Black History Month, Part One: Broadway Producer Writes of the Black Experience in Theater
By: Ellis Nassour
African-American actors who’ve brightened Broadway stages, marquees, and in several decades of Playbills earned their place in history through hard work, perseverance, talent, and because of the legacy of those who came before them via long, winding, and rocky roads.
Released to coincide with Black History Month, Tony and Drama Desk-winning producer Stewart F. Lane, co-owner and caretaker with the Nederlander Organization of the historic Palace Theatre, chronicles their struggle in Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way [Square One Publishers; Hardcover; 288 9×12 pages; 300 photos, many in color; Index; SRP $40]. The book has a Foreword by Tony-winning and DD-nominated director Kenny Leon.
Lane offers insider comments as well as focusing the spotlight on landmark shows, including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Bring in ‘Da Noise Bring in ‘Da Funk, Dreamgirls, Fences, Porgy and Bess, Purlie Victorious/Purlie, A Raisin in the Sun, The Scottsboro Boys, and The Wiz as well as the plays of August Wilson and notable historic personalities.
The author shines a spotlight on well-remembered performers of the past, such as Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Eubie Blake, Bert Williams, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sammy Davis Jr. Among more current actors are Audra McDonald, Denzel Washington, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Savior Glover, Ben Vereen, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Tonya Pinkins, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Holliday, and Billy Porter – all Tony winners.
After the Civil War, minstrel shows grew by leaps and bounds. Blacks were portrayed by whites in black face, which had to be very demeaning. By the late 1800s, black actors were playing to often full houses on the black circuit.
Robeson was celebrated not only onstage as a most memorable Othello, but also on film, especially in the 1936 Show Boat – singing Ole Man River and portraying a lively black in a relationship [with Hattie McDaniel, a songwriter who worked minstrel and touring black shows, had hit records in the late 20s, and who went on to become the first black to be nominated for and win the Oscar [Gone with the Wind]. Ironically, when M-G-M remade Show Boat in lavish color in 1951, the black actors lost their story line and were reduced to mere caricatures. One step forward, two backwards.
Doors began to creak open in the 30s with the incredible reception that the Gershwins and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s Porgy and Bess , based on a 1927 black drama, really turned the tide; and there was Blake’s exuberant Swing. The Depression had a devastating effect on all America, but the Federal Government’s Negro Theater birthed a much-acclaimed Orson Welles’ staging of "Voodoo" Macbeth with Jack Carter, the journeyman actor who originated the role of Porgy in the ’27 drama, in the lead.
The 40s saw such all-black musicals as Cabin in the Sky, Carmen Jones, and St. Louis Woman on Broadway. By the 50s and ’60s, Davis, Dee, and Poitier were onstage and black playwrights and directors began to emerge.
Great strides were still to be made across the nation, and even in so-called liberal New York, but battles were still to be won – and lost. However, the floodgates had opened. Good times were ahead. There’s been much progress – especially in the area of color-blind casting and social media outreach with special discounts to bring black audiences in to fill seats.
Black Broadway provides an enjoyable, often poignant history of decades of struggle. However, it’s an easy read. Only the most ill-informed theater aficionado will be jolted out of their seat. A sterling attribute are the photos, many of which have never been published.
In his Foreword, Leon writes, "The story of African-American theatre is the story of resilience. It is a story that has been previously documented, but not as thoroughly explored as now."
Lane is the author of Let’s Put on a Show! and Jews on Broadway. For more information, visit www.MrBroadway.com. For reviews of Black Broadway African Americans on the Great White Way, visit www.squareonepublishers.com.