be mounted. A complete recorded version of the score was released in 1976; since then, it has been recorded several times.
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 to 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.
Radio Golf is a play by American playwright, August Wilson, the final installment in his ten-part series, The Century Cycle. It was first performed in 2005 by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and had its Broadway premiere in 2007 at the Cort Theatre. It is Wilson’s final work.
Harmond Wilks, an Ivy League-educated man who has inherited a real estate agency from his father, his ambitious wife Mame, and his friend Roosevelt Hicks want to redevelop the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The project, called the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, includes two high-rise apartment buildings and high-end chain stores like Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble. Harmond is also about to declare his candidacy to be Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. Roosevelt has just been named a vice-president of Mellon Bank and has been tapped by a Bernie Smith to help him acquire a local radio station at less than market value, which is possible through a minority tax incentive.
A complication arises when Harmond discovers that the house at 1839 Wylie, slated for demolition, was acquired illegally. Harmond offers the owner of the property market value for the house, but the owner refuses to sell. Harmond decides the only way to proceed is to build around the house, which will require minor modifications to the planned development and calls the demolition company to cancel the demolition. Roosevelt sees no reason to delay since no one but Harmond, Roosevelt, Mame, and the house’s owner know the truth, a view Mame supports. When, on the day of the demolition, which Roosevelt has put back into motion, Harmond refuses to be swayed from his stand, Roosevelt announces he will be buying Harmond out and Bernie Smith will be helping him. Harmond accuses Roosevelt of being Smith’s “blackface” and the two argue over the consequences of Harmond demanding changes in the development plans and if Roosevelt is allowing himself to be used by Bernie Smith. Harmond tells Roosevelt to leave the Bedford Hills Redevelopment office, which is owned by Wilks Realty. The scene ends with Harmond leaving the office to join the group of Hill residents at 1839 Wylie protesting the demolition.
Raisin is a musical with music by Judd Woldin, lyrics by Robert Brittan, and a book by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg. It is an adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun; the musical’s book was co-written by Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nemiroff.
The story concerns an African-American family in Chicago in 1951. The musical was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Musical, and the Broadway production ran for 847 performances.
In Chicago in 1951, an African-American family, Ruth Younger, her husband Walter Lee Younger, their son Travis and Walter’s mother are living in a cramped apartment. Walter is a chauffeur but thinks that his father’s life insurance policy proceeds will buy a way to a better life. He plans on buying a liquor store, but his mother Mama Lena Younger is against the selling of liquor. Tensions arise as Walter tries to convince Mama Lena to forget her dream of buying the family its own small house (“A Whole Lotta Sunlight”).
Walter decides to make the deal for the liquor store and signs the papers with his partners Bobo Jones and Willie Harris. Beneatha Younger, Walter’s sister, is in college and is romantically involved with an African exchange student, Asagai. When Walter comes home drunk he joins Beneatha in a celebratory dance, picturing himself as a chieftain (“African Dance”). Ruth and Walter fight about their future but they reconcile (“Sweet Time”). Mama arrives to announce that she has bought a house in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park, and Walter leaves in anger (“You Done Right”).
Walter has not returned home and Mama finds him in a bar. She apologizes and gives him an envelope filled with money. She asks him to deposit $3,000 for Beneatha’s college education and tells him the rest is for him. As the family packs to move, a representative of Clybourne Park, Karl Lindner, arrives and offers to buy back the house. Walter, Ruth, and Beneatha mockingly tell Mama of the enlightened attitude of their new neighbors. Just then Bobo arrives to tell the family the bad news that Willie has run off with the money. This forces Walter to contact Lindner and accept the offer to buy back the house. Although Beneatha berates her brother for not standing up for principles, Mama shows compassion and understanding (“Measure the Valleys”).
When Lindner arrives, Walter announces that the family will, after all, move to the new house.
Rang Tang is a musical that premiered on July 12, 1927, on Broadway at the Royale Theater and ran for 119 performances, including a 14-week overrun, during which, the production moved September 12, 1927, to the Majestic – finishing October 24, 1927. It was acclaimed as one of the most successful Black musical revues of the latter 1920s, owed much to a star-laden cast headlined by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The book — in 2 acts and 12 scenes (2 scenes added later) — is by Kaj Gynt; the lyrics are by Joseph H. Trent; the music is composed by Ford Dabney, who tailored some of the songs for Mae Barnes and Evelyn Preer; the score and post-production music was published by Leo Feist; all copyrighted in 1927 and copyrights renewed in 1954
The production premiered 1 month and 22 days after the world’s first solo transatlantic flight – from Roosevelt Field, Mineola, Long Island, to Le Bourget Aerodrome, Paris, by Charles Lindbergh. The musical title, Rang Tang, is slang for an orangutan.
Sam Peck (Miller) and Steve Jenkins (Lyles) are two debt-ridden Jimtown barbers who flee their creditors, steal an airplane, and, in the spirit of Charles Lindbergh, embark on another, further, albeit non-solo, first transatlantic non-stop flight from America to Africa in search of treasure. Toward the end of their destination, however, while in flight, the plane begins to malfunction and the wings fall off. Following a safe emergency splash landing in the sea near Madagascar, they meet the Queen of Sheba (Josephine Hall), the King of Madagascar (Daniel L. Haynes), and (iii) a Zulu tribe. Peck and Jenkins become involved in series of comedic misadventures with natives and fierce animals in the forests, jungles, and deserts – staged as a mythical, exotic, and, at times, terrifying native land. They find a buried treasure, return to the U.S., and arrive at a Harlem cabaret, where they celebrate in grand style their new status as two of the richest men in the world.
The River Niger is a play by American playwright Joseph A. Walker, first performed by New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company off-Broadway in 1972. The production made its Broadway debut with a transfer to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on 27 March 1973 for a run of 162 performances.
The play was adapted by Walker for the film in 1976, directed by Krishna Shah starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.
Awards and nominations
1973 Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright – Joseph A. Walker
1973 Obie Award for Best American Play
1974 Tony Award for Best Play
1974 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play – Douglas Turner Ward
1974 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play – Roxie Roker
Sarafina! is a South African musical by Mbongeni Ngema depicting students involved in the Soweto Riots, in opposition to apartheid. It was also adapted into a 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo. Sarafina! premiered on Broadway on 28 January 1988, at the Cort Theatre, and closed on 2 July 1989, after 597 performances and 11 previews. The musical was conceived and directed by Mbongeni Ngema, who also wrote the book, music, and lyrics. The play was first presented at The Market Theatre, Johannesburg, South Africa, in June 1987. The cast included Leleti Khumalo as Sarafina.
Leleti Khumalo received a Tony Award nomination, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as an NAACP Image Award for her Broadway theatre portrayal of the title character. The production was also nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Direction of a Musical.
The show presents a school uprising similar to the Soweto uprising on 16 June 1976. A narrator introduces several characters among them the schoolgirl activist Sarafina. Things get out of control when policemen shoot several pupils at the school. Nevertheless, the musical ends with a cheerful farewell show of pupils leaving school, which takes most of the second act.
The production of the play was chronicled in the documentary film Voices of Sarafina!.
Seven Guitars is a 1995 play by American playwright August Wilson. It focuses on seven African-American characters in the year 1948. The play begins and ends after the funeral of one of the main characters, showing events leading to the funeral in flashbacks. Seven Guitars represents the 1940s entry in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade-by-decade anthology of African-American life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the twentieth century; Wilson would revisit the stories of some of these characters in King Hedley II, set in the 1980s.
Just released from jail, Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes an unexpected hit. After a year of trials and tribulations, Floyd is ready to right the past year’s wrongs and return to Chicago with a new understanding of what’s important in his life. Unfortunately, his means of righting wrongs are inherently flawed.
The play’s recurring theme is the African-American male’s fight for his own humanity, self-understanding, and self-acceptance in the face of personal and societal ills. The rooster is a recurring symbol of black manhood throughout the play and provides a violent and shocking foreshadowing effect when Hedley delivers a fiery monologue and ritualistically slaughters one in front of the other characters.
Awards and nominations
1996 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play
1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
1996 Drama Desk Award for Best Play
1996 Tony Award for Best Play
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. It launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, and Paul Robeson, and became such a hit that it caused “curtain time traffic jams” on West 63rd Street. It had brief revivals in 1933 and 1952.
Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is a musical adaptation based on the original book of the 1921 musical, focusing on the challenges of mounting the original production of Shuffle Along and its effect on Broadway and race relations.
The four writers were African-American Vaudeville veterans who first met in 1920 at an NAACP benefit that was held at the newly opened Dunbar Theatre in Philadelphia. None of the four had ever written a musical or even appeared on Broadway. Promoters were skeptical that a black-written and produced show would appeal to Broadway audiences. After finding a small source of funding, Shuffle Along toured through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. However, with little funding, it was difficult to meet travel and production expenses, and the cast rarely got paid. When the show came back to New York, about a year later, during the Depression of 1920–21, the production owed $18,000 and faced strong competition on Broadway in a season that included Florenz Ziegfeld’s Sally and a new edition of George White’s Scandals. It was only able to book a remote theater on West 63rd Street that had no orchestra pit. In the end, however, the show earned $9 million from its original Broadway production and three touring companies, an unusual sum in its time.
Miller and Lyles wrote thin, jokey dialogue scenes to connect the songs: “The plot of Shuffle Along was mainly to allow an excuse for singing and dancing.” But the musical drew repeat audiences due to its jazzy music styles, which were a modern, edgy contrast to the mainstream song-and-dance styles that audiences had seen on Broadway for two decades. The show’s dancing and 16-girl chorus line were more reasons why the show was so successful. According to Time magazine, Shuffle Along was the first Broadway musical that prominently featured syncopated jazz music and the first to feature a chorus of professional female dancers. It introduced musical hits such as “I’m Just Wild About Harry“, “Love Will Find a Way“, and “In Honeysuckle Time”. The musical launched or boosted the careers of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, and Adelaide Hall. The show also contributed to the desegregation of theaters in the 1920s, giving many Black actors their first chance to appear on Broadway. Once the show left New York, it toured for three years and was, according to Barbara Glass, the first Black musical to play in White theaters across the United States. Its appeal to audiences of all races, and to celebrities such as George Gershwin, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Langston Hughes and critic George Jean Nathan, helped to unite the white Broadway and Black jazz communities and improve race relations in America.
Two dishonest partners in a grocery store, Sam and Steve, both run for mayor in Jimtown, USA. If either one wins, he agrees to appoint the other his chief of police. Sam wins with the help of a crooked campaign manager. Sam keeps his promise to appoint Steve as chief of police, but they begin to disagree on petty matters. They resolve their differences in a long, comic fight. As they fight, their opponent for the mayoral position, virtuous Harry Walton, vows to end their corrupt regime (“I’m Just Wild About Harry“). Harry gets the people behind him and wins the next election, as well as the lovely Jessie, and runs Sam and Steve out of town. One character remarks that the lighter the skin, the more desirable an African-American woman is
Timbuktu! is a musical, with lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, set to music by Borodin, Forrest, and Wright. The book is by Luther Davis. It is a resetting of Forrest and Wright’s musical Kismet. The musical is set in 1361 in Timbuktu, in the Empire of Mali, West Africa.
The musical premiered on Broadway at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on March 1, 1978, and closed on September 10, 1978, after 221 performances and 22 previews.
The original production starred Eartha Kitt as Shaleem-La-Lume, William Marshall as Hadji, Gilbert Price as the Mansa of Mali, Melba Moore as Marsinah, and George Bell as the Wazir. Ira Hawkins replaced Marshall prior to the Broadway opening. It was directed, choreographed and costume designed by Geoffrey Holder, with sets designed by Tony Straiges. Alan Eichler was an associate producer. Gerald Bordman noted that the sets and costumes had “a Ziegfeldian opulence.” New songs based on African folk music were added to provide “some tonal verisimilitude.”
Following its Broadway run, it toured for more than a year with Kitt continuing in her starring role as Shaleem-La-Lume, Gregg Baker as Hadji, Bruce Hubbard as the Mansa and Vanessa Shaw as Marsinah.
Treemonisha (1911) is an opera by American ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Though it encompasses a wide range of musical styles other than ragtime, and Joplin did not refer to it as such, it is sometimes referred to as a “ragtime opera”. The music of Treemonisha includes an overture and prelude, along with various recitatives, choruses, small ensemble pieces, a ballet, and a few arias.
The opera was largely unknown before its first complete performance in 1972. Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1976 for Treemonisha. The performance was called a “semimiracle” by music historian Gilbert Chase, who said Treemonisha “bestowed its creative vitality and moral message upon many thousands of delighted listeners and viewers” when it was recreated. The musical style of the opera is the popular romantic one of the early 20th century. It has been described as “charming and piquant and … deeply moving”, with elements of Black folk songs and dances, including a kind of pre-blues music, spirituals, and a call-and-response style scene featuring a preacher and congregation.
The opera celebrates African-American music and culture while stressing that education is the salvation of the Negro race. The heroine and symbolic educator is Treemonisha, who runs into trouble with a local band of conjurers, who kidnap her.
Joplin completed Treemonisha in 1910 and paid for a piano-vocal score to be published in 1911. At the time of the publication, he sent a copy of the score to the American Musician and Art Journal. Treemonisha received a glowing, full-page review in the June issue. The review said it was an “entirely new phase of musical art and… a thoroughly American opera (style).” affirmed Joplin’s goal of creating a distinctive form of African-American opera.
Despite this endorsement, the opera was never fully staged during his lifetime. Its sole performance was a concert read-through in 1915 with Joplin at the piano, at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York, paid for by Joplin. One of Joplin’s friends, Sam Patterson, described this performance as “thin and unconvincing, little better than a rehearsal… its special quality (would have been) lost on the typical Harlem audience (that was) sophisticated enough to reject their folk past but not sufficiently so to relish a return to it”.
Aside from a concert-style performance in 1915 of the ballet Frolic of the Bears from Act II, by the Martin-Smith Music School, the opera was forgotten until 1970 when the score was rediscovered. On October 22, 1971, excerpts from Treemonisha were presented in concert form at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, with musical performances by William Bolcom, Joshua Rifkin, and Mary Lou Williams supporting a group of singers.
The world premiere took place on January 27, 1972, as a joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, using the orchestration by T. J. Anderson. The performance was directed by Katherine Dunham, former head of a noted African-American dance company in her own name, and conducted by Robert Shaw. He is one of the first major American conductors to hire both black and white singers for his chorale. The production was well-received by both audiences and critics.
The orchestration notes for Treemonisha have been completely lost, as has Joplin’s first opera A Guest of Honor (1903). Subsequent performances have been produced using orchestrations created by a variety of composers, including T. J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and most recently, Rick Benjamin. Since its premiere, Treemonisha has been performed all over the United States, at venues such as the Houston Grand Opera (twice, once with Schuller’s 1982 orchestration), the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in 1975 at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, to overwhelming critical and public acclaim. Opera historian Elise Kirk noted that
“the opera slumbered in oblivion for more than half a century before making a triumphant Broadway debut. It was also recorded commercially in its entirety – the earliest African American opera to achieve that distinction and the earliest to receive widespread modern recognition and performance.”
Two Trains Running
Two Trains Running is a play by American playwright August Wilson, the sixth in his ten-part series The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play premiered on Broadway in 1993 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Two Trains Running was first performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in March 1990. It was then performed at the Huntington Theatre (Boston, Massachusetts), the Seattle Repertory Theatre (Seattle, Washington), and the Old Globe Theatre, (San Diego, California).
The play premiered on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 13, 1992. The play closed on August 30, 1992, after 160 performances and 7 previews. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast featured Roscoe Lee Browne as Holloway, Anthony Chisholm as Wolf, Laurence Fishburne as Sterling, Leonard Parker as West and Cynthia Martells as Risa
Voodoo McBeth, is a common nickname for the Federal Theatre Project’s 1936 New York production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Orson Welles adapted and directed the production, moved the play’s setting from Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island, recruited an entirely Black cast, and earned the nickname for his production from the Haitian Vodou that fulfilled the role of Scottish witchcraft. A box office sensation, the production is regarded as a landmark theatrical event for several reasons: its innovative interpretation of the play, its success in promoting African-American theatre, and its role in securing the reputation of its 20-year-old director.
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a musical with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (and others) and book by William F. Brown. It is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) in the context of modern Black culture. It opened on October 21, 1974, at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, and moved to Broadway’s Majestic Theatre with a new cast on January 5, 1975.
The 1975 Broadway production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It was an early example of Broadway’s mainstream acceptance of works with an all-black cast. It has had revivals in New York, London, San Diego, and the Netherlands, and a limited-run revival was presented by Encores! at New York City Center in June 2009. A big-budget film adaptation of the same name was released in 1978, with Ted Ross and Mabel King reprising their roles. A live television production of the stage version, The Wiz Live!, was broadcast on NBC on December 3, 2015, with an encore presentation on December 19 of the same year.
The idea for the musical originated with producer Ken Harper. He replaced the original director, Gilbert Moses, with Geoffrey Holder in Detroit during out-of-town tryouts.
The original Baltimore cast included Renee Harris as Dorothy, Charles Valentino as the Scarecrow, Ben Harney as the Tin Man, Ken Prymus as the Cowardly Lion, and Butterfly McQueen as the Queen of the Field Mice. Only Harney would remain in the Broadway cast but in a much smaller role. Harris stayed on as an understudy for the role of Dorothy, as did McQueen for the role of Addaperle.
The musical opened on Broadway January 5, 1975, at the Majestic Theatre, with Geoffrey Holder as director and the following cast:
Stephanie Mills as Dorothy
Hinton Battle as the Scarecrow
Tiger Haynes as the Tin Man
Ted Ross as the Lion
Dee Dee Bridgewater as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South
André De Shields as the Wizard
Mabel King as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West
Clarice Taylor as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North
Tasha Thomas as Aunt Em
Ralph Wilcox as Uncle Henry/Lord High Underling
Phylicia Ayers-Allen as a Munchkin
Victor Willis as Uncle Henry (replacement), The Wiz (understudy), The Lion (understudy), Tin Man (understudy)
The production was choreographed by George Faison, with Scenic Designer Tom H. John, Costumes by Geoffrey Holder, Lighting by Tharon Musser, and orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Faison and Holder both won Tony Awards for choreography and costume design, respectively in 1975.
The show had a pre-Broadway tryout at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia from December 11, 1974, through December 21, 1974. After drawing mixed critical reviews, producer Ken Harper considered closing the musical after its Broadway opening night. One source attributes its turnaround success to a publicity campaign that included a TV commercial featuring the cast singing “Ease On Down the Road,” a song that proved so popular that it was released as a single recorded by the disco group Consumer Rapport; The single hit the Billboard Soul Singles chart, peaking at #19 and the Hot 100, peaking at #42.
William F. Brown, who wrote the book, gave a more specific explanation in 1993: “20th Century-Fox, the musical’s major investor, put in another $100,000 to keep it going and everyone agreed to royalty cuts until the production’s cost—about $1.1 million—was recouped… By the eighth week, we were selling out.”
The Broadway production moved to The Broadway Theatre on May 25, 1977, and closed on January 28, 1979, after four years and 1,672 performances.
Along with other musicals including Purlie (1971) and Raisin (1974), The Wiz was a breakthrough for Broadway, a large-scale big-budget musical featuring an all-Black cast. It laid the foundation for later African-American hits such as Bubbling Brown Sugar, Dreamgirls, and Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God: A Soaring Celebration in Song and Dance is a Broadway musical based on the Biblical Book of Matthew, with music and lyrics by Alex Bradford and a book by Vinnette Carroll, who also directed. Micki Grant was credited for “additional music and lyrics.”
A 1980 revival was the Broadway debut of star Jennifer Holliday, then billed as Jennifer-Yvette Holliday.
Produced by Frankie Hewitt and the Shubert Organization, it opened December 22, 1976, at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in New York City. It moved to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on November 16, 1977, and closed January 1, 1978, after 429 performances.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God was revived twice on Broadway, first at the Ambassador Theatre and the Belasco Theatre (June 2–October 12, 1980), then at the Alvin Theatre (September 9–November 7, 1982). During the 1982 run, Al Green appeared with Patti Labelle in the show.
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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. 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.
Blackface: A cultural history of a racist art form
CBS Sunday Morning
With the recent controversy over Megyn Kelley’s remarks in which she questioned why wearing blackface on Halloween was offensive, “Sunday Morning” contributor and WCBS anchor Maurice DuBois look at the long and complex history of White (and even Black) performers painting their faces black. For more than 100 years, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment on stage and film, reducing an entire race of people to stereotypes. DuBois speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson, and with Eric Lott, cultural historian, and professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about the complicated history of a racist theatrical form.
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 and 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 the 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 its 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’s Green 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 NEGRO ENSEMBLE COMPANY
HOW IT ALL STARTED…
[ As told by Robert Hooks, in his own words… ]
Edited by Dale Ricardo Shields
Dear Dale… Hopefully, because you have a ready-made historical platform, you having this ‘accurate’ information might move us forward, toward correcting the persistent, misinformation of the founding of The Negro Ensemble Company.
Robert Hooks, The Negro Ensemble Company
And the Actual Sequence of His Causes
That Led to The Birth of the NEC
While “Happy Ending” & “Day of Absence” were not produced by the NEC until the 1969-70 season, MY INDEPENDENT 1965 PRODUCTION OF THEM led to the creation of the NEC in 1967.
In 1964, I founded The Group Theatre Workshop for young artists. I was running the classes in my apartment, so I enlisting Barbara Ann Teer to assist me. This group of sincere teens also included Hattie Winston, Antonio Fargas, and Daphne Maxwell Reed.
To assuage the curiosity of parents and neighbors regarding the activity in my apartment. In the summer of 1964, I decided to mount a one-night Monday showcase (at The Cherry Lane Theatre where I was then appearing in “Dutchman”). The evening included Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” I wanted to end the evening with a play. I ask Douglas Turner could I present his short one-act “Happy Ending” featuring my students (rounding out the evening ).
To my eternal surprise somehow Jerry Tallmer, the head theatre reviewer for the NY Post had heard about this showcase and attended the evening. He wrote a glowing review of the young students! He was very impressed with the concept and writing of the play. This gave me the impetus to persuade Douglas to allow me to get the option rights from the White producer who had been unable to raise funds to produce the two incendiaries, excoriating one-acts “Happy Ending” & “Day of Absence”.
I raised the entire budget from just two individuals – Clarence Avant and Al Bell, the founders of Stax Records – making this production THE FIRST PRODUCTION BY A BLACK AUTHOR, BLACK PRODUCER, WITH BLACK MONEY, THAT WAS EVER PRODUCED ON THE NEW YORK STAGE! (It was Juanita Poitier, Sidney’s first wife, who set me up with them.)
Due to the blazing success of MY 1965 production of both Doug’s one-acts mounted at the St. Marks Playhouse (which in 2 years would become the home of the NEC), Doug then became the next anointed Black playwright, (as I was filming Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” and continued to run the New York production office from the film location). Doug was invited by the New York Times to write an editorial for their Sunday theatre section, the brilliant article “Theatre in America – For Whites Only” (1966). That, in turn, caught the attention of the Ford Foundation’s McNeil Lowry, which prompted him to approach ‘US’ inviting us to write a proposal for “an ideal Black theatre company.”
I am very proud that I presented that evening with my students in 1964, where I introduced Douglas’ Happy Ending because without the addition his play there would have never been reviewed.
I then assumed the role of the producer, because of Mr. Tammer’s review, presenting both one-acts plays. that production turned the spotlight on The Negro Ensemble Company. My title was Executive Producer. Douglas Turner Ward was the Artistic Director. Gerald Krone was the Administrative Director.
And the three of us then produced ALL the plays from then on ‘together’ as a company.
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.
The New Federal Theatre
Woodie King Jr.
Award-winning theater director Woodie King, Jr., was born on July 27, 1937, in Baldwin Springs, Alabama, to parents Ruby and Woodie King, Sr. Attending high school in Detroit, King graduated in 1956; he then went on to attend Leman College in New York, and later earned his M.F.A. degree from Brooklyn College.
Following his high school graduation in 1956, King worked for Ford Motor Company as an arc welder for three years. In 1959, King went to work for the city of Detroit as a draftsman. In 1965, King joined Mobilization for Youth, where he spent the next five years working as the cultural director.
In 1970, King founded the New Federal Theatre and the National Black Touring Circuit in New York City, where he remained as producing director throughout his career. King produced shows both on and off-Broadway, and directed performances across the country in venues such as the New York Shakespeare Festival; the Cleveland Playhouse; Center Stage of Baltimore; and the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. King’s work earned him numerous nominations and awards over the years, including a 1988 NAACP Image Award for his direction of Checkmates, and 1993 Audelco Awards for Best Director and Best Play for his production of Robert Johnson: Trick The Devil; he also received an Obie Award for Sustained Achievement.
King was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Wayne State University, and a doctorate of fine arts from the College of Wooster.
In addition to his directing and producing of theater, King wrote extensively about the theater industry; he contributed to numerous magazines, such as Black World, Variety, and The Tulane Drama Review, as well as authoring a number of books.
The History Makers
Independent of the Negro Ensemble Company, several African American playwrights had played 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.
There is still a long way to go toward racial equality, but strides have been made by black actors who have recently originated, replaced or gone on as an understudy as characters that have usually been perceived as white. Some wins for representation in the past few years include Norm Lewis as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Nicolette Robinson as Jenna in Waitress, Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Aisha Jackson as Anna in Frozen, Michael Luwoye as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, Brittney Johnson as Glinda in Wicked and Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow in King Kong.
Wilson’s maternal grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in search of a better life. Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fourth of six children, to Sudeten-German immigrant baker/pastry cook, Frederick August Kittel, Sr. and Daisy Wilson, an African-American cleaning woman, from North Carolina. Wilson’s mother raised the children alone until he was five in a two-room apartment above a grocery store at 1727 Bedford Avenue; his father was mostly absent from his childhood. Wilson would go on to write under his mother’s surname. The economically depressed neighborhood where he was raised was inhabited predominantly by black Americans and Jewish and Italian immigrants. Wilson’s mother divorced his father and married David Bedford in the 1950s, and the family moved from the Hill District to the then predominantly white working-class neighborhood of Hazelwood, where they encountered racial hostility; bricks were thrown through a window at their new home. They were soon forced out of their house and on to their next home.
In 1959 Wilson was one of fourteen African-American students at the Central Catholic High School, where he dropped out after one year. He then attended Connelley Vocational High School but found the curriculum unchallenging. He dropped out of Gladstone High School in the 10th grade in 1960 after his teacher accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper he wrote on Napoleon I of France. Wilson hid his decision from his mother because he did not want to disappoint her. At the age of 16, he began working menial jobs, where he met a wide variety of people on whom some of his later characters were based, such as Sam in The Janitor (1985).
Wilson made such extensive use of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to educate himself that it later awarded him an honorary high school diploma, the only diploma it has ever bestowed. Wilson, who had learned to read at the age of four, began reading black writers at the library when he was 12 and spent the remainder of his teen years educating himself through the books of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and others.
Wilson knew that he wanted to be a writer, but this created tension with his mother, who wanted him to become a lawyer. She forced him to leave the family home and he enlisted in the United States Army for a three-year stint in 1962, but left after one year and went back to working various odd jobs as a porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher.
Frederick August Kittel, Jr. changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father’s death in 1965. That same year he discovered the blues as sung by Bessie Smith, and he bought a stolen typewriter for $10, which he would often pawn when money was tight. At 20 he decided he was a poet and submitted his poetry to such magazines as Harper’s. He began to write in bars, the local cigar store, and cafes, longhand on table napkins, and on yellow notepads, absorbing the voices and characters around him. He liked to write on cafe napkins because, he said, it freed him up and made him less self-conscious as a writer. He would then gather the notes and type them up at home. Gifted with a talent for catching dialect and accents, Wilson had an “astonishing memory,” which he put to full use during his career. He slowly learned not to censor the language he heard when incorporating it into his work.
Malcolm X’s voice would influence his life and work (such as The Ground on Which I Stand, 1996). Both the Nation of Islam and the Black Power spoke to him regarding self-sufficiency, self-defense, and self-determination, and he appreciated the origin myths that Elijah Muhammad supported. In 1969 Wilson married Brenda Burton, a Muslim, and Wilson converted to Islam in order to sustain the marriage. He and Brenda had one daughter, Sakina Ansari-Wilson, and divorced in 1972.
In 1968, he co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. Wilson’s first play, Recycling, was performed for audiences in small theaters, schools, and public housing community centers for 50 cents a ticket. Among these early efforts was Jitney, which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th-century Pittsburgh. He had no directing experience. He recalled: “Someone had looked around and said, ‘Who’s going to be the director?’ I said, ‘I will.’ I said that because I knew my way around the library. So I went to look for a book on how to direct a play. I found one called The Fundamentals of Play Directing and checked it out.”
In 1976 Vernell Lillie, who had founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh two years earlier, directed Wilson’sThe Homecoming. That same year Wilson saw Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, his first professional play. Wilson, Penny, and poet Maisha Baton also started the Kuntu Writers Workshop to bring African-American writers together and to assist them in publication and production. Both organizations are still active.
In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the suggestion of his friend director Claude Purdy, who helped him secure a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota. In 1980 he received a fellowship for The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. He quit the Museum in 1981 but continued writing plays. For three years, he was a part-time cook for the Little Brothers of the Poor. Wilson had a long association with the Penumbra Theatre Company of St Paul, which gave the premieres of some Wilson plays. Fullerton Street which has been unproduced and unpublished was written in 1980. It follows the Joe Louis/Billy Conn fight in 1940 and the loss of values attendant on the Great Migration to the urban North.
In 1987, Saint Paul’s mayor George Latimer named May 27 “August Wilson Day.” He was honored because he was the only person to both come from Minnesota and win a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1990 Wilson left St Paul after getting divorced and moved to Seattle. There he would develop a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre, which would become the only theater in the country to produce all of the works in his ten-play cycle and his one-man show I Learned What I Learned.
Although he was a writer dedicated to writing for theater, a Hollywood studio proposed filming Wilson’s play Fences. He insisted that a black director be hired for the film, saying: “I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.” The film remained unmade until 2016 when a film adaptation directed by Denzel Washington and starring Washington and Viola Davis began filming.
Wilson received many honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees from 1992 until 1995.
Wilson maintained a strong voice in the progress and development of the (then) contemporary black theater, undoubtedly taking influences from the examples of his youth, such as those displayed during the Black Arts Movement. One of the most notable examples of Wilson’s strong opinions and critiques of what was black theater’s state in the ’90s, was the “On Cultural Power: The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion”—is just one of the times where Wilson spoke plainly for the progression of black theater. Here, Wilson engages in a fairly heated discussion with Robert Brustein. As with all debate neither truly came out ‘right’, however, both played a hand in calling attention to a huge issue and shedding light on how poor of a state the form was in. Undeniably, Wilson left an everlasting imprint on Black Theater’s development.
Wilson’s best-known plays are Fences (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), The Piano Lesson (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Wilson stated that he was most influenced by “the four Bs”: blues music, the Argentine novelist and poet Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka and the painter Romare Bearden. He went on to add writers Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to the list. He noted: “From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays. From Romare Bearden, I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.” He valued Bullins and Baldwin for their honest representations of everyday life.
Like Bearden, Wilson worked with collage techniques in writing: “I try to make my plays the equal of his canvases. In creating plays I often use the image of a stewing pot in which I toss various things that I’m going to make use of—a black cat, a garden, a bicycle, a man with a scar on his face, a pregnant woman, a man with a gun.” On the meaning of his work, Wilson stated “I once wrote this short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World,’ and it went like this— “The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.” End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story.”
The Pittsburgh Cycle
Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, also often referred to as his Century Cycle, consists of ten plays—nine of which are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District (the other being set in Chicago), an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Ballybeg. The plays are each set in a different decade and aim to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century and “raise consciousness through theater” and echo “the poetry in the everyday language of black America”. He was fascinated by the power of theater as a medium where a community at large could come together to bear witness to events and currents unfolding.
“I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans,” he told The Paris Review. “For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
Although the plays of the cycle are not strictly connected to the degree of a serial story, some characters appear (at various ages) in more than one of the cycle’s plays. Children of characters in earlier plays may appear in later plays. The character most frequently mentioned in the cycle is Aunt Ester, a “washer of souls”. She is reported to be 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in Two Trains Running. She dies in 1985, during the events of King Hedley II. Much of the action of Radio Golf revolves around the plan to demolish and redevelop that house, some years after her death. The plays often include an apparently mentally impaired oracular character (different in each play)—for example, Hedley Sr. in Seven Guitars, Gabriel in Fences, or Hambone in Two Trains Running.
Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was the first theater in the world to produce the entire 10-play cycle, spanning from 1986 to 2007. Two of the Goodman’s productions—Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean—were world premieres. Israel Hicks produced the entire 10-play cycle from 1990 to 2009 for the Denver Center Theatre Company. Geva Theatre Center produced all 10 plays in decade order from 2007 to 2011 as August Wilson’s American Century. The Huntington Theatre Company of Boston has produced all 10 plays, finishing in 2012. During Wilson’s life, he worked closely with The Huntington to produce the later plays. Pittsburgh Public Theater was the first theater company in Pittsburgh to produce the entire Century Cycle, including the world premiere of King Hedley II to open the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.
TAG – The Actors’ Group, in Honolulu, Hawaii, produced all 10 plays in the cycle starting in 2004 with Two Trains Running and culminating in 2015 with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. All shows were Hawaii premieres, all were extremely successful at the box office and garnered many local theatre awards for the actors and the organization.
Two years before his death in 2005, August Wilson wrote and performed an unpublished one-man play entitled How I Learned What I Learned about the power of art and the power of possibility. Recently produced at New York’s Signature Theatre and directed by Todd Kreidler, Wilson’s friend and protégé, How I Learned explore his days as a struggling young writer in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and how the neighborhood and its people inspired his amazing cycle of plays about the African-American experience.
Wilson was married three times. His first marriage was to Brenda Burton from 1969 to 1972. They had one daughter, Sakina Ansari, born 1970. In 1981 he married Judy Oliver, a social worker; they divorced in 1990. He married again in 1994 and was survived by his third wife, costume designer, Constanza Romero, whom he met on the set of The Piano Lesson. They had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson. Wilson was also survived by siblings Freda Ellis, Linda Jean Kittel, Donna Conley, Barbara Jean Wilson, Edwin Kittel, and Richard Kittel.
Wilson reported that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and been given three to five months to live. He died on October 2, 2005, at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, on October 8, 2005, aged 60.
The childhood home of Wilson and his six siblings, at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh was declared a historic landmark by the State of Pennsylvania on May 30, 2007. On February 26, 2008, Pittsburgh City Council placed the house on the List of City of Pittsburgh historic designations. On April 30, 2013, the August Wilson House was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In Pittsburgh, there is an August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
On October 16, 2005, fourteen days after Wilson’s death, the Virginia Theatre in New York City’s Broadway Theater District was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. It is the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American.
In Seattle, WA along the south side of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the vacated Republican Street between Warren Avenue N. and 2nd Avenue N. on the Seattle Center grounds has been renamed August Wilson Way.
Honors and awards
1986: Whiting Award for Drama
1987: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Fences
1987: Tony Award for Best Play – Fences
1987: Outer Critics Circle Award – Fences
1987: Artist of the Year by Chicago Tribune
1988: Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library
1988: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
1990: Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Distinguished Pennsylvania Artists
1990: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play – The Piano Lesson
1990: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play – The Piano Lesson
1990: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – The Piano Lesson
1990: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – The Piano Lesson
1991: Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame award
1991: St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates
1992: American Theatre Critics’ Association Award – Two Trains Running
1992: New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play – Two Trains Running
1992: Clarence Muse Award
1996: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Seven Guitars
1999: National Humanities Medal
2000: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Jitney
2000: Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play – Jitney
2002: Olivier Award for Best New Play – Jitney
2004: The 10th Annual Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities
2004: The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Freedom of Speech Award
2005: Make Shift Award at the U.S. Confederation of Play Writers
2006: American Theatre Hall of Fame.
Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (1977)
Fullerton Street (1980)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
The Homecoming (1989)
The Coldest Day of the Year (1989)
The Piano Lesson (1990)
Two Trains Running (1991)
Seven Guitars (1995)
King Hedley II (1999)
How I Learned What I Learned (2002)
Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Radio Golf (2005)
1950: Juanita Hall, “South Pacific,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Juanita Hall is the first African American to win a Tony Award. she’s also the first person to ever win Best Featured Actress in a Musical, a category that was introduced in 1950.
1954: Harry Belafonte, “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1962: Diahann Carroll, “No Strings,” Best Actress in a Musical. Carroll was the first African-American actor or actress to win in a leading role.
1968: Leslie Uggams, “Hallelujah, Baby!,” Best Actress in a Musical.
1968: Lillian Hayman, Hallelujah, Baby!, Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1969: James Earl Jones, “The Great White Hope,” Best Actor in a Play. Jones was the first African-American winner in any play category.
1970: Cleavon Little, “Purlie,” Best Actor in a Musical.
1970: Melba Moore, “Purlie,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1972: Linda Hopkins, “Inner City,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1973: Ben Vereen, “Pippin,” Best Actor in a Musical.
1974: Virginia Capers, “Raisin,” Best Actress in a Musical.
1975: Ted Ross, “The Wiz,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1975: Dee Dee Bridgewater, “The Wiz,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1977: Delores Hall, “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1977: Trazana Beverley, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
1978: Nell Carter, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1981: Hinton Battle, “Sophisticated Ladies,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1982: Ben Harney, “Dreamgirls,” Best Actor in a Musical.
1982: Jennifer Holliday, “Dreamgirls,” Best Actress in a Musical.
1982: Cleavant Derricks, “Dreamgirls,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1982: Zakes Mokae, “Master Harold … and the Boys,” Best Featured Actor in a Play.
1984: Hinton Battle, “The Tap Dance Kid,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1985: Ron Richardson, “Big River,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1985: Leilani Jones, “Grind,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1987: James Earl Jones, “Fences,” Best Actor in a Play.
1987: Mary Alice, “Fences,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
1988: L. Scott Caldwell, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
1989: Ruth Brown, “Black and Blue,” Best Actress in a Musical.
1991: Hinton Battle, “Miss Saigon,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1992: Gregory Hines, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Best Actor in a Musical.
1992: Tonya Pinkins, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1992: Laurence Fishburne, “Two Trains Running,” Best Featured Actor in a Play.
1994: Audra McDonald, “Carousel,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1994: Jeffrey Wright, “Angels in America: Perestroika,” Best Featured Actor in a Play.
1995: Gretha Boston, “Show Boat,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1996: Ann Duquesnay, “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1996: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Seven Guitars,” Best Featured Actor in a Play.
1996: Audra McDonald, “Master Class,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
1997: Chuck Cooper, “The Life,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
1997: Lillias White, “The Life,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
1997: Lynne Thigpen, “An American Daughter,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
1998: Audra McDonald, “Ragtime,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
2000: Brian Stokes Mitchell, “Kiss Me, Kate,” Best Actor in a Musical.
2000: Heather Headley, “Aida,” Best Actress in a Musical.
2001: Viola Davis, “King Hedley II,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
2004: Phylicia Rashad, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Best Actress in a Play.
2004: Anika Noni Rose, “Caroline, or Change,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
2004: Audra McDonald, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
2005: Adriane Lenox, “Doubt,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
2006: LaChanze, “The Color Purple,” Best Actress in a Musical.
2009: Roger Robinson, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Best Featured Actor in a Play.
2010: Denzel Washington, “Fences,” Best Actor in a Play.
2010: Viola Davis, “Fences,” Best Actress in a Play.
2011: Nikki M. James, “The Book of Mormon,” Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
2012: Audra McDonald, “Porgy and Bess,” Best Actress in a Musical.
2013: Cicely Tyson, “The Trip to Bountiful,” Best Actress in a Play.
2013: Courtney B. Vance, “Lucky Guy,” Best Featured Actor in a Play.
2014: Audra McDonald, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” Best Actress in a Play.
2014: James Monroe Iglehart, “Aladdin,” Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
2014: Sophie Okonedo, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Best Featured Actress in a Play.
George C. Wolfe Reigns as the Most Nominated African-American Theater Artist
Renowned writer-director George C. Wolfe has brought to Broadway works like Angels in America, Jelly’s Last Jam, and The Wild Party. He is the most Tony-nominated black theater artist, with 23 Tony nominations and five wins. He was most recently nominated for directing The Iceman Cometh in 2018. 2018 – Broadway.com
Early life and education
Wolfe was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, the son of Anna (née Lindsey), an educator, and Costello Wolfe, a government clerk. He attended an all-black private school where his mother taught. After a family move, he began attending the integrated Frankfort public school district.
He attended Frankfort High School where he began to pursue his interest in the theatre arts and wrote poetry and prose for the school’s literary journal. After high school, Wolfe enrolled at the historically black Kentucky State University, the alma mater of his parents. Following his first year, he transferred to Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he pursued a BA in theater. Wolfe taught for several years in Los Angeles at the Inner City Cultural Center and later in New York City. He earned an MFA in dramatic writing and musical theater at New York University in 1983.
In 1977, Wolfe gave C. Bernard Jackson, the executive director of the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles, the first scene of a play he was working on. Rather than suggest that he finish writing it, Jackson said, “Here’s some money, go do it.” The name of the play was Tribal Rites or The Coming of the Great God-bird Nabuku to the Age of Horace Lee Lizer. Wolfe stated in an article he wrote about Jackson for the Los Angeles Times that “this production was perhaps the most crucial to my evolution” as an artist.
Among Wolfe’s first major offerings—the musical Paradise (1985) and his play The Colored Museum (1986)–were off-Broadway productions that met with mixed reviews. In 1989, however, Wolfe won an Obie Award for the best off-Broadway director for his play Spunk, an adaptation of three stories by Zora Neale Hurston.
Wolfe gained a national reputation with his 1991 musical Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical about the life of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton; after a Los Angeles opening, the play moved to Broadway, where it received 11 Tony nominations and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical. Two years later, Wolfe directed Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches to great critical acclaim, as well as a Tony award. Wolfe also directed the world premiere of the second part of “Angels”, entitled Perestroika, the following year.
From 1993 to 2004, Wolfe served as artistic director and producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, wherein 1996 he created the musical Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, an ensemble of tap and music starring Savion Glover; the show moved to Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre. His work won a second Tony Award for direction and was an enormous financial success.
In 2000, Wolfe co-wrote the book and directed the Broadway production The Wild Party.
In late 2004, Wolfe announced his intention to leave the theater for film direction, beginning with the well-received HBO film Lackawanna Blues.
Despite this move, Wolfe continues to direct plays, such as Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog. In the summer of 2006, he directed a new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park; it starred Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Austin Pendleton.
His latest movie, Nights in Rodanthe, opened in theatres in September 2008.
Wolfe is bringing his artistic talent to the design of the upcoming Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta as its new chief creative officer.
Wolfe is openly gay.
In 2013, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
via Black Kudos Sep 21 4
2016 – Four Acting Tony Categories, Four Black Winners
The revolutionary musical Hamilton swept the 2016 Tonys, including wins for three of its leads: Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs. Cynthia Erivo, the standout talent from that season’s revival of The Color Purple, joined the all-Black acting winners circle with a trophy for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. – Broadway.com
Renee Elise Goldsberry
Renée Elise Goldsberry is an American actress, singer and songwriter, known for originating the role of Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway musical Hamilton, for which she won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Leslie Odom Jr.
Leslie Odom Jr. is an American actor and singer. He has performed on Broadway and in television and film, and has released three solo jazz albums.
Daveed Daniele Diggs is an actor, singer, producer, writer and rapper. He is the vocalist of the experimental hip hop group Clipping. Diggs originated the role of, and won a Grammy and Tony for, the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in the 2015 musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Juanita Hall was a film and musical theater actress. Her role as Bloody Mary in the original production of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific won her a Tony award for best-featured actress in a musical. She was the first black person to win a Tony Award and went on to reprise the role in the 1958 screen version.
1950 – Juanita Hall, the First Black Performer to Win a Tony
Juanita Hall, who played Bloody Mary in the original 1949 production of South Pacific, was the first African-American performer to win a Tony Award. The actress has 12 other Broadway credits to her name, including Flower Drum Song, and she starred in the film versions of both musicals. – Broadway.com
Actor, singer, songwriter and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte was the first Black man ever to win a Tony Award. John Murray Anderson’s Almanac was a musical revue featuring Belafonte, Hermione Gingold, Polly Bergen, and more. He took home the Tony for the best-featured actor.
In 1962, Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman to win a Tony for best actress in a lead role of a musical. She starred in No Strings, the first musical Richard Rodgers produced after the death of his longtime collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II.
Leslie Uggams won her award for best leading actress in a musical. She played Georgina, an ambitious woman making it through the Great Depression, in Hallelujah, Baby.
Since his Broadway debut in 1957, Jones has won many awards, including a Tony Award and Golden Globe Award for his role in The Great White Hope. Jones has won three Emmy Awards, including two in the same year in 1991, and he also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the film version of The Great White Hope. He is also known for his voice acting, most notably as Darth Vader in the Star Wars film series and Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King, as well as many other films, stage, and television roles.
James Earl Jones has actually won the Tony for best lead actor in a play twice. He earned the first for his performance in The Great White Hope in 1969, then a second in 1987, for August Wilson’s Fences.
In addition, Jones received a 2017 Tony for lifetime achievement in the theater.
Best Featured Actress in a Musical
BLACK THEATRE AFRICAN AMERICAN VOICES ~ IFORCOLOR.ORG
~ A ~ 🌹
Charles Harrison Avery Ethel Ayler
~ B ~ 🌷
Thea Nerissa Barnes
Raymond Basemore (Raymond Baysmore)
Alex Bradford (Prof)
(Robert James) Evan Bell
Charles (Charlie) Blackwell
Shirley Temple Black
Oscar Brown, Jr.
Roscoe Lee Brown
Christopher “Malik” Browne
~ C ~ 💐
Northern J. Calloway
Reg E. Cathey
Gary Chapman Leah Chase
Robert Christian. Felix E. Cochren Jr
Charles Honi Coles
~ D ~ 🥀
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Phillip Hayes Dean
~ E ~ 🌺
Lonne Elder III
Abdul Salaam El Razzac
~ F ~ 🌸
Irene Fararri Jessie Lawrence Ferguson
Quitman Danny Fludd
Al Freeman Jr.
~ G ~ 🌹
Lee Roy B. Giles
Charles E. Grant
William H. Grant III
Charlie Grant Green
~ H ~ 🌸
Birdie M. Hale
Kevin Peter Hall
E. Lynn Harris
Katherine Marie Helmond
Winston DeWitt Hemsley
Michael (Mike) Hodge
Hugh G. Hurd
Bobby Hill (The)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Geoffrey Richard Holder
Bruce Hubbard. Rhetta Hughes
~ I ~ 🌺
~ J ~ 🥀
Reggie Jackson (aka Raford Jackson)
Gertrude Jeanette Larry Flash Jenkins
Bobby Kwame Johnson
Richard Douglass Johnson
~ K ~ 💐
Clinton Keen. Damon J. Keith
Trent Armand Kendall
~ L ~ 🌷
Irving Allen Lee
Ellie Le Tang
Henry Le Tang
~ M ~ 🌸
Judi Ann Mason
Robert Mc Duffie
William Mc Phearson
Mary Tyler Moore
William Moore, Jr.
~ N ~ 🌹
~ O ~ 🌺
~ P ~ 🌷
Coleridge Taylor Perkinson
Ivson “Scooter” Polk
~ R ~ 💐
Gene Anthony Ray
J Flash Riley
Charles E. Rogers, Jr
Sandra L. Ross
Myrna White Russell
~ S ~ 🌸
Petie Trigg Seale
Neil Simon. John Singleton
Jo Jo Smith
Jonathan Sprague (Adams)
Raymond St. Jacques
Jai Oscar St.John
Eric LaJuan Summers
~ T ~ 🌺
Donald Lee Taylor
Victor Anthony Thomas
Barbara Ann Teer
Mel A. Tomlinson
Glenn Turner Ciecly Tyson Fred Tyson
~ V ~ 🥀
~ W ~ 💐
Wally “Gator” Watson
Charles LaVont Williams
L B Williams Ted D. Williams
Lester Wilson Mary Wilson
Bettye Lou Wood
~ Y ~ 🌷
~ Z ~🌹
🌹. 🌷. 💐. 🥀. 🌺. 🌸
Dale Ricardo Shields is a 2017 winner of The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award®, LINKS2017 and 2015 Tony® award nominee for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award and the winner of the 2017 AUDELCO/”VIV” Special Achievement Award.
His extensive professional credits as a Director, Stage manager, and Actor (Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Regional) As an actor he has appeared on Saturday Night Live, Another World, Guiding Light, The Cosby Show, and the ITV television series “Special Needs” and commercials and film.
Professor Shields is a member of the Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the American Guild of Musical Artists performance unions and an associate member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
He holds a B.F.A and M.F.A degree from Ohio University.