5 Shows That Spotlight the Civil Rights Movement

Lists   5 Shows That Spotlight the Civil Rights Movement
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Playbill reflects on the productions that chronicled the fight for equality.
Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett
Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett Joan Marcus

A Raisin in the Sun, 1959
Lorraine Hansbury’s paradigmatic drama was one of the first to highlight African-American life on the precipice of the Civil Rights era. The Younger family aim to move outside of Chicago’s Southside and buy a house in a white neighborhood. But a white spokesperson for the neighborhood wants to prevent them from “infiltrating” and offers to buy them out. Plotlines in the play parallel a lawsuit, Hansberry v. Lee—yes, related to the playwright—which was heard in a court of law prior to the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The most recent 2014 revival won Tonys for Revival of a Play, Direction for Kenny Leon, and Featured Actress in a Play for Sophie Okonedo.

Golden Boy, 1964
Based on the 1937 play of the same name, the 1964 Broadway musical version of Golden Boy (starring Sammy Davis Jr., with lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse) follows Joe Wellington, a young boy who becomes a boxer. The play originally showcased the plight of an Italian-American son of poor immigrants, but, producer Hillard Elkins requested a version updated to mirror the Civil Rights era and the social currents of the time.

Hairspray, 2002
The Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman musical takes an “every-person” perspective on the Civil Rights issues of the 1960s. In Baltimore, The Corny Collins show is still segregated—once a month they have their Negro day. Tracy Turnblad is all for integration, and even goes to jail in her pursuit of justice. One of the most poignant songs in the score is Motormouth Maybelle’s power ballad “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which mourns the fraught history of African Americans but looks to a brighter tomorrow.

The Mountaintop, 2011
Katori Hall’s Broadway debut work tells the fictional account of Dr. King’s final night. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King (making his Broadway debut) and Angela Bassett as hotel maid Camae, the play opened at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre October 13, 2011. Set in Room 306 at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel in 1968, the piece takes its name from Dr. King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

All The Way, 2014
Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning play focused on Lyndon B. Johnson and his fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislature outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or ethnicity. Bryan Cranston, in his Broadway debut, won a Tony for his portrayal of the president. Brandon J. Dirden took on the role of Dr. King. The play was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.” Taking over the Office of the President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson puts in motion the political puzzle of passing the Civil Rights Acts by buddying up to Southern congressmen and playing his cards right with more liberal congressmen.

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