Black theatre creators you should know
The history of theatre is not complete without the many Black creators that continue to push the industry forward. Trailblazing shows by Black artists range from Langston Hughes’s 1935 play Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South, the first play by a Black playwright to open on Broadway, to the 21st-century works of Lynn Nottage, the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (for Ruined and Sweat).
You may have heard those two names, but there are so many other Black theatre creators working today that you might not know — yet. Black playwrights, directors, and composers have been changing the landscape of this industry one production at a time. Here are some of the many Black theatre creators who are creating change and provoking thought both on and off Broadway. Catch some of their works onstage right now, and keep an eye out for the rest of them — they’re all but guaranteed to show up on the New York scene again soon.
Katori Hall has knack for telling diverse stories. The Olivier Award-winning and two-time Tony-nominated Memphis native may be known for her hit television series, P-VALLEY (based on her play Pussy Valley), on STARZ, but she started making an impact on the industry with her work in the theatre.
Hall wrote the book for the biomusical Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, currently playing on Broadway. This gig earned Hall her second Tony Award nomination. Hall’s other plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hot Wing King along with Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, Our Lady of Kibeho, The Blood Quilt, and the most popular of them all, The Mountaintop, a play that fictionalizes the last night in Martin Luther King’s life and marked Hall’s Broadway debut.
Though Dave Harris may be new to the New York theatre scene, the West Philly-born poet and playwright has already solidified his place here. His New York debut play about two Black men escaping a minstrel show, Tambo & Bones, recently opened off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and proves that his work has come to disrupt and change the future of theatre.
His forthcoming play Exception To The Rule, about a group of inner-city high schoolers in detention, is set to be produced at Roundabout Theatre Company in April as part of its Underground series for emerging artists. His other plays include the Relentless Award semifinalist White History and Incendiary, developed with NNPN and The Kennedy Center’s M.F.A. Playwrights’ Workshop.
Detroit native Dominique Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew, about blue-collar workers facing job loss, moved New York City theatregoers during its long-awaited Broadway premiere. The show, part of a trilogy called The Detroit Project (A 3-Play Cycle) also includes her two other plays Paradise Blue and Detroit ’67. Although Skeleton Crew has closed, Morisseau’s not leaving the New York theatre scene for long: her newest play, Confederates, opens off Broadway at Signature Theatre in March.
Morisseau’s other works include Pipeline, Sunset Baby; Blood at the Root, and Follow Me To Nellie’s. She is also a Tony Award-nominated bookwriter for the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations, which enjoyed a nearly three-year hit run on Broadway.
Tariq Trotter aka Black Thought
Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought, is an American rapper who co-founded The Roots, a Philadelphia hip-hop collective and the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. But he’s now a multi-hyphenate after he became an Off-Broadway actor and composer/lyricist for Black No More. The new musical is inspired by George S. Schuyler’s 1931 Afrofuturist novel of the same name set during the Harlem Renaissance.
Black No More, which wraps on February 27 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, is Trotter’s first go at musical theatre, but he’s not alone. He’s teamed up with screenwriter John Ridley, creator of the TV anthology series American Crime. For writing the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, Ridley became the second Black winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award.
Antoinette Nwandu has already written multiple pages in the history books. Her thought-provoking play Pass Over was the first play to reopen Broadway in 2021 after over a year of theatre closures amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The Los Angeles-born, New York-based playwright first introduced Pass Over to the stage at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017. A year later, Spike Lee directed a film adaptation, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and the play debuted off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater.
Also in 2018, Victory Gardens in Chicago produced the world premiere of her play Breach: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate*. Nwandu has also dabbled in television writing and is a writer on the second season of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix.
Zhalion Levingston is a Louisiana-raised storyteller and, as of fall 2021, the youngest Black person to ever direct a show on Broadway. At 27 years old, Levingston directed Douglas Lyons’s play Chicken & Biscuits at Circle in the Square Theatre. His previous directorial credits include Uncommon Voices: Balboa Is Not Drowning, Neptune, The Years That Went Wrong, The Exonerated, Chariot Part 2. In addition, Levingston is the resident director at Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on Broadway and the co-creator and creative director of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, an anti-racist theatre organization. He has written for TodayTix about equity in theatre education: Read his essay.
Chicago native Erika Dickerson-Despenza is an award-winning queer feminist poet-playwright and cultural-memory worker who is changing off-Broadway one play at a time. Her latest work, Cullud Wattah, about a group of Black women affected by the Flint water crisis, played The Public Theater to rave reviews. The playwright makes it a point to center Black women’s and girls’ personal experiences in her stories. Dickerson-Despenza received the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Finalist in 2021 for Cullud Wattah and is preparing a 10-play series called the Katrina Cycle, which includes [hieroglyph], ocean’s lip/heavn’s shore, took/tied, hung/split, shadow/land, and more.