Pivotal Moments in Broadway's Black History

News   Pivotal Moments in Broadway's Black History
 
In honor of Black History Month, Playbill.com offers a look at important moments and works with regard to African Americans in the history of theatre.

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February is Black History Month, and as the nation takes time out to reflect on the accomplishments that African Americans have achieved, those that black artists have made on Broadway help tell the story. Click through to learn about 12 landmark shows that reflect both Broadway and the broader society's evolving appreciation for the African-American experience.

Bert Williams
Bert Williams

1. Bert Williams in The Ziegfeld Follies, 1910

Bert Williams had his first success when he teamed up with George Walker in 1895 in a comic act that pitted Walker's fast-talking city slicker against Williams' slow-moving country bumpkin. Tall and light-skinned, Williams always put on the traditional blackface makeup that all minstrels wore (he said it helped him get into character and would wear it throughout his career), but the wit and dignity he brought to his performances made both blacks and whites appreciate his character as a funny everyman instead of as just a crude caricature. By 1903 Williams and Walker were starring in In Dahomey, the first all-black musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theatre. But after Walker fell ill from syphilis in 1909 (he would die two years later) Florenz Ziegfeld invited Williams to be a headliner in his Follies of 1910, making him the first black to perform on Broadway as an equal alongside whites. Although he formed close relationships with such co-stars as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, Williams was still forced to stay home when other Follies performers traveled across the segregated South.

Charles Gilpin
Charles Gilpin

2. Charles Gilpin in The Emperor Jones, 1920

With a few rare exceptions, black roles in dramatic plays on Broadway had been performed by white actors who used burnt cork or greasepaint to make themselves appear darker but in 1919, producer William H. Harris, Jr. hired the African-American actor Charles S. Gilpin to play a character based on the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the play Abraham Lincoln. Gilpin's performance, honed during his years in small black companies, including as director of Harlem's celebrated Lafayette Players, convinced Eugene O'Neill to cast him in the title role of The Emperor Jones, making Gilpin the first black man to lead an integrated cast on the Great White Way. His portrayal of Brutus Jones, an escapee from an American prison who becomes such a despotic ruler of a West Indian island that the natives rise up against him, was hailed by the critics but the actor's dispute with O'Neill over the repeated use of the N-word in the play and his ongoing drinking problem caused him to be replaced in the London production by Paul Robeson.

3. Shuffle Along, 1921

There had been earlier all-black musicals on Broadway but they were old-fashioned affairs like A Trip to Coontown and borrowed heavily from the minstrel tradition. Shuffle Along took its inspiration from the new sounds of jazz and Tin Pan Alley tunes. Its book writers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, former classmates at the all-black Fisk University, adapted the story from a comic vaudeville routine they'd once performed about a three-way mayoral race and then added in a romantic subplot. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, among the first African-American acts on the vaudeville circuit to forgo blackface and to adopt a sophisticated style of dress, wrote the score, which included the ballad "Love Will Find a Way" and the now-classic "(I'm Just) Wild About Harry." Their Shuffle Along proved to be not only a huge hit that ran for a then-unbelievable 504 performances but set the template for a spate of similar shows that featured black performers, syncopated rhythms and flashy dance numbers. It also had the distinction of being the first Broadway show that allowed African Americans to sit downstairs in the orchestra section.

The cast of <i>Shuffle Along</i>
The cast of Shuffle Along
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in <i>Porgy and Bess</i>
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess Photo by Michael J. Lutch

4. Porgy and Bess, 1935

Arguably the best-known black musical ever to play on Broadway, Porgy and Bess was written by a trio of white men: the brothers George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, a southerner who wrote the novel "Porgy" about a crippled beggar who lives in the poor black fishing community of Catfish Row and falls for the local bad-girl Bess. George Gershwin had long been fascinated by African-American culture and he was excited about setting Heyward's story to music. But Porgy and Bess was controversial right from the start. Music critics thought the score was too lightweight. Theatre critics thought the operatic recitative was off-putting. And many African Americans complained that the story, which dealt with drugs, gambling and loose sex, stereotyped black people. The original production closed before it could recoup its investment but a1976 Houston Grand Opera production restored the show's reputation, Diane Paulus' recent 2012 revival with Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles won a Tony and such songs as "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" remain among the best loved and most performed in the American Songbook.

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

5. Paul Robeson in Othello, 1943

He was an all-American football player in college and earned a law degree at Columbia University but Paul Robeson scored his greatest accomplishments on the stage. Tall, charismatic and blessed with a deep melodious voice that made him a favorite on the concert circuit, he began acting in all-black Harlem productions and also became friendly with members of the Provincetown Players, whose resident playwright Eugene O'Neill cast Robeson in All God's Chillun Got Wings, the controversial 1924 play about the ill-fated marriage between a white woman and a black man. That production, which drew protests letters and newspaper editorials, would help prepare Robeson for his greatest challenge — and greatest triumph — when he took on the title role in Othello, with the husband-and-wife team of José Ferrer and Uta Hagen as Iago and Desdemona. Robeson had played the part earlier in London but he had been unsatisfied with that performance and worked hard to realize a fuller creation of the jealous Moor (he and Hagen even embarked on an affair). The payoff was a production that ran for 296 performances, longer than any previous production of Shakespeare on Broadway.

6. A Raisin In The Sun, 1959

Borrowing its title from the lines of a Langston Hughes poem ("What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?") Lorraine Hansberry's pioneering drama debuted just five years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision officially ended segregation in the U.S. It told the story of a black family whose yearning for a piece of the American Dream included moving to a modest home in an unwelcoming white community. The legendary production starred Claudia McNeil as the family's widowed matriarch, Sidney Poitier as her grown son, Ruby Dee as his wife and Diana Sands as the intellectual younger sister who, like a growing number of blacks, was trying to connect with her African roots. Lloyd Richards, who would later go on to head the Yale School of Drama, directed the production, breaking through another color barrier as the first African American to stage a drama on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun lost that year's Tony race for Best Drama to The Miracle Worker but 15 years later, its musical adaptation Raisin would win for Best Musical.

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier
Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier

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7. Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death, 1971

Annoyed that he wasn't seeing the kinds of black people and issues onstage that he saw on the streets, Melvin Van Peebles wrote the book, music and lyrics for a linked series of vignettes in which characters such as prostitutes, junkies, militants and everyday working stiffs lamented the drugs, homelessness, unemployment, police corruption and other ills of ghetto life. The show famously ended with a female character facing the audience and intoning, "I put a curse on you." Critics were conflicted, and traditional theatregoers were wary. So Van Peebles drummed up support for his show by persuading black stars like Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell to make cameo appearances and by reaching out to black churches and civic groups, a form of target marketing that would be adapted by other productions seeking to bring out African-American and other under-represented ticket buyers.

8. The Wiz, 1975

Geoffrey Holder had already been a successful actor, dancer, choreographer, TV pitchman (most famously as 7-Up's "Uncola" man) and was working as the costume designer for this disco-era retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" when he was asked to take over as director during the show's out-of-town tryout. He recast the principal roles of Dorothy, the girl who leaves her Kansas home for the magical land of Oz, and the traveling companions she finds there. He also expanded the exuberant approach he'd taken with the costumes to encompass the entire production. But opening night reviews were still so tepid that the producer considered closing the show until a TV commercial featuring its signature "Ease on Down the Road" number and the resultant good word of mouth from those who followed that advice turned The Wiz into a hit that ran for four years and won seven Tonys, including the top prize for that year's Best Musical.

Stephanie Mills and Gregg Burge in <i>The Wiz</i>
Stephanie Mills and Gregg Burge in The Wiz
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9. 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.

10. Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, 1996

Tap dancing had always been a staple of black shows but George C. Wolfe, the artistic director of The Public Theater, where the show got its start, and the young dance prodigy Savion Glover transformed the art of hoofing into a vehicle through which they told the history of black Americans from their arrival in this country as slaves to the emergence of hip-hop as a dominant force in pop culture. Glover was barely 10 years old when he made his Broadway debut as a replacement in The Tap Dance Kid but in the intervening years, he apprenticed himself to past masters of the art such as Henry LeTang, Honi Coles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines, with whom the teen Glover performed a dance-off in the 1992 show Jelly's Last Jam. Now an adult, Glover combined his respect for the tap tradition (da Noise) with a more emphatic approach that echoed the dynamism of the politically-charged rap music performed by groups like Public Enemy (da Funk). That mix brought a contemporary sensibility to Broadway that helped the show run for 1,135 performances.

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11. Topdog/Underdog, 2002

Suzan-Lori Parks centered this existential study of what it means to be a black man in 21st-century America around two brothers symbolically named Lincoln and Booth, who were abandoned by their parents as kids, share a small room and eke out a living hustling cards and doing odd jobs. In a subversion of the old theatrical tradition of blackface, Parks gives one of them the job of impersonating Abe Lincoln in a local sideshow which requires him to wear whiteface. Like Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, this show started at the Public Theater and was directed by George C. Wolfe. The downtown production, which starred Geoffrey Wright and Don Cheadle, sold out, but theatregoers were less enthusiastic when the show moved uptown to Broadway with the rapper Mos Def taking over from Cheadle and the show closed after just 144 performances despite winning that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which made Parks the first African-American woman to win that honor.

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Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

12. Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill, 2014

By the time she was 30, Audra McDonald had won three Tony Awards and she's continued to shine in the full range of roles that have begun to open up for African-American actors, from non-traditional casting parts as a noblewoman in Shakespeare's Henry IV and the spinster in 110 in the Shade to race-specific roles in the revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess, which added two more Tonys to her shelf. But McDonald recently made history with her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, which depicts the jazz singer in one of her final performances before she died in 1959 from complications brought on by cirrhosis of the liver. Her performance so completely captured both Holiday's distinctive sound and the heartbreak of her years of personal and professional disappointments that it won McDonald a sixth Tony and made her the only person ever to have won the award in all four of the acting categories.

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