James Earl Jones, Norm Lewis in "The Phantom of the Opera," Nicolette Robinson in "Waitress," Juanita Hall, Leslie Odom Jr., Aisha Jackson in "Frozen,"
Joshua Henry in "Carousel," Michael Luwoye in "Hamilton," Noma Dumezweni in "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," August Wilson, Pearl Bailey in "Hello, Dolly!,"
Cynthia Erivo, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Brittney Johnson, Christiani Pitts in "King Kong" and Audra McDonald
(Illustration by Ryan Casey for Broadway.com)
Celebrating Black History
Broadway history is Black history. The history-makers of the early 1900s broke down the color barriers and made space for the changemakers of the present. In honor of Black History Month, Silhouette Stages celebrates the monumental firsts and significant moments in Black history on Broadway that continue to make a lasting influence on theater and beyond. Here are just some of the many notable players:
Ira Frederick Alridge
Ira Frederick Aldridge originally started his career as a teen actor at the African Grove Theatre in New York, a theater by and for African-Americans in the 1800s. He grew to stardom once he moved to Europe and was the first well known Black actor to star in Shakespeare's Othello. He created a career filled with international fame from his portrayal of Shakespearean leads, including roles written for white actors, and used his fame to campaign for an end to slavery.
Bert Williams & George Walker
Bert Williams and George Walker were two of the most sought after comedians in America. In 1903 they starred in In Dahomey, the first all-Black musical comedy on Broadway and the first to be written almost entirely by Black writers at a major Broadway house. The story follows two conmen from Boston who, having found a pot of gold, devise a plan to move to Africa to colonize Dahomey with a group of poor American Blacks. The musical’s book was written by Jesse A. Shipp, with lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar and others. The show moved to Broadway in 1903 and landed at the former New York Theatre after a run at the Grand Opera House in Stamford, Connecticut. Although the show still used blackface and vaudeville comedy, it was a major step in representation. The theme of the show even included criticizing African Imperialism.
Shuffle Along, 1921
Although Shuffle Along wasn't the first musical by African-Americans, it did make a huge splash in 1921. The show succeeded when no one thought it would, accumulating heavy debt and starring a creative team and cast who had never created anything for Broadway before. It was the first Broadway show to integrate audiences in the orchestra seating area. It also was the first musical to include heavy jazz influence and set the stage for a new formula of African-American musicals of the 1920s. The 2016 production of Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed told the story of mounting the original production and starred Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter.
Garland Anderson was the first African-American known to have a full-length drama produced on Broadway. Anderson had no playwriting experience or theatrical stage training of any kind. A self-educated man, he wrote about his experiences as a hotel bellhop and infused his show Appearances with his beliefs of working hard for the classic American dream
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
Juanita Hall was a prominent American musical and film actress. In 1950, Hall became the first Black actor to win a Tony Award for her portrayal of Bloody Mary in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Following her history-making performance, Rodgers and Hammerstein personally chose Hall to portray Madame Liang in their 1958 musical, Flower Drum Song.
Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun opened in March 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, solidifying her place in history as the first African-American woman to have a play on Broadway. The show won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for its rich story of a working-class African-American family living in Chicago. Hansberry wrote about segregation in Chicago after her family's court case traveled to the Supreme Court when it challenged a restrictive covenant law that banned African-Americans from buying or renting property in a Chicago neighborhood.
Lloyd Richards was a Canadian-American who directed the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson on Broadway. He became the first African-American to direct a play on Broadway in 1959 when he directed Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. His partnership with writer August Wilson was legendary, and he directed six of his works: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars.
Diahann Carroll was the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Carroll made her Broadway debut in House of Flowers in 1954. After seeing her, composer Richard Rodgers cast her in his Broadway musical No Strings for which she won the Tony award in 1962.
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.
James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones is a Tony Award and Golden Globe-winning actor who is one of the most iconic figures in American entertainment. He made his Broadway debut in 1958 in the play Sunrise at Campobello. In 1968 he starred as boxer Jack Jefferson in the Broadway drama The Great White Hope which brought him his first Tony Award, making him the first African-American winner in any play category. Jones would go on again to win Best Actor in a Play a second time in 1987, for August Wilson’s Fences. Jones is also one of the few artists to win an EGOT—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. In 2022 Broadway's Cort Theatre was renamed in his honor.
The 1975 Broadway production of The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was the first mainstream culture African-American musical. The Wiz celebrates community, subculture and Black pride, and it was a huge step forward for Black representation in musical theater. The show was later remade into a film in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and was revamped into a live network television musical in 2015.
In 1975, Holder won two Tony Awards for Best Director and Costume Design of The Wiz, and was the first Black man to win in either category. He also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design for his work on The Wiz. Holder was a multi-talented man, touching the arts through Broadway performance, costume design, and direction and professional dance and painting.
In 1984 Wilson launched his Broadway career and legendary cycle of plays, beginning with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which is about a group of blues musicians in the 1920s. He would go on to make an enormous impact in American theater with his works chronicling the 20th-century African-American experience such as Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which have both received Broadway revivals. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, and his Jitney won Best Revival of a Play at the Tony Awards in 2017.
Audra McDonald is the first person to ever earn six Tony Award wins for acting (not counting honorary awards) and the first person to win a Tony Award in all four of the acting categories. The only other actress with this amount of Tony Awards is Julie Harris. Trained in classical voice from Juilliard, McDonald also holds two Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award.
2019 and Beyond:
Continued Color-Blind and Color-Conscious Casting
(Illustration by Ryan Casey for Broadway.com)
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.