21 Pivotal Moments in Broadway's Black History | Playbill

Special Features 21 Pivotal Moments in Broadway's Black History

In honor of Black History Month, Playbill looks at important moments on Broadway from Black artists.

Graphic by Vi Dang

February is Black History Month. 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. 

Read on to learn about 21 landmark moments that reflect both Broadway and the broader society's evolving appreciation for the African-American experience.

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 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.

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 it 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.

Cast of the 1935 production of Porgy and Bess

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 a 1976 Houston Grand Opera production restored the show's reputation. Diane Paulus' 2012 revival with Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles won a Tony for Best Revival and such songs as "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" remain among the best loved and most performed in the American Songbook.

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.

Lorraine Hansberry

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.

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 Ossie Davis 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.

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. With the 2017 production of Jitney, all ten plays in his Pittsburgh cycle have been produced on Broadway and two, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won Pulitzer Prizes.

A Scene from Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk

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 then-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.

11. Topdog/Underdog and Whoopi Goldberg's EGOT, 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. 

Actor, comedian, author, and television host Whoopi Goldberg completed her EGOT, the acronym for the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards, this year. Upon completion, with the Tony Award for Best Musical for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Goldberg became the first Black entertainer and first to win two different awards in the same year.

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 made history with her portrayal of Billie Holiday in 2014's 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.

Daveed Diggs, Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Renée Elise Goldsberry, 2016 Joseph Marzullo/WENN

13. Hamilton and The Color Purple Take the Tonys; Broadway Advocacy Coalition is Founded, 2016
When Hamilton opened on Broadway, the original casting had already made headlines by having Black and brown actors assume the roles of historical white figures. The conscious casting deepened the narrative, with performances by Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renee Elise Goldsberry earning Tony nominations. On Broadway's biggest night, all three principle actors won awards. And then Cynthia Erivo won Best Leading Actress in a Musical for the revival of The Color Purple. With wins for Leading Actress, Leading Actor, Featured Actor, and Featured Actress, this marked the first time in Tony history that Black artists swept all four musical performance categories.

Also this season, Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, the story of five Liberian women trying to survive the Second Liberian Civil War, became the first play on Broadway written, directed, and acted by Black women.

Finally, in seeking to investigate how the arts can play a more meaningful role in creating a just world, Broadway artists Jacquelyn Bell, Amber Iman, Cameron J. Ross, Britton Smith, Adrienne Warren, and Christian Dante White created the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. While performing together in Shuffle Along... many members of this founding collective found themselves spurred to mobilize the Broadway community after the 2016 murder of Philando Castile. Their first event, Broadway for Black Lives Matter, saw action. From there, Broadway Advocacy Coalition continued as a method of collaborating towards equity in the arts. Through workshops, community building, leadership development, and longterm Impact Projects, Broadway Advocacy Coalition has continued to use storytelling to combat systemic racism in the American arts. With three landmark events in one year, you can say that 2016 was a banner year for Broadway.

14. Lynn Nottage Wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for the Second Time, 2017
In 2009, Lynn Nottage's play Ruined, which centers on the lives of women during the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making her the second Black playwright to earn the award. When Nottage's subsequent work, Sweat, an exploration of working-class America from the perspective of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, won the Pulitzer for Drama in 2017, she became the first, and so far only, female playwright to be awarded twice. Now we're just waiting for Nottage's overdue Tony Award. 

15. George C. Wolfe Beats His Own Record, 2018
The playwright-director-producer first made history as the first Black director of a Broadway production that did not center on a Black family, when he helmed the 1993 original production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. For the first part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Wolfe won a Tony for Best Direction of a Play, his first win. In 2018, when Wolfe directed the revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, his Tony award nomination for Best Direction was his 23rd, besting his own record and cementing his place as the most Tony-nominated Black artist ever. Of those nominations, he's won five Tony Awards.

Celia Rose Gooding and LaChanze Marc J. Franklin

16. LaChanze and Daughter Celia Rose Gooding, A Mother-Daughter Broadway Duo, 2019
Though Broadway stages have played host to romantic and familial duos throughout its history, one mother-daughter pair found themselves in the spotlight in the same season. In 2019, as LaChanze took the stage in A Christmas Carol, her daughter Celia Rose Gooding made their Broadway debut in Jagged Little Pill. Portraying Mary Frances "Frankie" Healy in the rock musical, Gooding earned a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album, was awarded Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical at the first Antonyo Awards presentation, and received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. 

17. Michael R. Jackon's Pulitzer Win and Inaugural Antonyo Awards, 2020
For his masterwork on a Black queer writer writing a musical about a Black queer writer writing a musical (and so on), Michael R. Jackson received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making him the first Black musical theatre writer to win the award. A Strange Loop would go on to win the Tony for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical for Jackson at the 2022 Tony Awards. 

Drew Shade, founder of Broadway Black, created The Antonyo Awards (now known simply as The Awards) with support from The Black Theatre Society. Honoring extraordinary achievements within the Black theatre community specifically, the inaugural ceremony celebrated Aziza Barnes' play BLKS, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and performances both on and off Broadway in gender-neutral categories.

The ceremony, which took place over a YouTube livestream, took place on Juneteeth and featured musical performances, skits, and monologues by Black playwrights—in addition to award announcements. Twenty-three competitive and four non-competitive awards were handed out, the later of which were dedicated to individuals who had advanced Black theatre in New York City.

Harriette Cole, Keenan Scott II, Lynn Nottage, Douglas Lyons, and Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu

18. A Historic Season for Black Playwrights on Broadway, 2021
As Broadway marquees were turned back on after months of darkness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, producers, casting directors, and theatre owners were called to commit to making Broadway a more equitable creative space for people of color. This was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests. The 2021-22 Broadway season included nine works by Black playwrights, a record. The playwrights and their works were as follows: Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Lackawanna Blues, Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play, Lynn Nottage's Clyde's, Douglas Lyons' Chicken & Biscuits, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's Pass Over, Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, Keenan Scott II's Thoughts of a Colored Man, Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind, and Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

It was also a banner season for Black musical theatre writers: Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop, Nottage writing the book for MJ The Musical, and Christina Anderson writing the book for Paradise Square. Not to mention Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins providing additional material for the revival of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth

These Broadway productions were brought to life by more people of color in design and production than ever before, which further set records and opened doors. For directing Chicken & Biscuits, Zhailon Levingston became the youngest Black director of a Broadway show. Thoughts of a Colored Man was the first play written and directed by a Black man with a Black actor also in the lead role. Then at the overdue 2020 Tony Awards, held in 2021, Slave Play set the record for the most nominations for a non-musical play, receiving 12. 

19. Brittney Johnson and Emilie Kouatchou Step Into the Spotlight, 2022
In the 35-year history of Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, 37 ingenues have played Christine Daaé. When she took over the role full-time in January of 2022, Emilie Kouatchou became the first Black woman to do so. Also in 2022, Brittney Johnson took up the role of Glinda full-time in Broadway's Wicked, the first Black actress to step into the Good Witch's bubble. 

20. Black Theatre Coalition, and Black Theatre United are Founded to Uplift Black Artists, 2019 and 2020
In the summer of 2019, T. Oliver Reid and Warren Adams founded Black Theatre Coalition, an effort to close the disparity between growing inclusivity onstage and lack of Black professionals off stage. In 2020, Reggie Van Lee joined as co-founder. Black Theatre Coalition has since launched a Fellowship and an Apprenticeship, partnerships that create, build, and implement employment for Black creatives in all aspects of Broadway and theatrical production—including designing, marketing, general management, producing, directing, and booking.

Officially formed in the summer of 2020, Black Theatre United focuses their advocacy on accountability on and off stage. In addition to protecting Black theatre and advocating for Black artists, Black Theatre United educates, empowers, and inspires, telling stories and preserving the history and legacy of Black theatre in American culture. Black Theatre United began by demanding a New Deal for Broadway, calling for immediate and specific changes to the Broadway community to create equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility across the entire industry.

21. Viola Davis EGOTS, 2023
Winning the Grammy for Best Audio Book, Narration & Storytelling Recording for her memoir Finding Me, Viola Davis became the first Black actor to EGOT by winning awards exclusively for her performances (most EGOT-ers accrue some awards for producing). All of the awards in Davis' basket have been for her acting. Aside from the Grammy, Davis has won two Tony Awards for performance (Best Featured Actress in a Play for King Hedley II and Best Actress in a Play for Fences), an Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actress for Fences), and an Emmy Award (for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder). 

Davis may be the most recent history-maker on this list, but we look forward to adding to this list in the future as more Black artists continue to change Broadway for the better.

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